I am a 16 year old boy who goes to a modern orthodox high school. I have been religious my whole life but am very skeptical about Judaism and God's existence as a whole. A few months ago, I hit the breaking point and for a few weeks I did not keep kosher or shabbos. I spoke with my parents about it and they were heartbroken.
I thought about it for a while and I decided that I will finish up high school and go to my Israel year and then if I am still not satisfied with Judaism I will just live my life free of overbearing laws that make no sense and just go crazy in college.
This leads to my question. When i learn gemara and chumash and what not I have a hard time taking it seriously. So my question is that what in Judaism is actually real and what is just made up, from an atheist perspective at least. For instance, were the Jews actually ever in the desert? Did the forefathers really exist? What about more modern things like the Channukah and Purim story and the wars in the times of navi'im?
The 2nd part of my question is, so lets say there is no god, were the prophets and rabbis like rashi and rambam just delusional old men?
thank you for taking time to read and i eagerly await your response by email or maybe a post on the blog.
biding my time
I'll respond by blog so that other people can contribute answers as well and so that other kids in your situation might be able to read it.
I sympathize with your situation -- that sounds hard. I personally didn't start being really skeptical until college, when I was already out of the house. My parents were also heartbroken, but since I wasn't living under their roof, there were fewer complications. We do have a pretty good relationship to this day, though. I'm sure they'd still prefer I be religious, but it's not really an issue between us anymore. We just don't really talk about it.
It sounds reasonable to finish up high school where you are if that's what you want to do. As for Israel, I'd do some thinking about what you're trying to get out of it. Some yeshivas are intellectual, some are for partying, and some specialize in making people frum out. It can be pretty tough I think if you go to one that doesn't fit. A lot of people end up just hanging out with friends or partying, so if that's what you're into it might not matter that much. I was kind of introverted and not so into partying, so even though my yeshiva wasn't a good fit for me (too right-wing) I mostly just kept to myself and read books all year. It kind of sucked. Something I wish I'd considered more seriously was doing some kind of joint program like the one at Bar-Ilan, which is coed. You can still do some Orthodox stuff for your own sake or your parents', and you get the experience of living in Israel (based in secular Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem) but you also get more of a college-like experience. Or, of course, you could just head straight to college.
As for "going crazy" in college, if that's what you decide to do, try to be smart about it. :-) Just because you don't believe in Orthodoxy's rules doesn't mean that you have to be some kind of crazy hedonist. Just look at Charlie Sheen to see where that gets you -- it looks fun, but it's probably not the best way to lasting happiness and healthiness. I think some level of experimentation is probably a good idea for most people, but just be smart about it. If you go that route, educate yourself about safe sex, try to have some real relationships, don't kill yourself with alcohol, and try to use other drugs responsibly if you choose to use them.
Onto the questions. I don't think there's a singular "atheist perspective," so I just try to go with what the actual experts on a subject believe. You can usually just look something up on Wikipedia for some pointers.
For example, on the "Were the Jews ever in the desert?" question, Wikipedia offers:
While a Moses-like figure may have existed in Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century BCE, archaeology cannot prove or disprove his existence, and the "overwhelming" archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel "leaves no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness." For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit." A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness, and it has become increasingly clear that Iron Age Israel - the kingdoms of Judah and Israel - has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt:
If you're really interested, of course, you won't stop at Wikipedia but will follow the references to primary sources.
It's really not possible to rule out the existence of, for example, the forefathers, but suffice it to say there doesn't seem to be a good secular reason to believe that they are anything more than literary/mythical creations. The important thing to realize is that the majority of secular scholars believe the chumash was written by multiple authors over a long period of time and put together somewhere around 600-450 BCE, over 500 years after Moses would have existed. So the validity of the text as a historical document has to be understood in that context.
The story of Chanukkah seems to be at least "based on a true story" in that the Temple obviously existed and there was a war, etc. There is some scholarly disagreement on the nature of that war. See Wikipedia for more information. As for Purim, secular scholars seem to think that Megillat Esther is basically a historical novella and point to various historical inaccuracies in the text.
I think it's possible to continue to study and even enjoy chumash and gemarah on an intellectual level even if you don't think that they represent the truth, but I'm sure it's not for everybody, so I'd just treat it like any other subject I didn't really care about as far as school goes.
The second part of your question asks about the prophets and rabbis. With regard to prophets, some scholars hypothesize that Ezekial, for example, may have suffered from a form of epilepsy, but that's really just guesswork as far as I'm concerned. There are of course many mental illnesses or drug-induced states that we know cause people to act the way the prophets are said to have acted. I have a neighbor, for example, who can talk for hours in a very manic state about all kinds of visions and wild experiences she has had. I'm not a doctor, but she appears to me to be schizophrenic. It could also be that prophets were normal people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and that the stories about them were just exaggerated and embellished.
I don't think it's fair to call rabbis like Rashi or the Rambam delusional, in the sense of the word that implies mental illness. Orthodox Rabbis today aren't delusional, they just believe things that I don't think are true. I assume that the same is true of Rashi and the Rambam, although they at least have the excuse that they lived before the scientific revolution. It's fun to think about if the Rambam, who was obviously a brilliant man interested in philosophy, would have become an atheist if he were born in the last couple of centuries, but there's really no way to know.
Anyway, I hope I've been helpful. Good luck in getting through the next few years and making some big decisions. It might be helpful to see a psychologist to help you think through everything. I advise even adults who become skeptics to consider seeking therapy just because leaving Orthodoxy and all the things that go with that (family issues, big changes in personal philosophy and the meaning of life, etc.) can sometimes be hard to work through on your own. I've found it helpful myself.
Feel free to write to me again if you have any questions, etc.