Debating G-d: The “Must-Have” Tool

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This may not initially read like a book review, but it is just that. Some older books are so important, that they deserve a bit of contemporary context to remind us how important they are. This review is about one such work. Please bear with me.

Debates about G-d have come a long way since medieval times. Back then, the key issues were whether the Prime Mover argument was more compelling than the First Cause alternative, and whose conception of G-d was accurate, with the loser consigned to eternal damnation in the fires of hell. Hell doesn’t enter into the discussion too much anymore, and His existence is supported in very different ways.

Christopher Hitchens is a capable and engaging presenter; going up against him takes either courage or foolishness in the attempt, and real skill in prevailing against him. All in all, I would give Rabbi David Wolpe very good marks in his November debate at Manhattan’s (high temple of classic Reform) Temple Emmanuel.

Rabbi Wolpe is certainly one of the Conservative movement’s most articulate spokespeople. (Contrary to the NY Times story, he was not rated #1 in Newsweek’s famous rabbis list, not having made it higher than #12. The number one position continues to belong to one of my superiors, Rabbi Moshe Hier.) He is also certainly not Orthodox. (Our readers will recall his sermon on Pesach a few years ago in which he told his congregants, most of whom are traditional Persians, that the Exodus likely never really occurred, and invited the Los Angeles Times to turn it into a front page story.) Not being Orthodox conferred distinct advantage upon Rabbi Wolpe. It allowed some leeway in his responses to Hitchens that an Orthodox rabbi would not have had, and that worked well for his audience. I believe that he did far better than a high-profile Orthodox rabbi did in his recent debate against Hitchens.

By the looks of a partial transcript of the debate, the battleground has shifted from a consideration of whether or not (עפ”ל) He exists, to how healthy or not He is to the planet and the inhabitants thereof. Has religion brought more benefit or tragedy to the world? Can humans discover a working morality without a Deity? Do humans have free will? Does religion make us morally capable, or turn us into slavish robots? Are religious people empowered to make decisions that atheists are not? These questions and their answers predominated in the transcript. Relatively little space was devoted to the issue of determining the truth of the claim that He exists.

One line in the transcript that did address the issue directly jolted me. “Not all the proofs in the world — ‘ontological, epistemological, cosmological’ — can persuade one to believe, Rabbi Wolpe added.” I am not quite sure what Rabbi Wolpe means by the epistemological proof. I’m a bit surprised that he invokes the ontological proof, which does not seem to have any champion in Jewish circles. I am more surprised that he does not mention the cosmological and teleological proofs, which have always received the most attention. I am deeply disappointed that he did not bring up what some believe to be the most traditionally Jewish argument of all: the historical argument.
As a point of fact, I agree with Rabbi Wolpe that proofs don’t work. They may be true – but, unlike hundreds of years ago, they are ineffective for a great number of people who possess strong counter-arguments to these proofs. These counter-arguments may all be invalid, but in a world in which they have a strong following, it is going to be difficult to convince people to do their thinking swimming against the current. In dealing with many people, it is counterproductive to assume a stance of certainty regarding arguments about which others remain fundamentally doubtful. (Remember: Amalek= safek.) When pressed by (non-frum) people who seek my counsel on matters of belief, I try to show my familiarity with the counterarguments, rather than trying to refute them, and invoke the Edward O. Wilson’s notion of consilience, of arriving at conclusions by a series of arguments, each of which may have some counterargument, but that add up to adequate evidence.

One of the strongest arguments (the word I prefer to proofs) in that series is the collective experience of Klal Yisrael with HKBH. (To all would-be commenters: Yes, I am completely familiar with the counterarguments.) It is the theme of Kuzari, the 12th century work that the Vilna Gaon considered to be the most traditional philosophy of Judaism, and his recommendation to supplant Sha’ar Ha-Yichud to the modern student of Chovos Ha-Levavos. I was fortunate enough that one of my great mentors, R. Nachman Bulman zt”l, insisted that I familiarize myself with it before leaving kollel and hitting the kiruv road. The advice was incredibly sound, and the gems in this sefer have stood by me in many debates and discussions since.

On to the review. It is far easier to study Kuzari today than it was when I first approached it. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin has just released a wonderful and user-friendly translation, published by Feldheim. (He published a first edition several years ago through the now-defunct Jason Aronson. The new edition is greatly improved.)

Rabbi Korobkin’s translation is readable, and faithful to the standard Ibn Tibbon translation from the Arabic, relying on the accepted traditional commentaries to help him through the many obscure passages. (He is now seriously pursuing the study of Arabic. It will be interesting to see how this affects any third edition in coming years.) He consulted experts in Arabic, in philosophy, and in history, doing the heavy lifting so that the student would be able to move on unobstructed. He wisely chooses a middle course between providing lengthy historical and philosophical treatments on the one hand, and ignoring all of it on the other. He does this by offering brief, readable, and useful essays on Rav Yehuda Ha-Levi, on the essentials of Greek philosophy, and on the history of the Khazars. He does not shy away from the difficult grammatical passages, or the long (and halachically important ) consideration of the Halachic International Date Line. The presentation of the facing texts is one of the most esthetically pleasing that I have ever seen in Torah literature.

All in all, it is a very accessible rendition of an essential work for thinking Torah Jews.

Rabbi Korobkin deserves our thanks for his prodigious efforts – and his work deserves to be read. It is an essential tool to all who have to debate the skeptics within and without.

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47 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    Why, oh why, do I always seem to sign into this forum late at night, when I am too tired to think straight? Maybe it is to camoflauge my inabiilty to think clearly at ANY time of the day.

