Hello, Rabbi. I need help.

I have been a fairly good Jew for a big part of my life. I celebrate all the holidays. I still teach my son the current Parshah with age-appropriate materials. I even put on tefillin most mornings, though my bar mitzvah was more than two decades ago.

My problem is, as I learn and read, I am finding myself drifting away from the somewhat religious man I once was. Some things seem too obscure, others seem fake.

For years, while going to Sunday morning minyan at my local Chabad House, and to services on Friday nights, I’ve been looking for inspiration. Things seemed meaningless, juvenile sometimes, and complete myths at others. Recently, I saw a different historical account of the Chanukah story that explained away the “miracle of the oil.” With modern science and history beginning to shed some light on our origins, it is getting more and more obvious that though we preach some progressive ideas, our Torah is likely not based in fact.

Since the core of our belief is that document, I fail to be inspired to continue being the religious man I once was.

Can you help me rediscover that inspiration?


Concerning the historicity of traditional Judaism—this is something that fascinates me as well. It is certainly a controversial field, with many trends and schools of thought. One trend, however, is unquestionable: Academia has been moving steadily over the past 40 years closer to tradition. This movement has been accelerated more recently with the increase of objective literary study of the text and comparison to the million or so unearthed ancient Near East documents. The shocking realization of a new, less biased generation of scholars is that “this doesn’t read as myth,” but rather as a radical work of unparalleled genius.

In this regard, I would highly recommend Joshua Berman’s highly acclaimed recent work, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. Also useful is A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan et al, and On the Reliability of the Old Testament by K. A. Kitchen. While none of these presents a purely traditional view, you will see that they provide plenty of good research that supports such.

I read the article you cited about the Chanukah story. As I’m sure you realized, it’s a short and unscholarly piece based on a single, unreliable document. There is no reason that the book of II Maccabees should be a more compelling source than rabbinic tradition: it is a particular and tendentious view directed towards the Jews of Alexandria that has come down to us through numerous unreliable transcriptions. It was not accepted into the Jewish canon, and quite likely for good reason.

You mention learning the Parshah with your son. I don’t doubt you must be studying more than that, but you mention nothing else in formal Torah studies. It comes as little surprise, therefore, when you write that Judaism has become meaningless and juvenile to you. But if someone walked into the public library, browsed around the children’s section, and then walked out, should he criticize the city council for squandering public funds on shallow, juvenile literature?

Stop and think for a minute: The same people that produced Kafka, Einstein, Freud, von Neuman, Wittgenstein, et al in the modern era also produced Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Maharal, the Shaloh, Arizal, the Baal HaTanya, the Rebbe, et al—only that those of the latter list were working with three and a half thousand years of accumulated wisdom, all of it relevant, all of it rich with depth and beauty. And that is not only in books of philosophy, cosmology and ethics, but on that very same Parshah that you are learning with your son, as well. The same words that present to him a nice story are mined for their depths by these brilliant authors.

Just as it is an obligation of every Jew to wrap tefillin every morning, so it is an obligation to plunge our minds into the depths of Torah morning and night, and at every opportune moment. If this was so when Jews were farmers and shepherds, how much more so in our generation, when most of us make our living out of knowledge and problem-solving. Every day we invest hours absorbing information from the outside world, both by osmosis and through active engagement. To stay afloat, we need to counter that with at least an equal investment in Torah study.

As I wrote, the material is there. In your city, some of the finest teachers are also there. And your letter certainly demonstrates that the mental capacity is there to take it all on as well. Find the librarian and ask, “Help me find the deep stuff. I’m an adult, for heaven's sake.”