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Jul 28 2013

A ‘Clergy Project’ needed for rabbis too?

Inspired by the work of Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola who studied the situation of Christian clergy who become atheists and created the Clergy Project, a support group that enables these late unbelievers to secretly share their experience with others going through the same transition, Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, realized that there must be rabbis in the same boat. So he put out a call for them, and finds that their experience is similar to that of disbelieving clergy.

Only 11 people accepted Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox’s call. “The fear of exposure was too big,” he says, “and some of them simply did not feel comfortable enough to open up. Those who did were questioned and interviewed in order to receive a clearer picture about the personal coping in light of this problematic situation.”

“Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if just outwardly.

“The same rabbi who teaches in the school is afraid to take a step out, because he is economically dependent on the community. In a different economic climate it may have been different. An Israeli Orthodox rabbi, who teaches in a religious academic framework, may lose his job, and again, it’s uncertain he will find an alternative.

“The study of the clerics [in the Clergy Project] began from a small group too, and today we are talking about 150 active participants and hundreds of visits to their forums by unique users. I am very much in favor of creating such a virtual support group here too, because there is no doubt this phenomenon exists, and my goal is to ease the distress.”

It must be really tough, especially for those rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community to come out as disbelievers. Not only does their extremely narrow education and lifestyle make them unequipped to do anything else, but the risk of total shunning by their close-knit community is extremely high. They need all the help and support they can get.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    machintelligence

    I was under the impression that the Clergy Project was not just for Christians. I know that Dan Dennett, in his ongoing study of non-believing clergy, has not sought out anyone of the Muslim faith, because the consequences of being “outed” are so severe (fatal even.) Since the problems faced by non-believing clergy are so similar no matter what religion, I would think that rabbis would be as welcome as any. There is nothing wrong with having a separate group, though.

  2. 2
    Matt G

    I guess I’m surprised the numbers are so low. I once heard a joke: Q: What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in god? A: A Jew. I thought atheism was more accepted in the Jewish community. An ex-girlfriend’s nephew did his bar mitzvah sermon on why he didn’t believe in god.

  3. 3
    slc1

    Re Matt G @ #2

    Prof. Singham is talking about the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Reform, Reconstructionist and most Conservative Jews are more tolerant of apostates.

  4. 4
    Corvus illustris

    The link says 3 conservative individuals in the US and 4 strictly orthodox in Israel, so the sample (aside from not being exclusively ultra-Orthodox) is heterogeneous but small.

  5. 5
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    How about one for Muslims too? (Of course a bit more dangerous for them given the traditional Sharia law punishment for apostasy.)

  6. 6
    Catherine Dunphy

    Thank you for writing about The Clergy project, I just wanted to clarify that TCP is open to all Clergy from all former faiths including Judaism. We count several rabbi’s among our members from a variety of denominations. We also count Imams and Mollahs as members!

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    That’s good to know! Thanks.

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