    Since I am obviously addressing a particularly intelligent and educated segment of our population, may I please make an author recommendation to all of you? The truth is, there are about 1,500 books that I would like to recommend, but here I will only suggest one single author. Not only is he not a Torah Jew, but he is not even Jewish at all. He happens to be a member of the most liberal voting group in all of America, and yet he himself is a champion of free-market economics. I am speaking here about Black Economics Professor Thomas Sowell. Economics is quite a dry and complicated topic, yet he writes with such clarity and simplicity, that I find myself enjoying his many works. As a nice icing on the cake to his writings, while he does not mention us Jews or Israel very often, when he does, he is so wonderfully on the good side of things, on OUR side of things. G-d bless the righteous gentile Thomas Sowell for many years to come.

    To Ori, sorry for misunderstanding your writings. I was sure that you were an Obama supporter, which puzzled me greatly, as I frankly cannot imagine an Orthodox Jew supporting the second most anti-Israel President in American history. I see, though, that you did the intelligent thing by voting for the very pro-Israel John McCain/Sarah Palin. I disagree with you that this Obama phenomenon is a Hillel vs Shamai deal rather than a Karaite-Pirushim deal, yet I welcome your implied optimism about the resiliency of our country-in-exile.

    Now to the question of why I fear our current President as much as I do. Let me first say, that I do not think he is quite as bad as Jimmmy Carter. Jimmy Carter is not only a bona fide antisemite, but is quite proud of this fact. The more I hear about that truly evil monster, the more horrific stories I hear about just how anti-Israel and anti-America he really is. I do not think that Obama is an antisemite, yet I do think that he has been educated to be one. I thus put him somewhere between Carter and Clinton, but closer to Carter.

    Barack Obama had two moslem fathers, the second of whom was apparently quite a radical moslem, the kind that supports islamofascist terrorism. Obama was educated in islamic schools in Indonesia when he was an impressionable, young child. Keep in mind that in many of these schools, children as young as two years old are taught to become islamofascist terrorists.

    Obama belongs to a church that is so antisemitic, that even Oprah Winfrey left it a long time ago. The church’s former Reverend, Jeremiah Wright, is an ingrate who hates both America and Israel. The church has adopted Hamas’ charter, and has honored the man rightfully called the Black Hitler, namely Louis Farrakhan. The wonderful human being, Sarah Palin, put things a bit crudely when she said Obama pals around with terrorists, yet Obama does seem to have a tendency to associate with radicals and unrepentent terrorists such as William Ayres. Obama has THE most liberal voting record in all of Congress, and has not only supported the murder of helpless, unborn babies while the baby is still in the mother’s womb, but even AFTER the baby is born! This is not necessarily a specifically Jewish issue, but it is indirectly, in that it points to his total devaluing of human life.

    And let me say something about the economy, too. I will not tell the whole joke, but there is a joke whose punchline is that Jews see everything through the prism of how it affects our survival as Jews. Well, that is how I see economic matters as well. Historically, when do the gentiles turn against us? It is virtually always when economic times are tough. May as well blame the Jews, I suppose! Well, socialism breeds economic disaster, while free-market capitalism spurs on economic prosperity. So it is incumbent on all concerned Jews of whatever religous bent to support free-market capitalism over socialism. Obama is an extreme socialist; in his first fifty days in office, he has spent more of our tax money then our great ex-President Bush spent in his entire eight years in office.

  2. Sol says:

    Raymond: I share your concerns about Obama’s making anti-semtism the US official policy. But I can’t bring you concrete proofs for this (OK, so at least I have related this to the orginal discussion topic!) it is a feeling I have based on some disturbing phenomena such as his Wright relationship, I know someone who attended the AIPAC meeting with him during the elction who said that everyone in the room felt he was lying thorugh his teeth, his comments about how his new understanding of the Israel/palestinian situation after meeting with palestinians, and now after being in office – the ohone call to Abbas, interview with Riyadh, 900mil to gaza, Durban 2, Chas Freeman.

    But I cannot say (at least publicly even if I feel privately) with the conviction you did that Jews should be prepared to skidaddle since he is working to bring anti-semitism to the US as an official policy.

    Can you explain your certainty of this?

  3. Sol says:

    Ori: The only reason why 4 yers. of overt socialist poicy would not irreversibly turn the US into a socialist state is because these policies theortically could be reversed. But certainly given his control of both houses, the media, the judicairy, a lock on the entire african american/hispanic vote, he can certianly recreate America over the next four years. The cards are in place to enact such radical changes as a) the stimulus plan and budget b) national healthcare c) bank nationaliztion d) US policy shifts towards appeasment of arabs and iran.

    You mentioend Rome, but that was 2000 ys ago. The world moves much faster today. There many historical changes that happened this past century which would have taken much longer back them.

    America might wake up in two years and end Obama’s leftist spree with a right wing congress. If they don’t- as Dick Morris said – then they will get what they deserve.

    I do not see any problem for a gifted orator who is excellent liar to fool people into thinking his plan is bringing more hope and to re-elect him w/ congressional backing even as his plan prolongs the agony (FDR did it) . And then elect his succesor. As long as the policies are not reversed and these policies are socialist ones – America will be a socialist state.

  4. David N. Friedman says:

    Ori, to your point concerning “reasonable people”–it is my contention that people are not equally engaged in the political process to know what they are purchasing. Buyers remorse has come quickly and indeed, some of those “reasonable people” are already having their regrets.

    As for the resiliency of America, this is fine on paper. The trouble is we are moving so deeply into trouble that fixing the damage will be difficult and will require such disgust with what Obama has done, I do not believe it is realistic to expect even a coming conservative majority (I do not expect such a thing) will be able to fix the damage quickly. This is the result of allowing one radical seeking to FUNDAMENTALLY change America, against the oath of office he has sworn to uphold in our Constitution–to do have a free hand. This is why we say that it takes years and years to rebuild one act of destruction.

