Rabbi Sacks Takes on the Atheists

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It was an exercise in purely fanciful speculation, but it led to much productive discussion of what it means to be mamlich Hashem – to coronate G-d on Rosh Hashanah. I asked my guests what they imagined how, if at all, our task had changed in a year that the rants of atheists received as much media attention as the wisdom of professional athletes and movie celebrities. Would HKBH give us more credit in a year that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al sought to quiet His voice? Or would He expect more of us in the way of undoing the damage they’ve done?

Chief Rabbi Sacks, apparently, decided to be machmir me-safek (take the stricter position). He takes on the lot of ’em. Here it is, in all its elegance. No need to dilute it with my comments.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than at any other time of the year, we are conscious of standing before the Divine presence, giving an account of our lives. We may be many things, but we know ourselves to be part of a people who, for longer than any other, have defined themselves by a relationship with God.

At times it has been fraught and tempestuous, yet we have never ceased wrestling with God, or He with us. Faith — not blind but searching, questioning — is at the heart of what it is to be a Jew.

These past few years, religious faith has faced a barrage of criticism. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have all written bestsellers advocating atheism, and they have recently been joined by Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is an angry and, at times, eloquent polemic on the evil men and women do in the name of God. It has only one drawback. It does not prove that God is not great. What it shows is that those who claim to be acting for the sake of God are not always great. But then, we knew that already.

That fact is engraved in our collective memory. Setting aside more recent horrors, we need only think of the closing years of the 11th century. In 1096, Crusaders, on their way to reclaim the Holy Land in the name of the God of love, stopped to massacre Jewish communities in the north of Europe: in Worms, Speyer and Mainz. Arriving in Jerusalem in 1099, they first massacred the Muslim population of the city: according to some eyewitnesses, there were places knee-deep in blood. They then gathered the Jews of Jerusalem into a synagogue and set fire to it.

A warning about the connection between religion and violence is set out at the very beginning of the Torah. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, we read how the first recorded act of religious worship, the sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel, led directly to the first murder, the first fratricide. Human beings are prone to violence.

That is the meaning of two of the most searing sentences in the whole of religious literature: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6: 5-6).

Nor is it religion alone that is subverted by violence. So, too, is every institution through which human beings have regulated their conduct with one another. People have done evil in the name of politics. That does not mean that we should, or could, abolish politics. They have committed injustices in the pursuit of wealth. That does not mean we should eliminate property. They have committed crimes in the name of love. That does not mean we should ban love.

Were we to do so, we would soon find that the cure is worse than the disease. What we need, instead, is constant vigilance and active self-criticism. That is what the High Holy Days are about.

Historically, self-criticism gave rise to a new type of religious personality — the prophet, one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilisation. The tradition on which Christopher Hitchens is drawing, highlighting the wrong done by religious people, was begun by Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Nothing Hitchens has to say has the sheer stark force of Isaiah chapter 1, said in the name of God Himself: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood.”

But Hitchens is not a prophet, and that is not merely because he does not believe in God. He does not believe in humanity either.

Throughout his impassioned tract, Hitchens has a curious verbal tic. He has a habit of calling people, especially religious people, “mammals”. Doubtless they are just that. They are also three-dimensional solid objects persisting in time; users of a language that includes the future tense; biological systems of self-organising complexity; makers of works of art; the image of God; the quintessence of dust. Each of these phrases carries an emotional charge. Each has political and moral consequences. Calling human beings “mammals” is a reversion to the old Latin saying, Homo hominis lupus est, “man is wolf to man”.

That is why human beings have done bad things to one another in the name of high ideals. Few put it more eloquently than Isaiah Berlin. One belief, he said, more than any other, is “responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals”, some religious, others secular, some political, others moral. “This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.”

Berlin, writing in 1957, must have intended the reference to the Holocaust in that last phrase, a translation of Eichmann’s die Endlösung der Judenfrage, a “final solution of the Jewish question”. But what he had in mind was not just that but all utopian solutions to the human condition, from Plato’s Republic to the French and Russian revolutions.

William Blake said something similar at the beginning of the industrial age: “May God us keep/ From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep!” He feared precisely the kind of reductive scientism that occasionally tempts Hitchens’s fellow atheists, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins: an Epicurean materialism that sees the human person as no more than a cog in a machine or a self-replicating biological organism. Whatever we are, we are more than that.

Human beings are complex, their interactions even more so. Yet we long for simplicity. Hence the perennial tendency to say, “if only”. If only we could abolish property, or class, or codes of self-restraint. If only, say the crusaders, people believed in God. If only, say the counter-crusaders, people stopped believing in God.

