A Jewish response to modern atheism

Thursday, 27 October, 2011 - 4:45 pm

A Jewish response to modern atheism


Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. The term atheism originated from the Greek (atheos), meaning "without G-d", which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves as "atheist" appeared in the 18th century.


Atheists tend to be skeptical of supernatural claims, citing a lack of empirical evidence. Atheists have offered various rationales for not believing in any deity. These include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. Although some atheists have adopted secular philosophies, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.


A new modern atheism however is an argument that does not seem to have been emphasized before. It is not the argument against the philosophy that a G-d exists but a specific argument that makes it untenable and illogical to believe in G-d the way it is taught.


The argument is that the principle book that teaches about the existence of G-d, the Bible, cannot be accepted on ethical grounds. In particular it is an argument against the belief in the G-d of the Hebrew Bible.


Arguments against the G-d of the Hebrew Bible are not something new in itself. It goes back to the dark ages of Christian anti-Semitism that aimed to argue that G-d of the Hebrew Bible should be rejected in favour of the compassionate G-d of the New Testament. This argument is found in the work of for example C.S. Lewis ‘Reflections on the Psalms (1958)’ where he makes the distinction between G-d of the Hebrew Bible, who is vengeful against evildoers and presenting  a weak approach to judgment, in contrast to Christianity that presents a compassionate G-d and a reason for man to dread judgment.


There are many other arguments over the centuries that have been presented to reject the Old for the New accompanied by threats against Jews to abandon their faith.


However, a new challenge against the Hebrew Bible comes primarily not from Christians, who actually try to defend it, but from modern atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others.


The argument broadly is based on the presentation of G-d in the Hebrew Bible as being unethical and not a moral guide to be followed. Furthermore, they argue that G-d actually perpetrates evil.


The new application of this argument is not to therefore believe in a G-d in a different form but a support for atheism, arguing that G-d therefore does not exist, is a fallacy and should not be believed in or taught to children.


As long as the argument was with the intention to convert Jews or humanity to a different form of belief in G-d, it did not present as something that provokes necessarily a need to respond to, as most Jews would likely not be deterred or influenced by these arguments and there is no problem for humanity to believe in a G-d that does not conform exactly to the G-d of the Hebrew Bible. It is not outright heresy if one does not believe in every minute aspect of the belief in G-d as presented in the Hebrew Bible, while still believing in monotheism.


However, the current argument that one should reject belief in G-d altogether because of notions of G-d in the Hebrew Bible should bother every thinking person, Jewish or otherwise, who identifies with the Hebrew Bible. They should be troubled by this argument and search for a response.


The argument goes like this. In the Hebrew Bible G-d seems to punish indiscriminately including those who are innocent. How could such a G-d exist or be defended?


This argument in particular is mainly focused on one specific story in Deuteronomy (20:13-17) relating to the commandment for the ancient Israelites to kill the Canaanites, men women and children.


It states: ‘However, of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your G-d, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: The Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord, your G-d, has commanded you.’


To be sure, G-d does not always command to kill the entire population. Just a few verses earlier the Israelites are told when they enter into battle to only kill the men in battle and only after peace has been rejected. Regarding the woman and children they should be saved and taken captive.


It says: ‘But if it (the people) does not make peace with you, and it wages war against you, you shall besiege it, and the Lord, your G-d, will deliver it into your hands, and you shall strike all its males with the edge of the sword. However, the women, the children, and the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoils you shall take for yourself, and you shall eat the spoils of your enemies, which the Lord, your G-d, has given you.’


It is only relating to the seven Canaanite nations that G-d commanded the Israelites to kill every soul. Nevertheless the argument persists, why would G-d command what should be perceived as genocide?


The logic for this commandment is in the context of this Biblical narrative itself (18). It reasons that this need for this is so that the Israelites should not learn from their evil ways:


‘So that they should not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods, whereby you would sin against the Lord, your G-d.’ 


To be clear, the usual law of war according to the Bible is to first sue for peace and only if rejected resort to battle. Furthermore, when battle is conducted, escape routes should be left open for retreat and if people should be killed in battle these should only be the male combatants and not women and children.


The Canaanite story where men, women and children were commanded by G-d to be killed is an exception to the rule and is in no way meant to be an instruction other than in its own context of the seven Canaanite nations.