    What we are witnessing is similar to what befell ancient Israel when a series of bad kings, even sandwiched among some good ones, brought about the destruction of the state. If Jonathan Rosenblum is correct that Israel cannot stand continued disunity under an existential threat–it is also true that America must be united and it was instructive to listen to Obama supporter Warren Buffet castigate the President for depriving us of some united single-minded focus on fixing a problem. His complaint will not be acknowledged and there will be no attempt to help the economy–almost no matter what. Failure is the option of choice, the policy preference of this administration. The Dems are so animated to right every alleged wrong they can imagine about the past, they simply cannot be deterred by a lack of money and hence, we have all these initiatives concerning global warming, performing tests on embryos, forcing Catholic hospitals to close or perform abortions, broad-band access, persecuting Karl Rove, and dozens of other things one can read about at the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post. While our nation is imploding with debt, government failure and record low business activity–they want to fiddle with all kinds of other things.

    To believe that America might be weakened for the next generation is not especially pessimistic–it is a realistic appraisal of the consequence of electing a radical as our leader. Further, the destruction is not over, it is just beginning and the full impact of America’s bad choice will not be seen and understood for perhaps another year or so until in damage control mode, the Dems will start singing another tune to retain power.

  5. Ori says:

    David N. Friedman and Raymond, how could I vote for Obama? I honestly don’t know. I thought I was casting a vote for McCain. If the vote got counted the wrong way, it was because of a problem with the voting machine. Not that it matters – I’m proud to say my state electors voted for McCain (I’m Texan).

    I wasn’t saying that Obama is a good president. I thought he’d make a bad president, and I have yet to see evidence to the contrary. He seems to be taking economic advise from the ghost of FDR, and that turned out badly the last time.

    I was trying to say two other things, and unfortunately I wasn’t clear enough. Sorry. I’ll try to do better.

    1. Obama is not a clear, visible failure at this point in time. There are reasonable people, such as L. Oberstein and Dr. Charles D. Hall here, who think he’s a good president. That isn’t because they are delusional, it’s because the evidence is not clear yet. The economic crisis took a long time to brew, and then fact that it hasn’t gotten better in two months doesn’t prove Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    I think they are wrong, and that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I have no reason to disrespect people who disagree with me on this point. It’s not the same the disrespect I have for members of the flat Earth society or the “guns are evil – lets ban them and we’ll be all as safe as Abel” lobbyists.

    To pick classical Jewish examples, I believe this is a Beit Shammai vs. Beit Hillel argument. Not a Rabbis vs. Karaites argument.

    2. We’re a resilient country. Four years of Obama are not going to turn us into a European model social-democracy.

  6. Raymond says:

    Since we seem to be moving this discussion back and forth between theology and politics anyway, I feel compelled to ask Ori or any other proud Jew who voted for Obama one simple question: How could you do that? It is like voting in a trainwreck for oneself. The fox has now been put in charge of the hen house, and he appears to be unstoppable.

    I fear that our once great, free, and powerful America, is quickly becoming just another failed European socialist state or, even worse, another third world dictatorship. If Obama continues as he has been going so far, he will end up being the second worst President in American history…and America will cease to exist in any meaningful, special way.

  7. David N. Friedman says:

    Ori, a particular policy aimed at helping can be judged as either helpful or hurtful after it is implemented. Wanting to have faith in a failed policy is not a requirement and if the effort is not working– it makes no logical sense, as Raymond has indicated. Further, at some point, such commitment to failed policy must be questioned. Why does the President intentionally choose counter-productive solutions? When the first spending spree fails, do you really think the majority will be willing to try the same thing again, as if wasteful massive spending that has not worked will somehow work if we try it again and again?

  8. Ori says:

    Raymond: The point is, though, that while one has the freedom to have faith in whatever one chooses to have faith in, that intellectual integrity would demand that those beliefs should at least make logical sense.

    Ori: True. The problem, however, is that there are multiple sets of logically sensible beliefs. This is why faith is required – faith that one particular set is right instead of another.

  9. tzippi says:

    33, maybe it’s because the readership here are pretty set in their religious views and the political situation is more immediate. But I was a bit confused myself, having just checked the comments here after a few days.

  10. Raymond says:

    I want to move away from the aggravating subject of our current disaster of a President, and back to a subject even more important than Obama, and that is concerning the existence of G-d.

    Somewhere along the lines in this discussion, the conclusion seems to have been reached that all standard proofs given for G-d’s existence, is ultimately fallible, not something we can depend on, and that really what it all comes down to is faith.

    My response to such an idea (assuming I understood it correctly) is, um, Excuse me? How can you say that? Because if it is all up to faith, that moves this discussion into the realm of the irrational, and then all bets are off. It means that the most irrational of beliefs are validated on the basis of one choosing to have faith in it. Just think of all the crazy, destructive cults that have been created around such irrational beliefs.

    See, even though I am having a tough time believing in the existence of G-d, I have to acknowledge that at least the theological system that says that G-d exists and gave us the guidebook (the Torah) by which to live out our lives, makes perfect, logical sense to me. Put another way, the warm, caring, yet demanding G-d of Abraham and Moses, makes a whole lot more sense to me than the cold, distant, and abstract G-d of Aristotle.

    The point is, though, that while one has the freedom to have faith in whatever one chooses to have faith in, that intellectual integrity would demand that those beliefs should at least make logical sense.

  11. Ori says:

    Raymond, I agree with you about FDR. I think you are not 100% correct about Lincoln, but it’s not a topic for this blog – can we continue in e-mail? I’m ori at simple dash tech dot com.

    I doubt a single bad president, or even four years of a bad president and a bad congress, can destroy the US. It took a century of civil wars to destroy the Roman Republic, and Rome survived under the Emperors for centuries afterwards. I believe that’s the nearest analog we have.

  12. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Moshe Schorr –

    I was unclear. A punishment of 4 for 1 invites more sheep-thievery than a punishment of 5 for 1.

