A Scientist Embraces God: The Language of God by Francis Collins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Can anyone prove the existence of God? Theologians have been obsessed with this project for the past two thousand years.

When gods began, nobody had to prove their existence. People believed that the gods were as real as the land they farmed and the family that nurtured them. Proving their ex­istence would have seemed silly.

But excessive touting led some people to claim that their god was the one and only god. Even more touting led passionate devotees to claim that the one god made and managed everything. Because flattery costs nothing, the one god ended up being all-mighty, all-perfect, and all-good. An Almighty God is respon­sible for everything. And if he is all-good, he uncomfortably ends up being responsible for evil. In a polytheistic world, undeserved suf­fering can always be blamed on an enemy god. But the divine dictatorship of monotheism offers no such alternative. God needs apolo­gists to rescue his reputation and to explain away his “bad behavior.”

Now, theology starts out with a certain level of absurdity. It is the only discipline I know that needs to prove the existence of its subject matter. Ichthyologists do not spend their time proving the existence of fish. Ornithologists would feel ridiculous having to prove the ex­istence of birds. Anthropologists would laugh if asked to prove the existence of people. But theologians have no sense of humor.

Modern science has not been friendly to either God or theology. Most scientists are consistent empiricists. They require more than faith or wishing to demonstrate the existence of anything. They have discovered no substantial, or even modest, evidence to demonstrate that a Moral Creator and Man­ager of the Universe exists. Like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1801), they find most of the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be flawed.

Francis Collins is a famous scientist. He was the chief of the Human Genome Project. But he is also a believer in God. He is a believ­er in a personal God who loves and cares for his creation. He is also a believing Christian, the child of eccentric freethinkers, a man who freely chose the Christian faith. In his latest bestseller, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he plays the role of a theologian.

Can a famous Christian scientist playing theologian do what Kant was unable to do? Can he prove the existence of God and simul­taneously rescue God’s moral reputation? Can he prove the existence of a God who loves all human creatures and who wants to rescue them from undeserved suffering?

Many Christians who bought Collins’ book were conservative Christians who hoped that he would place the endorsement of science on their problematic beliefs. But he is an enormous disap­pointment to the religious right. He repudiates creationism as unscientific. He endorses Darwin­ian evolution as valid, accepts the principle of natural selection, and rejects Intelligent Design. Collins endorses all of modern cosmology, with its “Big Bang” explosion and its fourteen billion- year-old universe. A scientific atheist would be very comfortable with most of his conclusions.

One would expect something fiercely original from a man of Collins’ caliber. But his presentation is disappointing. It is a rehash of familiar arguments offered by former skeptics who embraced God and Christianity. Much of his case is derived from the writings of C. S. Lewis, a clever Anglican apologist, who was the rage among sophisticated defenders of religion in the 1930s. Lewis’ audiences were people who feared Communism and who imagined that faith would provide a firm resistance.

Collins embraces all the old stale theo­logical tricks of conventional theologians. He denounces science because it cannot answer the question “Why did the universe come into being?” But this question has a premise. The hidden premise is that the universe must have a purpose. But what if the universe has no purpose? What if it was not created? What if it emerged by chance with no conscious interven­tion? What if there is no Why, only How? Sci­ence is perfectly capable of handling the How.

Collins maintains that the natural world cannot be the foundation of morality. Only God can. But ethics did not arise in a vacuum, a proclamation from a mountain top. All animals living in groups depend for their sur­vival on the survival of their group, whether they are ants, wolves, baboons, or people. To imagine that human ethics has no connection to our animal past, to assert that guilt has no genetic basis, to claim that love is not rooted in human survival but is a message from be­yond space and time is to abandon reason. The moral law is not some prescription for love and compassion floating around in some supernatural never-never land. It is one of evolution’s children in the relentless struggle for genetic survival. The love of strangers is new. It competes with the old fear and hatred of outsiders. That is why it is so difficult. But the love of family is old. It is the foundation of all other love. If God championed the moral law, he most likely learned about it from hu­mans and other animals.

Collins insists that the desire for God is evidence that He exists. It is hard to believe that Collins said this. Wishing obviously makes it so. If I want and need immortality, then I am immortal. If I want and need to be strong, then I am strong. If I want and need God then God exists. Why else would I long for him if he was not there?

Collins asserts that God cannot prevent human suffering because he gave human be­ings free will. People are responsible for what they do because they have free will. God could do nothing to prevent the Holocaust because he gave Hitler and his cohorts the wonderful gift of free will. What silliness! Intervening to prevent a person from harming others other does not deprive the criminal of his free will. It is an act of compassion. It is the moral demand that God presumably makes on all human be­ings. Why will God not do what he requires humans to do? A God who uses the excuse of human free will to stand as a spectator before human suffering lacks moral authority. Love by determinism is better than hate by free will. Collins discloses his daughter’s traumatic and tragic rape. What a horrible injustice! But no – Collins transforms tragedy into absurdity. Invoking one of the age-old apologies for God’s bad behavior; Collins justifies the event. He describes how much he learned from his daughter’s suffering. God uses his innocent daughter and her suffering to teach her father to forgive a criminal. What next? Plane crashes in which hundreds die, so that the survivors can be ennobled by their pain?