The moral answer


The reason for this exception was due to the extreme barbaric and immoral ways of the Canaanite people in the eyes of G-d in the methods of the worship of their deities. The concern was that these ways would have been taught and been an influence on the ancient Israelites when they reside in the land.


The ways of the Canaanites are recounted in the Hebrew Bible itself. In Deuteronomy (18:10) it states: There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of auspicious times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yido'a sorcerer, or a necromancer.


In addition, in the commentaries, it also relates about the practice of children passing parents through fire for the Molech worship, whereby fathers would be killed by one’s children for the purpose of serving a particular god. These are referred to as abominations and serves as the reason in the Biblical text for the killing of the population.




American analytic philosopher of religion, Dr. William Lane Craig, who this week lectured at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, wavers between the argument above and a more apologetic argument.


Initially he writes (quoted):


"The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel's part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, 'You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods' (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. […] Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God's grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives."


This answer makes the same point as above though without his apparent knowledge of the degree of the barbaric practices of the Canaanite society.


However, in another text he seems to present a more apologetic argument:


“I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israelite soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israelite soldiers is disturbing."


This answer seems to suggest that G-d commanded something that was not ethical and the Israelite soldiers should possibly have refused this commandment.


In a lecture that was delivered at Oxford by Prof. Steven Prawer, founder of the department of nanotechnology at Melbourne University, he argued in an attempt to reconcile the Bible and ethics that the Bible is not an absolute code of ethics but meant to be a work in progress during the early history of the Hebrew in the desert. The Israelites were being presented with scenarios by G-d where they had the choice between challenging G-d and refusing orders out of a sense of morality or following them and seemingly acting immorally. In this context, G-d is not acting as the source of morality but the teacher that requests of human beings to choose and act morally though they don’t always choose correctly.


This argument is supported by the challenging of G-d by Abraham in the Book of Genesis when he wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis (18:23), regarding Abraham, upon hearing that G-d was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, it says: ‘Abraham came forward and said, “Will You stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?”'


Similarly, we find that Moses challenged G-d with questions of morality. In Exodus (3:10), G-d sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and due to this mission the Hebrew were enslaved with even harder labour, at which point Moses confronts G-d (Exodus 5:22) with the criticism, “Why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me?”


In both these cases, however, one cannot say that they present the argument that G-d acted immorally and Moses needed to confront Him to persuade Him to act morally. In both the above cases, G-d responded to the challenges and explained His actions.


In the case of Abraham the argument was that there were no righteous people in the city for it to be saved. The reason for the destruction of these cities was then not due to G-d acting immorally, but on the contrary, the city of Sodom and Gomorrah were deemed evil.


The Talmud in Sanhedrin details out the social injustice of Sodom and Gomorrah. It relates how wayfarers were not allowed to be given food and charity was forbidden. One story mentioned in the Talmud is about a young girl who had compassion on a hungry wayfarer and gave the person food, including honey. Her punishment was that she was placed on a rooftop while she was covered with honey and left there for bees to devour her until she died a slow painful death.


Similarly, when Moses challenged G-d regarding the harsh slavery of the Israelites due to being sent to have them released, His response was that the harsher conditions are temporary before Pharaoh would actually be forced to let them free, as it states (Exodus 6:1): ‘Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for through a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand will he drive them from his land.’


One can hardly say this presents indifference to suffering and it was Moses who was needed to remind G-d to act morally.


According to Rabbeinu Chananel (990-1057), even the question of Moses to G-d was not opposing G-d for causing the harm to the innocent Israelites, as it was the Pharaoh’s choice to enslave the Hebrews and to increase the slavery when they requested their freedom. The question of Moses was rather ‘Why have You permitted the evil to be done to this people?’. This is the eternal dilemma why do the righteous suffer and the response was that in this case the wicked will be punished and the Israelites will be let free.


There are however cases that might present a support for the argument that there are times when G-d desires to deal punishment and man had to confront G-d to change His mind. In Numbers (14) the people rebelled against G-d after the spies returned with negative report of the feasibility to conquer Canaan and G-d says ‘How long will this people provoke me and not have faith in me? I will smite them and annihilate them’. Moses then proceeds to argue for their forgiveness and G-d responded ‘I have forgiven because of your words’.


Similarly, after the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:10), G-d says to Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff necked people and now desists from me, let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them, and I shall make you into a great nation.’