  13. Moshe Schorr says:

    Raymond –

    I fully agree with your evaluation of turning the other cheek. I just think that the same argument (”mercy for sheep-thieves will only invite more sheep-thievery”) could be made against Tal’s observation.

    Comment by Moishe Potemkin —

    I fear that Moishe Potemkin erred by _equating_ “sensitivity” with “mercy”. It’s hard to imagine that a punishment of 4 for 1 will
    “invite more sheep-thievery”. But the fact that it’s “only” 4 and not 5 is the example of “sensitivity” to the humiliation the theif experienced.

  14. Raymond says:

    Actually, it is the Obamaniacs who have drunk the kool-aid, so fooled are they by Obama’s charisma. People really need to stop worshiping FDR as if he were second only to G-d. The fact of the matter is, that his socialist policies prolonged the economic Depression by twenty years. And as Jews, we must never forget how he refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz, and how he snuck out the back door of the White House, in response to 100 Orthodox Rabbis converging on him to do something to stop the slaughter of six million innocent Jews.

    It is the height of absurdity to say that President Lincoln was divisive. The South split away from the Union; it was he who literally gave his life to save the union. This movement to trash his reputation, is probably due to his being a Republican, which is a synonym for evil in the eyes of today’s Leftists.

    Obama is destroying this country. Just look at how far down the stock market has plunged from the day that man sadly became our President. He is trying to transform our country into a socialist tyranny that favors the terrorists rather than Israel. I mourn every day that he is our President. We Jews better be ready to permanently leave this country, once he succeeds in making antisemitism America’s official policy.

  15. Sholom says:

    I have to say that I’m a little dismayed that this post turned into a political discussion, since the issue of militant atheism is sufficiently important to warrant our full attention.

    Obama’s policies are also quite important to discuss, but we’re dealing with two big, and largely separate, issues here.

  16. Sholom says:

    “L.Oberstein, I am pleased to explain my position. Regarding Hitchens and his allies, including Dawkins, Bill Maher, and the rest–the position they hold is extreme hostility to religion in general and Jewish beliefs in particular. There is a problem you fail to accurately assess. Hitchens does not seek a seat at the table and tolerance from those he disagrees–he aggressively seeks to marginalize our point of view by calling it “evil, dangerous, stupid and ignorant”–and that is only when he is being polite.”

    I joined this thread to late, but I agree with David N. Friedman on this point.

    While I see Ori’s point that attempts to marginalize atheists would be counterproductive in modern Western society, it is none-the-less important to recognize Hitchens and his ilk for what they are. These people are not humble seekers of truth, who would like to believe in God, but, much to their dismay, feel duty bound to articulate the truth as they see it. Hitchens, Maher, Dawkins et. al. prefer to paint religious people with the same brush, and try to connect everything that is wrong in the world with belief in God. This is a claim that is obviously untrue, but the fact that it constitutes a large chunk of their rhetoric suggests that their motives are far from benign.

  17. David N. Friedman says:

    Ori, you ask why all reasonable people are not alienated by Obama yet. First, many reasonable people are alienated by Obama and they realize they have been conned. Please consider the point concerning the con man. A con man speaks very well and gives the impression that he is helping you, not hurting you. There is a process therefore of “alienation” and some people are slow to see a mistake, while others see it very quickly. Indeed, everyone will never see it. If enough see and recognize the lies, they will soon turn on him. After all, the government can stop doing the things it is doing to harm the economy so that more of us can earn a living.

    Regarding what we think of FDR, yes, it would be helpful to stop allowing the left to re-write history and allow all Americans to see the truth about how FDR choked recovery with his policies so we can see how the same broken approach is hurting now, just as it has hurt in every situation it has been tried, in all nations, at all times. Helpful, pragmatic policies are desired not failed approaches of the past. Hope and consumer confidence is built upon progress and we are falling further and further behind every day this man is allowed to try to “govern” an economy. He has been hired too govern a government that is bankrupt and his solution is to tax us more and go into debt to keep the same ole thing going.

    Chris Buckley, for example, endorsed Obama because he fell for the hope of who he might be vs the reality of who and what he really stands for. Today, he indicated he has changed his opinion.

    People are having buyer’s remorse all over the place and I am a bit stunned that he is so arrogant and so ideological that he has barely lifted a finger to cover his tracks and feign moderation. He is going for the carbon tax, full-blown national health care, the insane green energy grid, massive new tax increases that are popping up at every turn (there are NO tax cuts, please tell the media to stop saying he is cutting taxes–they are tiny tax credits not any cut in any tax rate for any American).

  18. Moishe Potemkin says:

    For some, apparently, the free market is Torah MiSinai, refusing to acknowledge the harm that has been done to tens of millions of Americans by the total lack of regulation or accountability.

    Perhaps for some the free market is Torah MiSinai, I don’t know. Probably some people think that government intervention is also Torah MiSinai. For people with even a basic understanding of economics, though, the free market has consistently proven to be the best way of improving the financial wellbeing of most people. So it’s a useful tool that should be trifled with only carefully, and never for populist reasons based overwhelmingly on ignorance.

    I agree with you on the need for accountability, and I hope that those politicians that repeatedly refused to allow greater scrutiny of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – which had the disastrous result of distorting the information conveyed by housing prices – are held to account. I don’t think they will be, unfortunately – their intentions were too good.

  19. Reb Yid says:

    It’s interesting to peruse the comments of those who vilify Obama’s economic proposals. One wonders what these commenters would have made of FDR’s New Deal and the creation of Social Security. For some, apparently, the free market is Torah MiSinai, refusing to acknowledge the harm that has been done to tens of millions of Americans by the total lack of regulation or accountability.

    Obama divisive? Hard to see how you can make that case…he’s certainly not surrounding himself with ‘yes’ men or ideologues…he’s made a point of meeting with Republicans and Democrats alike to get the best ideas that all sides have on a variety of issues…he nominated 3 Republicans to serve in his cabinet (now down to 2 after Gregg finally declined the offer). Who, exactly, in his cabinet would anyone consider to be radically “left wing”? I can’t think of a single example.

