Photo by Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum
By Batya Ungar-Sargon
The moment Solomon lost his faith, he was standing on the D train, swaying back and forth with its movement as if in prayer. But it wasn’t a prayer book that the young law student was reading – he had already been to synagogue, where he had wrapped himself in the leather thongs that bound him to Orthodox Judaism, laying phylacteries and reciting the prayers three times daily.
The tome in his hands now was Alan Dershowitz’s The Genesis of Justice (2000), which used Talmudic and Hasidic interpretations of the Bible to argue that stories in the book of Genesis, from Adam and Eve eating the apple to Noah and his ark, constituted God’s learning curve – a means of establishing a moral code and the rules of justice that prevail today.
What struck him about the book was its depth, and a complexity of thought that he had been raised to believe was the exclusive domain of the rabbis whose authority commanded his community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The book’s brilliance, coupled with its unabashed heresy, created the first of many cracks in Solomon’s faith. Seeing the scriptures interpreted in methods so compelling and yet entirely inconsistent with the dogmas of his youth caused Solomon to question everything he believed to be true.
From Dershowitz, Solomon moved on to evolutionary biology, and then to Stephen Hawking and cosmology, and then biblical criticism, until finally, he was unable to deny the conclusion his newly developed capacity for critical thinking had led him to: he no longer believed in the existence of God.
‘It was the most devastating moment of my life,’ he told me. ‘I wish to this day that I could find the holy grail that proves that I’m wrong, that it’s all true.’
And yet 15 years later, Solomon’s life looks exactly the way it did the day of that fateful train ride, give or take a few infractions. Solomon is still leading the life of an Orthodox Jew. He is married to an Orthodox Jew. His children are Orthodox Jews who go to study the Torah at yeshiva. His parents are ultra-Orthodox Jews. And so, with his new-found atheism, Solomon did nothing.
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