5773 - #02

Vayelech / Yom Kippur


            There is a constant debate in the world about the value of religion. There are those who maintain that it has been, in general, a positive force in the advancement of humanity. There are those, though, who strongly disagree, maintaining that religion has actually had more of a negative effect in that it has promoted strife, hatred and warfare. Defenders of the value of faith, respond that -- while admitting that there has been, no question, great evils done in the name of religion -- what would have occurred without religion would have been much worse, pointing to the extreme evils done by such atheists as Hitler ym’s as examples. The critics of religion then answer with the assertion that Hitler was really a theist1 and what he did is actually a further support for their contention that religion is overall a negative. And so the debate continues, touching upon all eras in history – the Inquisition, Stalin, our modern fanatical Muslim terrorists – who has done more evil, atheists or theists? Is religion, generically, good or bad?

            From a Torah perspective, we may wonder: why would this debate even matter to us? The issue is not an argument about the effect of knowledge of Hashem on the world but, rather, a debate regarding, from our perspective, which has had the worse effect, the rejection of God or the false perception of Him. To us, both options are problematic and it is, as such, not surprising that both have had their terrible effects on humanity – and which one was worse would seem to be, in many ways, quite irrelevant. It is the very fact, though, that there is such a debate that may be of interest to us. The issue is not really God but the nature of human beings. The one group is contending that the human desire for religion has had, ultimately, the more positive consequences. The other, maintains, though, that this is not so and, in fact, this desire has had the worse effects. They argue that it is actually humanity’s rejection of the supernatural and subsequent acceptance of the challenges of life independent of deities that has resulted in the more positive results. This, in turn, is met with the counter-argument that it is this perceived independence that has actually had the worst effects. This is the debate. It is about the nature of human beings. Which human drive has had the worse effect or the better effect: the desire for a spiritual realm2 or the desire for independence?3

            It would seem that the simple answer from our perspective would be the former, that obviously the drive for the spiritual has more value than a drive for independence. This, however, may not be as straightforward as one may seem. It may be that both these drives have equal importance and that both, dominating in the extreme, can have catastrophic effects. In the extreme manifestation of the drive for religion, one may find a total negation of human ability, a turning to the spiritual in total helplessness.5 The result could then be a total negation of responsibility with its dire consequences. In the extreme manifestation of the drive for independence, one could find a total negation of a Divine realm with its subsequent rejection of not only the Reality of God but His direction. Humanity may then value responsibility but lack the vision of how to apply this value. The demand of Torah would actually seem to be, again, the shvil hazahav, the middle path4 – and it may be that one of the most powerful examples of this demanded, middle path is teshuva, the Jewish concept of repentance. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurei HaRav, Shechora Ani V’na’aveh points out that for teshuva to be possible, a human being must believe in his/her ability to do so. While teshuva obviously reflects a commitment to God, which would be a reflection of our human connection to the Divine realm, it must also reflect an acceptance of our abilities, a reflection of our understanding of a somewhat independent responsibility. In that teshuva is ultimately the force of Divine growth in humanity – the very purpose of existence – it may be clearly the shvil hazahav between these two necessary human drives.

            This recognition may also assist us in better understanding the tragedies of history, both in terms of the evils perpetrated by theists as well as those done by atheists. The fact is that, even as both sides may have championed one drive at the expense of the other one, this actually is not what occurred. These two basic drives within humanity are so strong that they ultimately cannot be ignored. So the adamant, extreme theist who declares a negation of self cannot ultimately do so – with the result being a Torquemada or a bin Laden who, because of his perceived sole desire for the spiritual, interprets his lust for being into a directive from this spiritual realm -- it is thus not I who desires these murders but God. So also, the adamant, extreme atheist who declares a negation of a spiritual realm cannot ultimately do so – with the result being a Stalin or Pol Pot who, while still rejecting a spiritual realm, effectively actually creates a new religion to which all are to subjugate themselves. The reality is that we are called upon to both emulate God and serve Him – the former demanding a recognition of our abilities while the latter demanding a subjugation of these abilities. To this we must apply the proper shvil hazahav.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 I remember reading, although I don’t remember the exact source, the contention that Hitler was actually a devout Roman Catholic with the author bringing numerous proofs for this assertion.

2 Of course, in this regard, the famous gemara in T.B. Sanhedrin 64a describing how God destroyed the drive for avoda zara, idolatry, must be noted. If this was so, how are we then to understand the existent drives for spirituality or religion that would seem to be at the root of this argument? For the purposes of this Insight, though, in that the destruction of this drive would seem to have been connected with the culmination also of more positive spiritual pursuits such as prophecy – see David Zolty, Understanding the Biblical World of Idolatry, Prophecy and Sacrifice, Nishma Journal X – the significance of this event may lie in this base understanding of a drive for religion as actually generic, which can then be fulfilled in a positive or negative manner. The resultant question then becomes: how we are to look at the generic value of this drive given that it can also be applied negatively as has sadly happened throughout history? The answer of the gemara regarding the drive for avoda zara in that context was that it was better for this drive not to exist than to be applied negatively. The answer regarding the sexual drive was that it was actually better for it to exist even with the potential for it to be applied negatively. In the same light, it would seem that we can conclude that it is also better for the modern drive for religion – which has also brought people back to Torah – to exist even in spite of the potentially negative consequences. 

3 One might wish to perceive the base drive of the atheist to actually be hedonistic with a desire to reject a spiritual realm in order simply to bask in orgiastic pleasure. The fact is, though, that, especially in regard to this argument, the yardstick of measurement of the atheists would seem to be ethical, human development. As such, it would seem that this drive to reject the Divine must be articulated in some manner that also promotes this ethic. It may also be interesting to note T.B. Sanhedrin 63b which would seem to connect sexual hedonism to idolatry, i.e a drive for religion.

4 Christianity immediately comes to mind in that it contends, in broad terms, that human beings cannot save themselves and thus need an intercessor to save them. The very idea that a human being could think that they could do so is then seen as a reflection of haughtiness. The result is that this manifestation of the spiritual drive inherently negates any value in the independence drive. The latter would simply be seen as a reflection of this haughtiness in the belief that one can actually act.

5 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:4. 

Nishma 2012


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