    Let’s stop drinking the Limbaugh Kool Aid….that act is wearing rather thin.

  20. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Raymond –

    I fully agree with your evaluation of turning the other cheek. I just think that the same argument (“mercy for sheep-thieves will only invite more sheep-thievery”) could be made against Tal’s observation.

  21. Ori says:

    Raymond: In response to Ori, Abraham Lincoln was the most divisive President? Anybody saying that, cannot possibly be serious. President Lincoln is THE President who saved our country from splitting into two, at the cost of many lives, with he himself the last casualty of that bloodiest of American wars.

    Ori: The south seceded after Lincoln was elected president, and in response to that election. Lincoln managed to hold the country together, at the cost of many lives. You can’t get more divisive than that, except by failing the hold the country together at all.

    I am not saying what he did was wrong. Slavery was an abomination, and worth splitting the country over. But Lincoln was divisive in a way no other president has been.

    Raymond: In sharp contrast, barack hussein obama almost by definition is our country’s most divisive President in American history, by virtue of the fact that he is also the most Leftist candidate ever elected. His policies please only two kinds of people: the far Left, and those who want to snub their nose at mainstream, moderately conservative America.

    Ori: In which group would you put L. Oberstein and Dr. Charles D. Hall? The fact you and I expect Obama’s policy to backfire in such a way they’ll alienate those two reasonable people doesn’t mean they have so far.

  22. Raymond says:

    In response to Ori, Abraham Lincoln was the most divisive President? Anybody saying that, cannot possibly be serious. President Lincoln is THE President who saved our country from splitting into two, at the cost of many lives, with he himself the last casualty of that bloodiest of American wars. In sharp contrast, barack hussein obama almost by definition is our country’s most divisive President in American history, by virtue of the fact that he is also the most Leftist candidate ever elected. His policies please only two kinds of people: the far Left, and those who want to snub their nose at mainstream, moderately conservative America.

    In response to Moshe who believes in turning the other cheek…that expression reminds me a lot of John Lennon’s song Imagine. I feel free to mention such a song here, because unless you are religious from birth and have never been exposed to the secular world, you most certainly know that most famous of John Lennon songs. Well, that song is the quintessentially revered song among the hippie generation, but if you analyze its words in a sober and rational manner, the words turn out to be nonsensical. Well, same with turning the other cheek. Nothing, for example, would encourage the islamofascists more, than if America/Israel announced that it will turn the other cheek in response to terrorism. The concept of Measure for Measure is clearly the closest we can come to perfect justice.

    And finally, I want to respond to what I myself posted earlier, about my agnosticism regarding G-d’s existence. I want to say that I agree with the claim made by both Torah Jews and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, that without G-d, there is no true morality. However, that does not prove G-d’s existence. On the contrary, it may fuel arguments for skeptics, who would correctly claim that the notion of G-d was created to control people’s behavior.

    If G-d does not exist, there is no morality. If G-d does not exist, it means that the nazis got away with murdering close to seven million Jews. The islamofascists have gotten away with doing the same in our own time. Just contemplating this possiblity is enough to induce a permanent depression from which there is no recovery possible.

  23. David N. Friedman says:

    Ori, you want to talk about Obama and I am sorry–it is impossible to buy your assertion regarding Abraham Lincoln. First, Lincoln is widely regarded as the best US President. Second, equating “divisive” with secession is not definitional and the FACTS, as you have so wrongly alleged, reveal that the secessionist movement had its flowering in the 1840’s and 1850’s and Lincoln’s election merely lit the match.

    The entire argument behind Lincoln as our best President (I would vote for Washington but Lincoln is obviously right up there in the top two or three)is that his actions preserved the union. His actions did not cause division–his actions enforced unity.

    I am not implying an Obama-caused civil war, we are merely speaking about how a President is viewed by an electorate and this is truly a sensation. Perhaps half of the country feels that President Obama is something of a messiah and when he speaks, tears come to their eyes and they believe he is simply wondrous. The other half goes into convulsions when he speaks, the stock market sinks, we are stunned by the arrogance and the waste and we fear both a long-term loss of prosperity and a potential totalitarian state. The range of opinion here is unprecedented in my opinion. Bush the moderate was never loved by the right and never really loved by anyone and if he was hated, it was for reasons on the margins or that are not very legitimate: Abu Guraib, a hurricane, Gitmo, and a war in Iraq popularly supported from both its inception and as a referendum on his second term. Obama has quickly split the electorate into two camps that are further apart in opinion than anything I can imagine. Again, the US civil War was not a reaction to a President–it was 25 years in the making and was fought on principles.

    And yet it is Obama who is fond of exploiting the memory of Republican Lincoln for his own purposes, and while Lincoln had the total support of the entire Union army for years of bloody civil war–Obama is faced right off the bat with another lawsuit, this time from concerned members of the armed forces who will not fight under a Commander in Chief who refuses to document his Constitutional standing as a US citizen with an original birth certificate.

    Obama has proposed the biggest piece of legislation in the nation’s history, dwarfing all previous spending plans many times over. It is so significant, one might imagine he would be able to muster some Republican support and yet his failure to put forward a plan that has any genuine stimulative affect has forced every single House Republican (many of the very moderate) and even 11 Democrats (with the final vote 7) to say “NO!!” this a loud and clear message that this man will not reach out, he will not moderate and he will listen to the anger that has exploded in this nation.

  24. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Can anyone point to a humanly written system of laws (let alone one conceived by atheists) that reaches such a level of sensitivity?

    “Ye have heard that it hath been said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”; but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

  25. Ori says:

    David N. Friedman: Regarding President Obama–he has quickly become the most divisive President in our history

    Ori: You have the wrong president from Illinois. As far I know, no states have yet seceded from the union, and we are not in the midst of a civil war. Based on facts instead of rhetoric, Lincoln was the most divisive President.

