Responding to Crises of Faith in the Orthodox World

February 22, 2019 | Eli Stern
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To many, the term “religious apologetics” suggests sermons in defense of dogma. Taken more broadly, however, the term can apply to the most sophisticated and well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith. To Eli Stern, the best examples are attempts to reconcile timeless religious beliefs with contemporary ways of thinking, which would include the works of some of the greatest Jewish philosophers, from Saadiah Gaon in the 10th century, to Moses Maimonides in the 12th, to Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the 20th. Stern argues for a revival of apologetic writing within his own community of contemporary Ḥaredim:

Ḥaredi youngsters and adults alike are troubled by a growing dissonance between the realities of daily life and the demands of their religious system. These individuals, often sincere and religiously devout questioners, are distressed by an apparent lack of honest and genuine attention to their struggles. Too often, approaching a rabbi or educator with these issues leads the seeker to a sense of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Not only does such an interaction fail to allay the questioner’s anxieties; it will likely lead to a greater sense of alienation. . . .

As in every generation, ours too requires thinkers and writers to explain the Torah in the language of the moment. [When it comes to] outreach to secular Jews, Ḥaredim have some awareness of methods and approaches by which Judaism should be presented. By contrast, I am unaware of similar discourse around explaining the faith within our own communities, to our children and students, and moreover to ourselves. . . .

In addition to discourses and philosophical works, Stern also sees literature as a means of responding to crises of faith:

Literature can communicate to readers that . . . religiosity is not merely the methodical application of dry principles, but man’s encounter with God. [While many traditional Jewish texts] speak generally of obligations and beliefs, the human side [of religion], the experiences of the people who live it, can be revealed in literature. The reader is exposed to the emotional world behind the ritual practice and discovers in that world the legitimate tensions and challenges of even the most devout. Literature . . . provides an opportunity for the reader to enter the protagonist’s internal world, with the dilemmas, questions, and emotions that characterize a life of observance. A good story can serve the function of apologetics without apologizing.

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