All Who Go Do Not Return

Shulem Deen begins his memoir of the above name:

I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.

But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.

The call came on a Sunday evening, while Gitty and I were having dinner with our children.

“Shulem, this is Yechiel Spitzer,” a deep male voice said, and then paused. “Can you be at the dayan’s office for a meeting at ten?”

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the call. I had heard from friends that word was getting around the village: Shulem Deen has become a heretic.

If heresy was a sin in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, New York, it was not an ordinary one. Unlike the yeshiva student who ordered a taxicab each night to get away for an hour of karate lessons, or the girl spotted wearing a skirt that didn’t fully cover her knees, or the schoolteacher who complained of the rebbe’s lengthy Sabbath noon prayers, heresy was a sin our people were unaccustomed to. Heresy was a sin that baffled them. In fact, real heresy, the people in our village believed, did not happen in our time, and certainly not in our village, and so when they heard there was a heretic in their midst, they were not sure what to make of it.

The meeting itself is not the most pleasant:

“We have heard rumors,” Mendel began. “We have heard rumors and we don’t know if they’re true, but you understand, rumors alone are bad.”

He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to show agreement of some sort.

“People say you’re an apikorus. People say you don’t believe in God.” He raised his shoulders to his ears, spread his palms, and opened his eyes wide. “How does one not believe in God? I don’t know.” He said this as if he were genuinely curious. Mendel was an intelligent man, and here was a question that, given the time and inclination, one might seek to discuss. But now was not the time, and so he went on to tell me more about what people were saying.

I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

I was no longer praying.

I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

In fact, people were saying that I had corrupted a yeshiva boy just last week. Corrupted him so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and— Mendel didn’t know if this was true, but so people were saying— went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.

People were saying, Mendel further informed me, that something must be done. People were very concerned, and people were saying that the bezdin must act.

“If people are saying that the bezdin must act, you understand, we can’t very well do nothing.”

Yechiel Spitzer, sitting at the very end of the table, twirled a few hairs beneath his lower lip and absentmindedly placed one hair between his front teeth. The three rabbis sat with their eyes downcast.

“You understand,” Mendel went on, “that this is not about causing pain to you or your family.”

Here he paused and looked at the dayan, before putting his palms flat on the table and looking at me directly.

“We have come to the conclusion that you must leave the village.”

I was being expelled, though in those moments, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My initial thought was to defend myself, to declare it all lies, hateful gossipmongering. But the truth was, I no longer belonged here. This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.

How did things come to this point? To those who are curious, I recommend the book. However, Shulem remarks on this matter:

“What made you change?” people would ask in later years, and the question would frustrate me because the things that made me change were so many and varied that they felt simply as life feels: not a single moment of transformation but a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery, of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs, of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them, by brute force if necessary, only to find that that was not possible, that the search was too urgent and necessary and giving up was not an option. Yet I found no neat answers but only muddled and contradictory ones, until hope gave way to disillusion, which would in turn give way to hope once again, but dimmer and weaker each time, until I would swing back to confusion and disillusion in an endlessly maddening cycle.

Overall, the process is so gradual that he does not even remember a definite moment of changing his mind, but only remembers the realization that he has already done so:

I remember that I was in the dining room, and through the thin walls I could hear Gitty busy in the kitchen: “Akiva, finish your toast,” “Freidy, stop bothering the baby and get dressed,” “Tziri, brush your hair and get your backpack.” The sounds all blended together. One by one, each of the children recited the morning blessings, groaned about unfinished homework assignments, lost shoes, misplaced hair accessories. I swung my prayer shawl over my shoulders, whipped up my sleeve, and wrapped the leather straps of my tefillin around my arm. And as I stood there, the black leather cube on my left arm bulging against the sleeve of my starched white shirt, my body enveloped in the large, white, black-striped shawl, the thought came to me:

I no longer believe in any of this.

I am a heretic. An apikorus.

For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.

It was at that moment, sometime between fastening the knot of my tefillin against my occipital bone and racing through whatever chapters of prayer I still chose to recite, that I realized that my heresy was simply a fact about myself, no different from my brown eyes or my pale skin.

