Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0

Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, does it again.
In this week’s edition of the London Jewish Chronicle, he wrote an amazingly eloquent response to the various recent proponents of atheism / critics of religion, managing to neither deliver an ad hominem attack nor retreat under apologetics. In his typical fashion, he simply stands up and says the truth about Judaism, speaking simply but not simplistically about complex issues. I have nothing at all to add, as he said everything I would’ve said on the topic, and then some, and said it better. Here are a few choice excerpts, but please, read the whole thing:

…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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

[read it all]

(hat tip: Cross-Currents)

4 Responses to “Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0”

  1. Eli says:

    Thanks for blogging this. I wonder if there’s been any response from those who he criticised. (Note the British spelling, I figured it’d be appropriate in this context.)

  2. Zan says:

    What an amazing article. I think if more people of faith took the time to really look at themselves and respond in a similar manner, the dialogue that he talked about would become more possible. And about utopias, is he saying instead of trying to impose them now, we should merely wait for them to happen? It makes me wonder about, if not final, then maybe “medium” solutions…And, what is the difference between the “utopian” french revolution and the (apparently, since it wasn’t mentioned) “non-utopian” American revolution? Another thing I wonder, is, is there any way to foster inter-religious dialogue, when both or one is operating from that extreme radical perspective? Anyway, sorry for the random barrage of questions, I really liked the article, especially what he had to say about visualizing Judaism as a dialogue/duality…

  3. Uberimma says:

    It’s been a while. Everything ok?

  4. ilan says:

    Yeah, everything’s been ok, just busy. Good busy.
    And then when you don’t blog for a month, it’s harder to restart the second month….

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