5762 - #01
In The Name Of Religion
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.
Soloveitchik1 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
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
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.
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,
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