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Orthodox Conundrum


Feb 20, 2023

It is widely assumed that Jewish law requires the acceptance of certain principles of faith - most commonly associated with the thirteen foundational principles that the Rambam wrote about in his Commentary on the Mishnah in Masechet Sanhedrin. These principles, very broadly summarized, include G-d’s existence, His unity and incorporeality, the fact that G-d is the eternal first cause and that prayer must be directed to G-d alone; that prophecy exists, that Moses was the greatest prophet, that the Torah was given to Israel through Moses, and that the Torah will never be changed or exchanged; that G-d is omniscient, He rewards and punishes, that there will be a messiah and that the dead will one day be resurrected. Again: this is a broad summary, and the actual writing of Maimonides on this matter is more nuanced. Still, these are the principles of Jewish belief that everyone is supposed to assert and, according to the Rambam, not only accept as dogma but also thoroughly understand.

What happens, however, when a Jewish person says that he or she cannot accept all of these thirteen principles, or even parts of them? What, for example, if someone believes that G-d communicates with humankind, but doesn’t accept the literal transmission of every word of the Torah through Moses? How should a committed Jew continue observing the Torah when doubts emerge?

Rabbi Pesach Sommer experienced these doubts, and it led to a crisis in faith. Crucially, his crisis took place while he was a rabbi teaching in an Orthodox school. And while the crisis for him was very real, he also was able to emerge from it with a more nuanced and, perhaps, stronger faith than before. Today Pesach tells us his story, from how he became a rabbi, to what sparked his doubts, how far down the rabbit hole of doubt he went, and what he was able to do to reinvigorate his faith so that he was able to develop a more mature and in fact deeper connection with G-d and Torah than before.

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