Moses responds (ibid 11-14) and pleads before G-d: ‘Relent from Your flaring anger and reconsider regarding the evil against Your people…G-d reconsidered regarding the evil that He said He would do to His people’.


These two cases seem to support the notion that G-d may desire to act immorally and it is the role of man to sometimes confront G-d and ask G-d for moral justice.


This argument would indeed portray G-d of the Hebrew Bible as morally devious. The problem with this argument however is the suggestion that G-d of the Hebrew Bible is not just immoral but also inconsistent. In some cases He is presented as profoundly moral with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the punishment of Pharaoh, desiring to let the Hebrews out of slavery into freedom and at other times He appears to be seeking genocide of an innocent people until man comes to the rescue.


The premise then seems to be that G-d of the Hebrew Bible is meant to be a moral and good G-d who commands man about the need for social justice and is expected to act also with social justice and compassion Himself, while punishing the wicked for injustice when due.


This is evident in the majority of the stories of the Bible and the majority of the commandments about helping, feeding and clothing the poor and needy and love of one’s neighbour. The greatest injustice in the Bible is perversion of justice and favouring the rich over the poor.


The reason for the seemingly harsh treatment towards the Israelites in the desert was due to a social contract and covenant which they entered into at Sinai. They accepted a system of law, social and spiritual, which they were held bound to, beyond the universal laws of society. On Mount Sinai they were given the law which included idolatry and the Bible is replete with references of the need to serve G-d and not follow the barbaric and idolatrous practices of the pagan world.


The sin of the Golden Calf and the harsh punishment that it precipitated, were it not for Moses begging for forgiveness, falls into this context. Similarly, the rebellion against G-d in the story of the spies when they desired to return to Egypt was also seen as a lack of faith in G-d and a breach of the covenant which they had entered.


It does not however in any way seem to support the hypothesis that G-d of the Hebrew Bible is a being of questionable ethics and the morality of the Bible is merely an effort in progress.


This then leaves us with the question regarding the Canaanites. In the context of the ancient pagan world, it appears that the Canaanites were particularly immoral and barbaric, as mentioned earlier, which involved practices by men, women and children, similar to Sodom and Gomorrah, which G-d commanded to be destroyed.


The extension of this punishment to children is difficult to comprehend for a modern society but the overwhelming premise in the Hebrew Bible is that it is due to a moral rather than immoral G-d, who instructed this commandment. Had the Canaanites not been so barbaric in their pagan worship, infecting their entire society, they would not have been killed and the Israelites would have been able to live in peace amongst them.


Bible: as what?


The deeper question regarding this discussion is how we view the Hebrew Bible. Over the last number of years there has been an enormous number of books on the Bible serving as a guide for different areas of life and perspectives.


It is possible to find books on the Bible as literature, Bible as archaeology, Bible as poetry, Bible as history, Bible as philosophy, Bible as a code for political science and Bible as a guide for wisdom in business.


In a most intriguing book by the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Home that we Build Together, he argues that the Hebrew Bible may be used as a text book for how to build a successful multi cultural society in the 21st century in the United Kingdom. He presents the building of the Tabernacle in the desert in the Book of Exodus by the Hebrews as a model for collective responsibility and the nurturing of a unified identity despite a diverse multi cultural population.


Similarly, a book on Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lessons from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts by Rabbi Levi Brackman and co-author Mr. Sam Jaffe argues that the ancient texts of the Torah may serve as a source for wisdom and insight how to be successful in business. The tenacity and courage of the ancient Hebrews in facing their fear and jumping into the sea before it split when being pursued by the Egyptians upon leaving Egypt should serve as way to overcome one of the principle problems in being successful in business – the conquering of fear.


While the wisdom of the Torah may have what to say to the contemporary world of politics and business, this is not primarily what the Torah is and can lead to misinterpretation.


The Torah is primarily a spiritual work meant to bring a person closer to G-d and enable the living of an ethical and moral life between a person and their family and neighbour.


This is indicated in the work of Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (1138-1204) laws of Chanukah (Ch. 3), where he states that the purpose of the Hebrew Bible is to bring peace to the world.


To be clear this does not mean it is a work on conflict resolution on a geopolitical level but primarily peace between neighbours and family harmony. Maimonides is referring to a particular Jewish legal issue where one can only afford either a Sabbath candle or Chanukah candle. Which one takes precedence? He rules that the Sabbath candle is more important because the custom of lighting a Sabbath candle is to ensure peace at home, when electricity was not invented to illuminate one’s house at night and on the Sabbath when kindling a light is Biblically prohibited there would be frustration and possible domestic strife due to the dark.


