We failed Faigy Mayer.
Ms. Mayer, an ex-Chasidic Jew, committed suicide by leaping from a rooftop in Manhattan. After leaving the close-knit Chasidic community, she felt alienated from her family and former friends. She struggled with depression, as almost anyone would in her place.
Religious or otherwise, Ms. Mayer was one of us. She suffered, and we failed to mitigate her suffering.
In the end, the tragedy was not merely that she took her own life, but that she reached a point where she thought it was her best option.
How did we fail her? And could we have succeeded?
We don’t know all the facts about her life. Most of them are none of our business. We can only imagine the kind of heartbreak she endured.
It’s not a new problem, and Ms. Mayer is only the latest casualty. Most people who leave Orthodoxy make the choice reluctantly, in anguish about what they’re giving up: moral certainties, life-affirming rituals, friends, family relationships, and community. But they no longer believe, and they feel it would be dishonest of them to stay. Their pain is true whether the beliefs they reject are true or not.
One Yeshiva University student described his emotional ordeal:
“The professor destroyed my core beliefs without replacing [them] with anything. He tore down my foundation and left me staring at the rubble.”1
Solomon Schimmel, one of our professors at Hebrew College, went through the same painful experience at age 23, and says it’s typical:
“The ‘loss of faith’ experience of the yeshiva bochur (yeshiva student) has been almost a rite of passage for thousands in Europe and later in the United States.”2
When he lost his faith, Schimmel asked himself:
“How do I relate to my family, to my dearest friends, to the people who assumed that I was of shlomey emuney yisrael (the community of the faithful) — one of ‘theirs’? These were kind, warm people. Do I tell them who I now am and what I really believe?”3
Countless people — including Dr. Schimmel and, sadly, Ms. Mayer — agonize over what they do believe, what they can believe, or what they must believe. They agonize because they think all beliefs are alike and that there’s only one way to justify beliefs.
What they miss is something very basic: We hold beliefs because they satisfy our needs.
Sometimes, the needs are empirical: If you believe that the cat is under the bed, then your belief can help you find the cat. Because the belief is empirical, its justification is also empirical. Why do you believe the cat is under the bed? Because moments ago, you saw him run underneath it.
Sometimes, the needs are moral: “God rewards the good and punishes the wicked” strengthens our determination to live rightly. Sometimes, the needs are social: to sustain our personal relationships in a community of believers. And still other times, the needs are psychological: to feel loved and to know our place in the world.
Such beliefs are not empirical, so their justification isn’t empirical, either. They’re justified by the needs they satisfy, and those needs are different from the need to find your cat. You should no more consult the Torah to find your cat than you should look under the bed to verify that God loves you.
If you ask, “Did God give the Torah to Moses at Sinai?” I answer, “Yes.”
But if you ask, “Can you show historical or archaeological evidence that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai, enough to convince a reasonable person who has no prior commitment to the belief?” I answer, “No.”
And that’s perfectly fine, because my belief about God giving the Torah to Moses at Sinai is not an empirical belief. It’s a religious belief. No empirical evidence could bear on the truth or falsity of a statement about a transcendent, incomprehensible God doing anything, especially if we cannot define empirically what we mean by “God.”
The needs it satisfies are not empirical. They are religious, moral, and social, and that kind of evidence is where we look to justify the belief. We look to the Torah and the rabbinic tradition. We look to our families and our communities. We look to the good that results from the belief — and also at the bad. Empirical beliefs can be more or less justified by the relevant kind of evidence; so can moral and religious beliefs.
People’s psychological needs differ. Some people need structure, certainty, and an authority that gives them the answers, even if they only “half-believe” the answers.4
Others need more openness, flexibility, and personal autonomy. Some will thrive under the strictest Orthodoxy, while others — sometimes tragically, like Faigy — will find it oppressive and stifling.
As a result, there’s no “one size fits all” belief system or way of life, any more than there’s a “one size fits all” pair of shoes.
Could we have helped Ms. Mayer, more than we did? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We must accept that we cannot always help everyone. Some things are beyond our power.
What we can do is to accept and support all members of our communities even if we reject some of their beliefs. We can keep the communication lines open. We can try to understand why they believe what they do. And we can follow Hillel’s advice:
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary.”