That is the eternal appeal of “final solutions”. They begin, every one of them, in a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell-on-earth. That is why the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not yet”. The mainstream of our tradition has always rejected the attempt to bring the end of history in the middle of history. If only people stopped saying “if only”.

The virtue of books like God Is Not Great is that they force us back to first principles — in this case to a truth about Judaism that has been far too little written about. It is, we know, a code of action and a set of beliefs. But it is also — and this gives Judaism its extraordinary internal complexity — a field of tensions: between particularism and universalism, exile and homecoming, acceptance and protest, halachah and aggadah, revelation and reason, mysticism and philosophy, sages and saints. Even religious leadership in the Torah is dual: the prophet and the priest. Judaism is not so much a creed as a conversation. It is complex because the human condition is complex. We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.

That is why virtually every sacred Jewish text is an anthology of arguments: between leader and people, prophets and kings, between Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, and between the commentaries that surround every canonical Jewish text. It is why Tanach itself contains such dissident works as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Job. It is why, at the very beginning of the Torah, we are presented with two sharply contrasted accounts of creation, Genesis 1 and 2-3. Ultimately it is why the very name we carry, Israel, means “one who has wrestled with God and with humans and prevailed”.

Judaism is an extended argument, scored for many voices spanning centuries and continents, between earth and heaven. Or, to use a no less biblical metaphor, it is a journey, begun in the days of Abraham, continued in the time of Moses, and extending to the present, whose destination, though promised, is not yet in sight. Unity in heaven creates diversity on earth, and the attempt to impose unity on diversity is always premature and often tragic.

Judaism is religion-as-conversation, ‘argument for the sake of heaven’, in which, like the school of Hillel, we listen respectfully to the views of our opponents as well as our own.

What we need in the twenty-first century is a dialogue – serious dialogue in which there is listening as well as speaking – not so much between or within faiths, but between religious faith and the great secular disciplines of our time. Out of that might come a new, richly-textured sensitivity to the daunting problems that confront us: poverty, environmental destruction, global warming, terror, the profound ethical issues involved in new medical technologies, and the clash of cultures that threatens the future of freedom throughout the world.

Unfortunately, that is just what the new atheism, as well as the new religiosity, make difficult if not impossible. Though the proponents of both disagree on all else, they agree on this: we are the children of light. They are the children of darkness. Hitchens, Dawkins and their radical-religious counterparts, are not interested in dialogue but victory, and their mutual demonisation grows ever more intense. The future of God is not in doubt. The future of humanity hangs in the balance. Not in my lifetime have we known such global disorder, and never have our powers of destruction been as great.

Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike, and re-engage in civil conversation about how best to secure a world safe for our grandchildren to live in. In the words of the Unetnah tokef prayer we say at this time: the great shofar of warning has sounded. Will we hear the ‘still, small voice’ – the voice you can only hear by listening? On that, the human future will depend.

(The original appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle.) Thanks to Martin Brody, Los Angeles

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10 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    If I had my way, I would invite Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens to learn Chumash with the classic Rishonim, Talmud-but especially Brachos, Seder Moed, Nashim and Nezikin and then Siddur and Machzor. I am confident that the average elementary day school, yeshiva ktanah and BY student knows about Judasim 101 and its hashkafic fundamentals than any of these authors.

  2. dr. william gewirtz says:

    “is there a line beyond which differences of opinion are invalid per se, and where is that line to be drawn?”

    Comment by Larry — September 19, 2007 @ 10:45 am

    I like you appreciate R. Alderstein posting R. Sacks’s article.

    Larry beware of a few of the respondents; you might hear wonderful rhetoric about respect for a diversity of opinion, coupled with an agenda that draws lines whose rhyme and reason are based on a political schema in whose honor even traditional sources and behavior can be denied / distorted for the sake of “correctness.”

    In the main, to answer your question, reasonable people can judge where to draw a line that includes everything that is a consistent extrapolation from a long-standing tradition within the orthodox community. However, once you are permitted to rewrite our past, the anchor that tradition provides is lost; lines become arbitrary and often overly restrictive.

    Without any rigor, here are four potentially effective screens. Keep the line drawing out of the hands of those who 1) have a narrow view of the compatibility of contemporary science and perhaps other disciplines and religion, 2) insist on the “accuracy” of ancient and recent history as presented in many Artscroll related publications, 3) are prone to declare new cardinal principles of faith or 4) have a tendency to “explain” how haShem and history interact. Even though they tend not to reciprocate, and despite my views of their positions, I recognize they are inside the line, a part of a long tradition (of book-burners) within our orthodox community.

    Drawing lines is conceptually hard but practically a great deal easier. Do not ask for principles, just examples.