    This isn’t very related to the topic of this thread, but I had to make this comment because it seems too many people are expecting us to end up with a civil war. I can’t swear we won’t, or judge whether or not it will be warranted at some point. But we are not there, and G-d willing we will not get there.

  26. Raymond says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein is so brilliant, so erudite, that I honestly had difficulty keeping up with what he was talking about. Or maybe it is just that I am typing this at 11:30 pm and am simply too tired to think.

    In any case, I have been wondering why Rabbi Korobkin published a new edition of the Kuzari, since he already did that a few years ago. But now I realize that this new version is improved enough to be worth purcashing and studying.

    As for the existence of G-d, I hesitate to express what I want to say, out of fear that my words are somehow heretical. But if Judaism is strong in its inherent truth, than followers of it should be able to withstand and even adaquately respond to what I am about to say.

    Let me first say that in my personal experience, when I encounter the world at large, I find it very difficult to believe in G-d. The whole notion of it strikes me as a kind of Santa Claus story for adults. It is only when I involve myself with the Orthodox Jewish world, that my consciousness begins to shift toward believing in G-d’s existence. I am not sure what this means; maybe somebody can enlighten me on this.

    Second, not that long ago, maybe in the last year or two, I was at the home of an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi, for some Shabbat or other religious holiday meal, and found myself giving over the Argument From Design to another guest at this Rabbi’s home. To my dismay, this Rabbi said that that argument no longer holds any water, that science has discovered a naturalistic explanation for order in the universe, and that the only thing left unexplained is how the universe came here in the first place. But if that is the case, then wouldn’t it be logical for me to suppose that one day science WILL find out how something can come from nothing? And when that happens, doesn’t G-d disappear altogether, as there is no need for such a G-d to explain the existence of all there is in our universe?

    Yet without G-d, the universe is a cold, lonely, and cruel place, too much for me to bear.

  27. David N. Friedman says:

    L.Oberstein, I am pleased to explain my position. Regarding Hitchens and his allies, including Dawkins, Bill Maher, and the rest–the position they hold is extreme hostility to religion in general and Jewish beliefs in particular. There is a problem you fail to accurately assess. Hitchens does not seek a seat at the table and tolerance from those he disagrees–he aggressively seeks to marginalize our point of view by calling it “evil, dangerous, stupid and ignorant”–and that is only when he is being polite. Hitchens and his gang do not only offer continuing insults and only insults and ridicule–it is pure contempt. The net effect of their collective power and influence has been to significantly decrease the influence of the Bible with Americans. In today’s world, the Bible has come to be primarily associated with “hate” speech. Judaism, in the eyes of these new atheists, is the literal root of all evil in the world–therefore as Jews–by extension–who are we if not evil? What does it mean if they have the power to enforce their opinions on us? Live and let live in the modern world comes from the sensitivity of religious believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition and this has been the hallmark of America. We cannot take such a stand for granted and it could quickly change.

    In such a context, to debate with these people with sensitivity, respect and good cheer is hardly appropriate, effective or desired.

    Regarding President Obama–he has quickly become the most divisive President in our history with zero interest in listening to varying proposals. But this fact is much more serious than it may seem. The issue here is the economic prosperity of our nation and the future of all Americans. While some might argue that it is understandable that a liberal President will naturally seek to reward its own constituency– matters involving a take over of the entire economy impact all of us and he has proceeded with zero grace and moderation. His policy prescriptions are strictly wasteful and ineffective. It is one thing when a President puts forward a proposal to address one matter or another or presents budget priorities which flow from one year to the next. The Obama spending spree is unprecedented and impacts all taxpayers and even all economies in the world. Such a wild gambit demands some thought and support from a varied constituency. Spending all of our money and trillions more that we have not even begun to print is not only reckless, it is needless. We all have “skin in the game” and yet nothing he has proposed resembles anything like what could be done to help business and consumer confidence even while spending all the cash in the piggy bank.

  28. Ori says:

    L. Oberstein is right. Once an opinion is held by a sufficiently large segment of the population, it’s counterproductive to try to marginalize it. That kind of tactic works with Holocaust deniers, but not with Atheists. I know from personal experience that Atheists can change their mind – but not if religion looks like a threat.

    It is definitely wise for President Obama to exhibit warmth and fellowship towards the Republican minority – whether he feels those emotions or not. In the end of the day, what will really matter is results. I pray for the same things as L. Oberstein, I just have a lot less faith we’ll get them any time soon. May I be proven wrong.

  29. Michoel Halberstam says:

    Dear RAbbi Adlerstein,

    Once again thank you for an important article. I have spent much time studying and teaching the Kuzari over the past two years. Since many of your commenters may not have ever studied it, I feel that it needs to be said at the outset that, in my mind the Kuzari has the most to say to the serious modern day Jew of all the great classical sifrei machshovo of the Rishonim. He deals with fundamnetal issues in a radically different way. He addresses the issue of Jewish sectarians, particularly the Karaites in such a way as to make us understand what our faith is all about. He emphasizes more than anyone the importance of the concept of Nevuah, and what it means for Yahadus. In short he makes us confront not the faith that we believe is ours, but the faith which is described in the Torah.
    Any author who makes this work more accessible to us is to be congratulated.

  30. L.Oberstein says:

    “I believe Rabbi Alderstein is far too kind to Hitchens and his atheist promoting all”ies who so strongly hold such animus for everything we hold so dear.

