Rabbi Sacks Takes on the Atheists
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