    A gmar chatima tova to those even close to the line!

  3. Mark says:

    Gershon Josephs,

    “He’s clearly taking on the Chareidim too. He constantly equates the atheists and the radical religious, as in this sentence:
    “Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike” ”

    Words are superfluous to describe my feelings at this statement.

  4. Larry says:

    How refreshing to read Rabbi Sack’s view that there are tensions, dualities, and contradictions in Jewish tradition, that these exist even in the Biblical text and canon, and that this diversity of emphases and views is not only Jewishly normative but indeed valid, positive and sacred. Is this view in accordance with that of the contributors and posters on Cross-Currents, many of whom seem so ready to characterize as inauthentic those whose understanding of Judaism deviates from that of Orthodoxy’s most rigid Right flank? Of greater importance, is there a line beyond which differences of opinion are invalid per se, and where is that line to be drawn?

  5. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “He’s clearly taking on the Chareidim too. He constantly equates the atheists and the radical religious.” (Comment by Gershon Josephs — September 16, 2007 @ 8:34 pm).

    Gershon, you are assuming that Rabbi Sacks basically considers Chareidim simple-minded bigots, guilty of perverting a faith whose essence they fail to grasp. I think you owe him an apology. He is far to intelligent to be accused of subscribing to such asinine views.

  6. michoel halberstam says:

    I know that not everyone agrees, but it appears that the argument of books like those discussed here is not just that there is no virtue in belief in God, but that there is no notion of virtue itself which can be deemed immutable. The issue is not belief or disbelief, so much as it is whether peope should seek paths in their lives which have the imprimature of being divinely inspired. It may be true that religious believers, ot those who profess such belief are not obviously better people, At the same time it seems to me that ultimately how good one is depends on the notion that there is a clearly defined notion of morality which proceeds from the Divine. After all does not the Torah begin by telling us that Hashem inroduced himself to Adam and gave him rules?

    What our “enlightened” friends really want is the freedom to live as they wish and feel good about themselves. This is the essence of paganism. The real question for them is not whether one should believe, but what one should believe in. When understood this way, it is clear that the answer of the Torah has never changed. A truly religious person lives as one would who really believed that our lives play themselves out in the presence of our Creator, (in other words, a “yoreh shomayim”)When defined this way, we come to understand two things 1. very few people are really religious; and, 2. these kinds of religious people do not have the defects that bother Hitchens and company.(

  7. David N. Friedman says:

    Perhaps Rabbi Sacks could argue that we need to make our point of view known to the world in a much more significant way. I don’t wish to dialogue with the atheists and if victory is their goal, I really wonder how and why our goal should be any less.

    On the other hand, he is quick to point out that they are “darkness” and we are “light.”

    As light, we need to take off the dark covers and let the light shine forth in the world at large. This is a world going in the wrong direction in so many ways and lacking the willingness to speak out has the same effect of not having a compelling and important message in the first place.

    David N. Friedman

  8. dr. william gewirtz says:

    “He’s clearly taking on the Chareidim too. He constantly equates the atheists and the radical religious”

    Comment by Gershon Josephs — September 16, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

    I had the pleasure of listening to R. Sacks give a drasha at Marble Arch on a related subject almost nine years ago. His examples of the continuous need for balance and perspective were insightful, taking on not the chareidim (who happened to be applauding him for his decision that week) but heroes of Tanach, who might have on occasion lost that balance. (I would add this is a sub-theme of Yonah addressed by the Midrash comparing three prophets only one of whom consistently maintained the balance.) Of course when that balance/perspective is lost on a more regular basis, then you become the subject of this article. If you think that he includes chareidim in that category that would be your judgment. His comments only describe the sin; they do not identify the sinner.

    On a related topic the Chief Rabbi writes: “We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.” The Rav zt’l made this point dramtically as R. Sacks mentioned with Adam I and II; the Rav also mentioned that it is highlighted in the YK service: “uMoser haAdam min haBehamah Oyin, ki haKol Hevel” is followed in the next line by “Attah Hivdalta Enosh miRosh.” Man can be either or both; the ideal is the latter while recognizing we are all a bit of the former. Absent that recognition, the latter can become the former.

  9. Gershon Josephs says:

    “Chief Rabbi Sacks, apparently, decided to be machmir me-safek (take the stricter position). He takes on the lot of ‘em.”

    He’s clearly taking on the Chareidim too. He constantly equates the atheists and the radical religious, as in this sentence:

    “Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike”

  10. Ori says:

    So when they offer paradise,
    Ignore your ears and trust your eyes.
    For human nature will not fail,
    To lead such seekers straight to hell.