The institution was issued by the Sages to light a candle before the onset of the Sabbath so that would not eat in the dark on the Sabbath and there would be peace in the home.


In this context Maimonides writes that this candle is more important that the Chanukah candle as the whole Torah is for this very purpose - to bring peace between one person and another.


The stories of the Torah need to be seen in similar light. It is not a book of history or politics - one should view the Torah as a relevant text for one’s personal spiritual and moral self development.


Torah is a spiritual work


Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides (1194-1270), writes in his introduction to his commentary to Genesis that the ‘Torah is talking principally in the higher spheres and indicates to the lower world’.


This means that the building of the Tabernacle for example indeed happened in the early history of the Israelites while wandering in the desert but it is not the history or the political aspect of this that is important but rather how it is understood on the personal and spiritual level - how the individual can come closer to G-d and become a more spiritual and moral human being.


The majority of Jewish philosophy from medieval times until contemporary Jewish works deals with this question, including the vast amount of literature on Jewish mysticism and Hasidism from the 18th century until today.


The subject of the conquest and killing of the Canaanites in Deuteronomy should also be seen in the same light. The reason for it being in the Torah is not for any historical or political purpose that may be extrapolated to today’s times. The relevance is purely spiritual.


In a work on Jewish mysticism Sefer Hamamarim melukat vol. 2 (p. 312), Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe, poses the question, what is the relevance today of the commandment to obliterate the seven Canaanite nations?


The question is based on the premise that there must be a relevance to every aspect of the Torah for humanity today for otherwise it might as well be shelved as an ancient text of merely historic value.


This is also evident by the fact that Maimonides lists this as a positive commandment when there is no relevant application, as these nations no longer even exist nor are they identifiable. The Rebbe takes this idea even further that the story of the Biblical spies in the desert before conquering the land by Joshua must also have a spiritual relevance.


He proceeds to explain that in this case the Torah is talking in metaphors and morals, which are not necessarily relevant in practice. The spying of the land is a metaphor for the need for one to analyse oneself and be ethically self critical. The land of the seven Canaanite nations is a metaphor for the emotions of the heart, which have seven components according to Jewish mysticism, including kindness, severity, compassion, etc.


The conquest of the land of seven nations and killing of the people is then a metaphor for the conquering of the negative emotions of the heart completely and transforming them to goodness. It is in spiritual terms the level of a Tzaddik, a righteous person, who has rooted out all negativity within the self.


This is seen as more profound than the person who is only in control of their actions, speech and even thought. The ability to control one’s desires is a great virtue and the level of the righteous in Jewish thought.


This idea is also reflected in Psalms where King David writes (Psalms 109:22), ‘My heart is hollow within me’. According to Jewish thought (Tanya Ch. 1), he has acquired control of not just of his behaviour but also his emotions and desires.


According to this approach the Torah is not a book of politics or history but of moral teachings for one’s own personal life. It is this misunderstanding of sacred works that allows for the confusion of politics and religion and it is the same misconceptions that seem to be providing fodder for modern atheism.


Comments on: A Jewish response to modern atheism

Avi wrote...

Very well written article and very informative.
I would like however, to ask one simple question. In light of all the above, why did G-D command the Jewish nation to obliterate the Seven nations on a physical level? I find it hard to understand how the above addresses that, on a spiritual level it is now readily understood, which I thank you for sharing, but what of the original question? Was there indeed no physical obliteration of the Seven nations?
thank you.

Cleric Dr. Thomas Kolter wrote...

As an Atheist my position is there is no reliable scientific evidence of any supernatural claim, which would be essential before even discussing divine powers such as G-d.

On morality in the Bible its not the stories are immoral and unethical alone with exceptions however that G-d could have done something better to get the same result. Lets talk about one issue your ignoring ,slavery, which your G-d hated when His chosen people were so afflicted but was happy to condemn Gentile slaves to this institution. Which has been condemned by all civilized people and if G-d was highly just and good as you claim wouldn't condemning slavery outright been the moral thing to do?

I just think faith is a poor epistemology and reason through the tools of science is far superior since faith is based on nothing in comparison.