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April 14, 2011 1:26 pm

Rabbis Without God(?!)

avatar by Moshe Averick

"Rabbi" Greg Epstein

It has been said in the name of one of the great Hassidic rebbes, that before the arrival of the messiah there will be an age of “summers without heat, winters without cold, and rabbis without Torah.” What this rebbe was expressing is the general outlook of Jewish tradition, that the messianic age will reflect a world turned topsy-turvey. Based on a recent article that appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, “In the Search for an Alternative to God, One Rabbi Offers Some Answers” (3/26/11), one might conclude that we are already in a post-messianic era. We now have the bizarre phenomena of Rabbis, not without Torah – we’ve had that for quite awhile – but Rabbis without God!

Rabbi Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, is a “humanist rabbi, ordained by the International Institute for Humanistic Judaism.” He graciously informs the interviewer that “he’s not out to poach souls [for atheism] from the nearby Hillel House, the Catholic Newman Center, or any of the other august religious institutions…on the campus of the country’s most prestigious university.” What he doesn’t tell us is the obvious reason why he’s not out to poach souls; as an atheist he does not believe in the existence of the soul. In the worldview of the humanist/atheist, there is no non-material or “spiritual” component to the human being. The upright walking primate we call homo sapiens, and for that matter all life on earth, emerged from the pre-biotic slime some 3.8 billion years ago, as the result of an undirected naturalistic process. In the words of renowned evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have a human in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species in the order of primates…”

Keeping this in mind, perhaps we can attempt to answer a penetrating question posed in the article: “What do a bunch of non-religious people do when they meet as a community?”  Frankly, I’m not quite sure what they do, but if they have the slightest bit of intellectual integrity, I’ll tell you what they don’t do. They certainly do not sit around extolling the virtues of American democracy. Our republic is built on the principle, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that all men have been endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As an orthodox rabbi this makes perfect sense to me, because I believe that all men are created in the image of God and stand equal before their infinitely powerful creator. However, to the intellectually honest humanist/atheist, not only are men not created equal, they are not created at all. Not only are men not endowed with unalienable rights, there is no creator to endow them with any rights whatsoever!

According to the late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, we only exist because “one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs.” In other words, we are a kind of glorified tuna fish. What inherent rights does a tuna have? (The right to be picked by StarKist?) G.K. Chesterton pointed out the obvious when he wrote, “The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal, for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal.”

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To the humanist/atheist, the notion that all men are equal is sheer nonsense. In what way are they equal? Some are brilliantly intelligent and some are amazingly stupid. Some are highly competent and talented, some are bumbling and inept. Some are robust and powerful, some are sickly and weak. Some seem clearly born to lead and some seem born to follow. Most important of all: in a biological arena dominated by Darwinian mechanisms, some are “fit to survive,” and some are not so “fit to survive.” Thus a perfectly sensible humanistic/atheistic ideology would be the one advocated by such prominent atheists as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Havelock Ellis; that the sickly, the mentally ill, and deformed babies should be put to death so they don’t contaminate society with their inferior genes. To be fair, G.B. Shaw was “humanistic” enough to state they should be put to death “in a decent human way.” The notion that we are nothing more than another branch on the evolutionary tree of animal life led Princeton University’s, Dr. Peter Singer (who was named Australian Humanist of the Year in 2004), to give his stamp of approval to bestiality in an article entitled “Heavy Petting.” (If Rabbi Epstein runs out of activities for his “congregation”, perhaps he could invite the distinguished Professor Singer for a show-and-tell session with one of the family pets.)

Do I believe that Rabbi Epstein and his followers will advocate infanticide and sterilization of human “misfits” as other “humanistic” thinkers have in the past? Probably not, but only because I have confidence that the God-based Judeo-Christian ethic upon which our society was built still resonates in the metaphysically existent soul of humanists like Epstein and that he would reject the perfectly internally consistent, logical and reasonable positions of humanistic moral monsters like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer.

Epstein writes in the preface of his book that people can “lead good and moral lives without super-naturalism, without higher powers, without God.” What he really means, of course, is that if people treat each other as if they are created in the image of God,as if they have been endowed with unalienable rights by their infinite Creator, as opposed to treating each other like the highly evolved bacteria and cockroaches that they actually are, then they can lead good and moral lives even while ostensibly dropping God out of the picture. It is also interesting to note that while Epstein is sufficiently bold to assert that people can be good and moral without the “higher power” of God, I doubt that he is quite bold enough to live in the Boston area without the “higher power” of the Boston Police Force.

I also have a personal comment to, and request of, Rabbi Epstein. Isn’t it scandalous enough that one can be called a “Rabbi” while at the same time declaring that the Village Voice and Rolling Stone Magazine have more to offer in the way of morality, ethics, and social justice than does the Torah?  If there can be a “Rabbi” who does not believe in God, then why not a “Rabbi” who believes in Islam, Buddhism or Christianity? Why not a Wicken “Rabbi” or a Devil-worshipping “Rabbi?” If you decided to produce watches, would you have the chutzpah to call them SEIKO? That name has already been taken. The title of “Rabbi” has also been around for thousands of years. I am certain that you would never go out of your way to insult Christians or Moslems; but have you considered that perhaps you are insulting those Jews who do believe there is sacred significance to this particular title? There are those who might mistakenly think that I am questioning your Jewishness; nothing could be further from the truth. My belief that every Jewish soul stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speaking, makes my belief in your Jewish soul even more potent than your own. I’m asking you to have some consideration and be a mensch about it. Call yourself Doctor, Professor, Reverend, Brother, or any other name you feel appropriate, just not Rabbi.

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