Earlier we discussed the possibility of changing your mind without realizing that you have done so, and there is no reason that this cannot apply even to things as important as religion. This seems to have happened in Shulem’s case, although of course he was aware of the process in a general way, as can be seen in the previous quotation.

If a person is raised in a religion from childhood, and taught to adhere very strongly to that religion, then given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly, he will almost inevitably go through a process much like the one described by Shulem Deen, even if it may have a different ending.

This will happen almost always, without regard to how much truth there is in the religion, or how much truth is lacking there. For at least in the devout cases of which we speak, the parents will teach the child that their religion is very certainly true, and it is unlikely that they will go out of their way to present arguments and evidence against it. And if they do present such arguments and evidence, they are likely to present them in the least favorable way, rather than in the most favorable way. None of this is very surprising, nor does it have much to do with religion in particular, but is simply the way that people generally present their opinions to others. But it follows from all this that the child is not given a balanced view of the evidence relative to his religion, but one which makes the evidence seem more favorable than it actually is. As was said, this would be likely to happen even if the religion in question were entirely true.

The consequence is that once the person begins to get a more balanced grasp on the evidence, which will be the natural result of living in the world, they will  begin to see that their religion was less certain than they supposed it to be.

This will happen even in the case of very devout people who are entirely enveloped, as it were, in the belief and life of their own religious community, and who seem to have virtually no contact with unbelievers or their reasons. Thus for example St. Therese, in her autobiography, speaks of the conflict between her belief in heaven and her doubts about it:

I was saying that the certainty of going away one day far from the sad and dark country had been given me from the day of my childhood. I did not believe this only because I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I, but I felt in the bottom of my heart real longings for this most beautiful country. Just as the genius of Christopher Columbus gave him a presentiment of a new world when nobody had even thought of such a thing; so also I felt that another land would one day serve me as a permanent dwelling place. Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”

St. Therese mentions two things favorable to the existence of heaven: her own desire to go there, and the fact that “I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I.” No particular reason is given supporting the denial of heaven, except the “voice of sinners,” which corresponds in a certain way to one of her positive reasons, since St. Therese is aware that many of the sinners in question are also much more knowledgeable than she is. While not explained clearly in her autobiography, she stated verbally a few months before her death:

“If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me! Pray very much for me in order that I do not listen to the devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It’s the reasoning of the worst materialists which is imposed upon my mind: Later, unceasingly making new advances, science will explain everything naturally; we shall have the absolute reason for everything that exists and that still remains a problem, because there remain very many things to be discovered, etc., etc.”

Why is it such a bad thing to explain everything? Her fear, of course, is that the explanation will imply that there is no life after death.

Of course the arguments implied here, on one side and the other, are not very complicated or technical, because St. Therese is not a scholar. And although she may be able to see some reasons supporting their position to some extent, as in this case the progress of science, to a large extent her doubts are simply caused by opposing authorities: people more intelligent than she who do not believe what she believes. In this sense, St. Therese is a clear example of the point under discussion, where someone raised to hold to their religion with great certainty, comes to be less certain of it when they realize that the evidence is not all on one side.

Nonetheless, St. Therese is evidently not attempting to weigh the evidence on one side and the other, in order to decide which side is more likely to be true. She writes, again in her autobiography:

My dear Mother, I may perhaps appear to you to be exaggerating my trial. In fact, if you are judging according to the sentiments I express in my little poems composed this year, I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense.

This should be understood in the sense of voluntary belief. While St. Therese feels the weight of opposing reasons, she chooses to accept one side regardless. In that sense, she does not need to find an exact measure of the weight of the reasons for one side or the other, because her mind is already made up: regardless of how things stand exactly, she will still choose to believe.

One difference between St. Therese and Shulem Deen, then, is that while St. Therese had an experience somewhat similar to his, she chooses to prevent this process from leading to unbelief. In his case, in contrast, there may not have been any particular distinct moment of choice one way or another, according to his description.

If we return to our child, however, there are a number of other possible results. We will discuss these in a future post.

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