Spirit and Story Archive

Welcome to Spirit and Story, where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on the contours of our contemporary spiritual journeys. Every other week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!

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Holy Atheism

By Steve Greenberg

It is no surprise that Jewish liberals have been more than a bit dismayed to discover their cherished ideals trounced by a vice presidential candidate who sounds to them like Jerry Falwell in a yarmulke. How did it happen, they must wonder, that a traditionalist, an Orthodox Jew, arrived on the ticket before any of the liberal crew? That he is for school prayer (or prayerful silence) and for private school vouchers must strike liberals as bad enough. But his recent focus on religion in American public life has brought out the harshest attacks.

As an Orthodox Jew, I, like Lieberman, have natural leanings toward using religious language to shape questions of morality. But in recent weeks, I’ve stopped to ask: Does religious language actually restore moral sensibilities?

Before he was asked to back off, Lieberman claimed in his speeches that religious faith is crucial to a restoration of morality in America. Abe Foxman, in response, correctly defended American atheists, whom he noted should not be painted as immoral by such remarks. The unquiet in the Jewish community over the issue of faith in the public space is surely founded as much on the fear that faith will ultimately mean majority faith as on a rejection of faith per se. However, another caution might reasonably be suggested to Senator Lieberman on the basis, strangely enough, of faith itself.

In the twenties, when partitioned Jewish Palestine was struggling to invent itself into a state, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was a towering spiritual leader. He was the first Orthodox rabbi to encounter modern atheism and to find in it (somewhat paradoxically) spiritual meaning.

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.” (Orot 126)

Reviled for these lines in 1920 by other leading Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Kook articulates well the need for the cleansing value of atheism in the world and caution in expressions of faith. Belief may ground the moral lives of many, but it is sullied with filth as well. The language Kook uses is strong. His caution is made only too clear by the horrible, bloody conflicts that certain forms of religious faith still generate around the world.

Senator Lieberman’s rejection of strict church and state separations may be welcome as secular society’s moral lights seem faded and undermined by rampant consumer individualism. But what must be remembered as well is that only a purified faith, cleaned of its dross, more modest in its claims and pluralist in its convictions, belongs so close to the seat of power.

Martin Luther King never claimed that what America needed was a return to religious values. He knew that south of the Mason Dixon line religion was often hostile to his call for civil rights. A return to religious values begs the question; and which religious values are those? Instead of urging Americans to take the Bible seriously, he urged them to take the constitution seriously. In language dripping with biblical allusions and prophetic tone, he urged us all to make good on the intentions of our original covenant, our constitution, to fulfill the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Religious expression that encourages us to return to our synagogues and churches does not belong in the public space. Religious expression that guides us to think great ideas and to feel more deeply for our common fate is welcome. Faith can be a powerful motive for engaging with others in search of the best ways to serve the common weal, and in doing so, helps us all “stand in the center of morality.”

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