5762 - #01

In The Name Of Religion

Belief in a deity is one of the most frightening thoughts within human existence. Projection of an all-powerful divine being and an afterlife allows the human being to ignore the parameters of rationality and define life within totally different perceptions. Black can be white and white can be black. Right is potentially wrong and wrong is potentially right.
The monumental tragedy that befell the world last week is an example of the potential evil that can be the product of a belief. The intensely sad realization that these terrorists were, probably, shouting in praise of their deity as they flew the hijacked planes, filled with innocents, into their targets, causes one to shiver. Their religion turned black into white, declaring this heinous crime a divinely-ordained act; rather than fearing death, they embraced it as they expected a result of divine bliss. There are those that argue that atheism is the root of the greatest evil. History in general, and Jewish history in particular, I believe, cries otherwise. The greatest evil is done in the name of religion.
Of course, there are those who will contend, pointing to Nazism as the strongest proof, that atheism is still the root of greater evil. Still, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
1 insists that the Holocaust could not have taken place if not for the Catholic Church's preaching against the Jew over the centuries. It is religion that can define a person sub-human and deserving death even as our eyes only see a human being like all other human beings. It is religion that can turn evil into good. Atheism can cause one to act destructively but only within the borders of concrete self-interest. Religion can cause one to act beyond these parameters.2 Ramban writes, at the end of The Disputation, that King James of Aragon declared, in reference to Ramban, that never before has he seen one who is without justice argue so well. Logic and arguments do not sway the one who acts in the name of religion. He is locked into his conclusion; his belief in his deity - and what he believes his deity to command - inherently defeats any argument. There is no point of conversation; there is no point of connection. The result is frightening.
But Judaism and Torah are different - that is what we would say. That is what we would like to believe. But is it so? And if so, how? When Khomeini came to power, a friend of mine told me that he felt that it was a great shame that Khomeini was not Jewish. What a wonderful Jew he would make, was my friend's declaration. I shuddered at the thought, but on the surface was he not correct? Do we not praise overall commitment to faith? Is there not a value in remaining adamant in our convictions even as the nations of the world challenge them?
3 Do we not place the Will of God above the parameters of human morality? Even as I am revolted by the actions of these religious terrorists - and I stand in total opposition not only to their faith but their very idea of faith - I recognize that the language of Torah could be similarly hijacked to present a false defence of evil. How do I show that this would-be hijacking is not within the truth of Torah?
Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac,
4 is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is a most powerful statement of faith but, more importantly, it is a statement of the priority of the Will of God over our moral senses. Yet this idea opens the trap for the pitfalls of religion. Parameters are lost; belief opens the realm of possibilities. Akedat Yitzchak is frightening. Without this idea, however, God is no longer God. God is no longer above all for God becomes subject to parameters. Unbridled belief is frightening but with any parameters God becomes bound. As such, religion, to truly reflect God, must be boundless and accept the possibility of that which is beyond us. To accept God means to accept the possibility that what He declares white is, in fact, white even as we see black. This is not only part of Torah, it must be part of Torah. And it is frightening.
It is Akedat Yitzchak itself that provides the answer - and the answer is confusion. Avraham says to Yitzchak that God will show the lamb for the sacrifice. Avraham says to the servants: we will return. Notwithstanding Rashi's comments, the simple reading is confusion. This is reinforced in Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 101 which describes Avraham questioning God at the conclusion of the episode. If God already declared that Yitzchak was to be the father of Avraham's generations, how could God call for his sacrifice? The question is not a challenge of God. The question is the greatest statement of the Omnipotence of God. When we question, we recognize the chasm that exists between us and God. And God's answer to Avraham was that Avraham was mistaken - God never ordered a sacrifice. If a chasm exists between Man and God, how can Man ever be sure that he has heard God correctly? We are called upon to listen to God but as human beings - and that must demand confusion. Are we ever sure? As human beings the answer must be no even as we strive to act in accordance with the Divine command. Thereby, we recognize the Awesomeness of God.
The problem of belief lies in the need for the human being to be sure. He thinks that his belief is sure when he ignores all other voices - within himself and within humanity - and gives himself up to his "beliefs." He thinks he then hears the true voice of the deity. But he in fact only hears his own voice - exactly because he is sure. Reliance upon our Divinely-given human perceptions is how we approach the world - they are necessary. They cannot be forsaken. But in recognition of the Divine, they also cannot be relied upon totally. When there is collision - there is confusion. It is at this point of confusion that we truly find God. Dogma and fanaticism believe that they find the deity in certainty - a certainty that declares normal human perceptions incorrect. Torah declares that we find God in our own recognition that we do not understand. We wonder, we question, we challenge, we strive for synthesis of our internal perceptions and the external directive; we wish to make sure that we truly hear God's voice - and we doubt. Not because we doubt God but because we doubt ourselves and our ability to hear God. We are overwhelmed by His Presence.
Khomeini could never have been a good Jew because he could not question himself. He could not be unsure; he could not be confused. Certainty results in the creation of a deity in the image of a man. This is the realm of evil - the source of the greatest evil for there is no parameters on such human beings. The perception of Torah is that God has no parameters - but the human being does. We are not God. The more we understand the awesomeness of the gulf between us and God, the more we must recognize our lack of comprehension even as our lives, through the study of Torah, are devoted to that comprehension; even as our lives, through the commands of Torah, demand action.
Ultimately this is the lesson of Akedat Yitzchak. We stand in confusion in the presence of God. On Rosh Hashanah, as we declare God, King, we are called upon to recognize the chasm that exists between us and Him. It is in this unsurety that the Jew remains unique and Torah can never be hijacked by evil - the evil of Man thinking he is sure, of Man pretending to be God.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 As presented in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, Insight 18.10.

2 Another response to the challenge that atheism is a greater root of evil can be found in Rabbi Soloveitchik's further argument that the various modern "isms" - communism, fascism - are, in fact, forms of idolatry. See Rabbi Abraham Besdin, Reflections of the Rav, "Profundity of Jewish Folk Wisdom" and "Teaching with Clarity and Empathy." Belief reads into reality constructs that are not otherwise there; the "Isms" do this as well as conventional religion. In the movie Schindler's List, the chilling execution of the Nazi commandant drives home this point.

3 See Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2. Furthermore, the various attacks, throughout history, upon circumcision always demanded such Jewish conviction. See, for example, Tanchuma, Tazria 5.

4 Bereishit 22:1-19.

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