    I respectfully disagree with D.N. Friedman. In the environment that we presently inhabit, kindness and repectful disagreement are far more effective than insults and condemnations. I don’t think you can convince a professional athiest to believe in Hashem.The audience is whom you are trying to influence. It depends on how you come across.
    In the same vein, it is wise for President Obama to exhibit warmth and fellowship towards the Republican minority. It isn’t necessary to win them over, rather to show the majority how open minded he is. He wins by the effort and they lose by the apperance of rigidity. I know some of you who believe in the Republican Party as one of Ikarim of our faith may think this is a little hypocritical, ingenuous, or phony.So, who cares, you are not the one he is trying to win over. You will have to wait for the results and if, heaven forbid, we sink into economic chaos, you can then say”I told you so”. I pray we have peace and prosperity.

  31. Tal Benschar says:

    This discussion reminds me of a vort by the Alter of Kelm on last week’s parsha. The fine for a thief for stealing a sheep (and later selling or slaughtering it) is 4 times the value; for an ox it is 5 times the value. (Ex. 21:37) The reason given by Chazal for the difference is that the sheep-thief had to carry the stolen sheep on his shoulders and bear the burden and humiliation of that task, while the ox-thief did not.

    Said the Alter of Kelm, only a Divinely written Torah could possibly reach that level of sensitivity. The reaction of human beings would be: who cares about the suffering of a thief? Who told him to steal in the first place? Why should his burden and humiliation reduce his sentence in any way?

    But our Torah has a different perspective: the burden and humiliation of even a lowly sheep thief is taken into consideration.

    Can anyone point to a humanly written system of laws (let alone one conceived by atheists) that reaches such a level of sensitivity?

  32. David N. Friedman says:

    Mr. Hitchens is quite full of himself and tends to repeat himself in these debates. He has not taken a good faith look at Judaism. His signature complaint is a rhetorical gimmick, that is, his persistent question that asks if it is possible to name a moral act that a “non-believer” is incapable of performing. OK, nothing is impossible. What of the real point: who overwhelmingly and characteristically is much more likely to perform moral acts–the religious Jew or the atheist? There can be no debate on this point and to cement it further, to defeat his point completely from a Jewish perspective, we are told that it is a higher moral act to perform a mitzvah because we are commanded as contrasted with the rare “free choice” of some well-intentioned individual who performs an act from purely altruistic reasons.

    As Hitchens luxuriates in the free and moral climate created by religious people, he viciously attacks those who have allowed him to have those freedoms and standards–so much so he is convinced in his mind that a society void of Biblical influence would come up with similar moral standards on its own. To wit, he is quick to point to prohibitions against murder and theft as something common to the “God-fearing” and the atheist alike–but the atheist is superior in his belief since brow-beating people into morality is some supposed crime in his eyes. I am quick to challenge his statements. Regarding murder, his colleague, Bill Maher, recently advocated on his TV show that a couple of random bankers be murdered as a statement of “collateral damage” for the benefit of the greater good. This kind of statement is ample proof that murder requires some objective standard outside of the whim of human will to allow for society-wide morality and a moral compass. If this is not enough, please consider the millions who were brutally murdered during the 20th C at the hands of atheist leaders, fulfilling the logical outcome of their beliefs. Hitchens cannot explain at all the basis for any moral choice by an atheist and this is a very old philosophical question. Moral relativism becomes the operating standard in the best situations, more often, no morality is the rule in the natural order of man without God.

    Regarding theft, just as murder flourishes in atheistic societies, theft is the trademark of almost all societies outside of the influence of the Bible and veritable precondition of the totalitarian state. If murder and stealing is so obviously wrong–why is it so widely practiced and why is it practiced and tolerated far less in nations under the influence of the Bible? As the majority in the religious communities of America have convulsed over Pres. Obama’s economic plans which are founded on theft from one man for the benefit of another–no Bible-thumping Early American could possibly tolerate such schemes.

    I believe Rabbi Alderstein is far too kind to Hitchens and his atheist promoting allies who so strongly hold such animus for everything we hold so dear.

  33. Ori says:

    L.Oberstein: I think that what distinguishes Judaism from Christianity is that we have a code of behavior that provides a way of life that is appealing. The proof is that it works.

    Ori: I think you’re comparing Christianity in general with just Orthodox Judaism. There are many Christian groups that do have rules, which essentially define a way of life (just ask a Mennonite what s/he thinks of military service, a Catholic about abortion, or a Baptist about dancing). Christianity may have been founded on the rejection of Jewish Halacha, but the basic fact is that people need rules. Christian groups, from the ones Paul wrote letters to onward, created their own.

    As to which way of life is more appealing, I’m afraid the statistics are against us. The are plenty of Christian denominations that have more members than there are Orthodox Jews.

  34. Garnel Ironheart says:

    As Al Sharpton demonstrated a couple of years ago, Chris Hitchens is actually quite easy to demonstrate. You simply have to do 2 things when encountering him:
    1) Set down the ground rule that patronizing statements, swearing, and insulting are all forbidden. This will have the effect of rendering Hitchens speechless as it’s all he seems to know how to do.
    2) Point out that even though many people have done terrible things in God’s name, that does not mean God Himself is terrible, just badly represented.
    The biggest mistake is to treat him as a serious intellectual force.

  35. Ori says:

    The problem I have with intellectual arguments for one belief or another is this:

    1. Maimonides believed Orthodox Judaism to be correct. Therefore, one of these has to be true:

    1.a. Orthodox Judaism is correct.
    1.b. Maimonides lied to himself on what is the most crucial question
    of existence.
    1.c. Maimonides level intelligence is insufficient to arrive at
    the answer.

    2. Thomas Aquinas believed Catholic Christianity to be correct. Therefore, one of these has to be true:

    2.a. Catholic Christianity is correct.
    2.b. Thomas Aquinas lied to himself on what is the most
    crucial question of existence.
    2.c. Thomas Aquinas level intelligence is insufficient to arrive at
    the answer.

    I believe 1.b and 2.b to be unlikely. Since 1.a and 2.a can’t both be true, at least one of {1.c, 2.c} has to be true. I am considerably stupider than either Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas, and there is no new evidence that they didn’t have – so what chance do I have of getting it right where philosophers much smarter than I am got it wrong?

