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October 11, 2018 9:17 am

In Good Faith: Challenging Religion and Atheism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll is seen on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, April 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism by Scott A. Shay (Post Hill Press; 2018). 

We now live in a world where, more than ever before, our ideas and values come under scrutiny and assault. What makes our times more interesting is that we have ready access not only to ideas that challenge us, but also to ideas that support us. The question is how we can work out which ideas contain value, and which are rubbish or simply false.

As Jews, we face attacks from all sides. Our defenses, though, have never been stronger. The trouble is that so many of them are either pathetically simplistic or sophisticatedly misleading. From the arrogant banality of a Yossi Mizrahi to the sophisticated apologetics of Chabad or Aish Hatorah, they rarely survive rational scrutiny. The range is broad and baffling.

I remember, in my yeshivah days, all the American bochurim I came across were enthusiastic about Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s book Rejoice O Youth. I found it very disappointing — trashing the whole of the non-Jewish world as if there was not one good person there. And conversely praising Jews to the heavens as if there were no gangsters or sinners among them.

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We are divided between those who have Emunah Peshuttah, simple faith, for whom there are no questions — and the secular and critical, rational thinkers for whom there are no good answers. In between are those who wrestle with trying to understand God and the challenges of living a religious life in a very different world than that of the past. Some say we cannot reconcile the two worlds. Others think we can.

Now we have a new book, In Good Faith by Scott A. Shay, which is subtitled “questioning Religion and Atheism.” It draws on science, logic, and a range of non-Jewish theologians to counter the arguments of atheists and the opponents of religion. It is very well written, moving between heavy academic philosophy on the one hand and literalism on the other. Yet it is clearly committed to Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot.

The book is divided up into categories: What is Idolatry and Who Cares? Is the Bible Unjust and Is Progress Secular? Is There Something About Evil? Does Science Make Belief in God Irrational? Is the Bible a Hoax? Why Have Faith and Why Pray? All are important topics, and are discussed in depth, for and against. The book gives the sort of answers that young, bright seekers of balance and fairness will find compelling and helpful in rebutting attacks on their religious beliefs.

And yet the book has inevitable limitations for one very good reason: Being religious usually depends on two pillars. The first is living and enjoying a religious way of life, which is normally something one is born into or comes to experience, rather than persuaded by logic. And the second is God. As Maimonides said, we can only say what God is not. This was fine, because he thought you could prove God’s existence through Aristotelian logic. I do not believe it is possible to prove the existence of God rationally. So then what exactly are we expected to believe in? This is what we have been arguing about for over 3,000 years.

Rather, I suggest, one needs to experience God and spirituality — which, in a way, is like any other experience, in that it cannot be described in words. Only by “tasting it” can one know what it is. How could you, for example, describe the taste of butter to someone who has never eaten any? This is why no two people can agree on what God is.

So, in the end and throughout history and all the valiant attempts to defend Torah against its detractors, it is only the passionate commitment that comes from immersion in Judaism that can protect one from attacks on religious belief. And even then, the temptations of the outside are so powerful that it is hardly surprising if in every generation there are those who prefer the easy way out by joining the masses of pagans.

Shay has written a brave, good book, and I recommend it highly to those already religious who want to defend their position against those who are not. But we need to find some better way of inoculating our assimilating youth against following the easy path.

We humans are divided between those who think long and hard for themselves, and those who either accept authority or have no interest or time to think. The vast majority are sheep — hence, compare the number of people who buy books on fiction, astrology, or self-help to the very few who read books on philosophy or theology.

God is a personal, subjective experience, which is why I believe the Torah doesn’t tell us to believe in God. It just states a reality: God is.

I also think you can and should live a religious life even without God. The Torah is a framework for living, to encourage thinking before acting and recognition of values. And of course, it is a practical way of connecting with a people, a tradition, and a culture.

The biggest challenge to my Jewish identity is the behavior of other religious Jews (whatever the denomination) and the abuses of religious power and authority. I’m a rebel, but I remain true to living and delighting in a Jewish life.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York. In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism by Scott A. Shay is published by Post Hill Press, and can be viewed on Amazon here.

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