    BTW, may I ask a couple of related historical questions?

    1. How many Torah scrolls were the Judahite exiles allowed by their captives with them to Babylon?

    2. How many did Zerubavel, Ezra, and Nehemia bring back with them?

    3. Do we know anything about the Jewish community in Babylon between the early Persian period and the time Jews fled the Roman Empire to the Parthian empire? Do we know it existed continuously, rather than assimilating and then being recreated when the Roman Empire stopped being a good place to be a Jew?

  36. L.Oberstein says:

    Re # 10, Ruth, I wish it were that simple. Smart people are not all believers and many obdurate and intolerant people foist religion without any respect for differing opinions. I end to agree with #6 who quotes the Beis Halevi. The yetzer horah is very strong and serves as a mechitza to prevent many from accepting the consequences of belief. Also, many “believers” only say it, they don’t really mean it deep down.
    I think that what distinguishes Judaism from Christianity is that we have a code of behavior that provides a way of life that is appealing.The proof is that it works. No one can prove it. If you want to believe you do and if you don’t you won’t.

  37. mb says:

    “I’m sure that many many people who became baalei tshuva did so after simply being impressed by the intellectual level displayed by rabbanim etc. “If t h e y believe it, then so can I!”.

    Comment by Ruth — February 24, 2009 @ 5:32 am”

    That all falls apart when Rabbanim, etc. start bring proofs.

  38. Ruth says:

    It is my experience that even the most highly intelligent people are intellectually lazy, and are not interested in investigating philosophical or scientific proofs for the existence of G-d or the truth of Judaism. After coming to their conclusions emotionally, they just want justification and reinforcement for their beliefs either for or against. Therefore, if such proofs can be presented impressively enough, and by people who are, or at least acknowledged to be intelligent, erudite and esteemed, then they are accepted.

    Rabbi Mordechai Neugerschell was once asked by a listener on his question-answer program on emuna on the radio to “speak a little slower” to make it a little easier to understand his very intricate and academic answers. He replied “the main thing is that they receive just such an answer, so that they know there is one!”.

    I’m sure that many many people who became baalei tshuva did so after simply being impressed by the intellectual level displayed by rabbanim etc. “If t h e y believe it, then so can I!”.

  39. Anonymous in Teaneck says:

    Rabbi Wolpe is listed in the number one spot on Newsweek’s “Top 25
    Pulpit Rabbis in America” published in April 2008:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/131598

  40. L Oberstein says:

    I wonder what motivates people to believe. Isn’t it true that experiencing living Judaism, i.e. Shabbos, is a greater motivator than all the logical arguments. If I want to eat treif, your arguments won’t stop me and if I love Yiddishkeit, I won’t stop observing because Wolpe says the Exodus is either a ship or a movie but not a fact.

  41. Nachum says:

    How is the new edition an improvement? It removes all the “objectionable” material that was apparently too much for Feldheim to stomach.

    Of course, it’s usually such material that makes a book worthwhile.

  42. L. Hershman says:

    I came across a beis halevi this morning on point. See Beis Halevi, the end of parshas Bo, where he states it is impossible to bring to emunah someone who has rejected emunah through any proof: (loose translation here..) “…therefore there is no obligation on Israel [to obliterate heresy] beacause it is not in man’s power to remove these thoughts from another, for someone who has ceased to believe cannot be brought to believe… all of his friend’s efforts to argue with him and return him to faith will not be effective, because in the end all of the proofs and arguments boil down to faith (“kol sof hahochachot v’harayaot muchrach lavo l’emunah”). The Rabbis in their writings merely tried to refute proofs against emunah [but not to actually prove anything – such an effort would be futile, since] the proof for emunah is only emunah. (“hara’aya vhahochacha l’emunah hu rak emunah”)”

  43. Gil Student says:

    The epistemological approach is not a proof but a justification of belief in God. It essentially works like this: There are certain things which we accept based on our senses and experience even if we can’t prove them, such as the existence of a world outside our mind. These things are called “properly basic”. The argument is that belief in God is just as properly basic as belief in the world and other people.

    In this post, I summarize an article that tries to show that Rav Soloveitchik made such an argument: http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2008/08/r-soloveitchiks-proof-of-god.html

    See also the Wikipedia entry on Reformed Epistemology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reformed_epistemology

  44. dovid says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein:

    What’s the reason for supplanting Sha’ar Ha-Yichud when learning Chovos Ha-Levavos, or skipping it altogether? Rabbi Avigdor Miller skipped it when teaching Chovos Ha-Levavos.

  45. Frum Biologist says:

    “I am deeply disappointed that he did not bring up what some believe to be the most traditionally Jewish argument of all: the historical argument.”

    As you yourself wrote just a few sentences earlier, Rabbi Wolpe doesn’t believe in the historicity of the traditional origin story, so why would he use an argument that depends on it??

  46. One Christian's perspective says:

    Rabbi Wolpe: “Not all the proofs in the world — “ontological, epistemological, cosmological” — can persuade one to believe, Rabbi Wolpe added:

    It is not an intellectual process by which we come to an understanding of God. Rather it is something deeper. It is an orientation of the soul toward the universe. It is how to you see the world. It is how you apprehend its beauty and its richness and its wonder and its love. … God is close to those who call upon God, in truth.”

    Rabbi Wolpe’s statement is simple yet profound in that it transends established religion and touches the heart of all who have stood in a similar place and called upon God, in truth, and ,I might add,…. have met Him in love. Hitchens seems to be fighting against the need for religion seeing it as a trap but, deep down, he is whispering “God show me your face”. If he truly believed God did not exist, it seems , to me, that he would just blow the thought away and stop confronting those who say God is.

  47. Ori says:

    To save people some typing: Feldheim and Amazon.