The last absurdity is the Anthropic Prin­ciple. The Anthropic Principle maintains that God created the universe in order to arrange for human intelligence. There are many mo­ments in the past fourteen billion years when a different turn of events would have precluded the appearance of our solar system, the planet Earth, and the air pocket on the surface of our planet that makes human life possible. Col­lins asserts that these amazing coincidences are not coincidences. They are the evidence of God’s deliberate plan and of God himself. But the Anthropic Principle reduces God to an incompetent bungler. If God’s intention is to create human intelligence why would he force human intelligence to undergo the ghastly process of evolution, with all its struggle, suf­fering, and enormous waste? The Anthropic Principle is like the Charles Lamb story where you arrange for roast pork by placing a pig in a house and burning the whole house down.

Collins’ book fills me with great sadness. Why would a brilliant biologist risk his intel­lectual credibility by consenting to play the part of C. S. Lewis’ parrot? That he is a nice man is clear. That Collins is a wise man is doubtful.

An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

A New Strategy for Global Prosperity: The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, Review

Celebrating 350 Years in America: Summer 2005

Who is Jeffrey Sachs? He is a Detroiter who became the world’s most famous living economist. He was one of the intellectual stars at Harvard University. He was chosen to be­come the first director of the new prestigious Earth Institute at Columbia University. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed him the coordinator of the Millennium Project, an ambitious attempt to rescue our planet from extreme poverty. Time magazine chose to place his latest book, The End of Poverty, on the cover of its journal.

Sachs is the son of one of America’s most respected labor lawyers, the late Ted Sachs. He has been the leading economic adviser to doz­ens of nations. He has transformed the econo­mies of countries as diverse as Bolivia, Poland, Russia, and India. His specialty has been the challenge of taking malfunctioning economies and making them work. Some of his advice and decisions provoked intense controversy.

Sachs now proposes to tackle the most difficult problem of our global economy, the problem of world poverty. One out of every six people on this planet lives in extreme depri­vation. One out of every three people suffers the humiliation of insufficient food, shelter, health care, and education. The dichotomy between the resources of the affluent in the First World and the resources of the poor in the Third World often reaches the ratio of twenty to one. Millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America endure daily suf­fering that we can barely imagine. And their misfortune is aggravated by disease, pollu­tion, and isolation. Although some of their difficulties are the result of bad government, most of their problems cannot be solved by eliminating corruption. Most of these nations are in economic, social, and environmental pits from which they cannot escape through their own efforts alone.

Why should we devote our time, energy, talent, and wealth to a problem that has defied solution until now? Obviously, there are ethical and compassionate reasons. But “spinning your wheels while staying in one place” may salve personal conscience; it does not have much moral value. Without a combination of vision and realism, all noble plans end up mired in fantasy. Jeffrey Sachs claims that he has a real­istic plan. And many expert critics, both liberal and conservative, agree that he has.

Sachs denounces the proposal offered by many economic conservatives (formerly classical liberals) and libertarians to open poor countries to the open competition of the free global market and to the opportunities of foreign markets, foreign investment, and foreign borrowing. This strategy has been recommended by both the International Mon­etary Fund and the World Bank. Taking this advice has yielded disaster. Foreign markets are not readily available for cheap agricultural produce. Foreign investment is scarce because the native infrastructure and judicial systems are inadequate. Foreign borrowing takes place and produces huge debts from which poor nations can never liberate themselves. Mired in loans they cannot repay, they discover that their meager national income is now con­sumed by relentless interest payments. What is a winning strategy for developed nations is a disaster for struggling nations.

Sachs maintains that any successful ac­tion needs the combination of personal deter­mination, state help, and foreign donors. No single factor can rescue poor nations. China and India are perfect examples of the suc­cess that follows this necessary cooperation. There is enough state management to protect a vulnerable economy. And there is enough freedom in the private sector to allow for cre­ativity and to encourage investment. Above all, poor nations need international allies that prevent them from accumulating debts that guarantee failure.

Poor nations that suffer from the mas­sive presence of AIDS and malaria are too depressed and demoralized to sustain any decent level of economic activity. Poor na­tions that are cut off from the global economy because there are no roads, no ports, and no airports cannot join the global world even if they want to. Poor nations that lack any con­sistent system of education for young people are separated from the world of science and technological information, the power base of the modern economy.

“Clinical economics” is the recommended strategy of Jeffrey Sachs. We have to start on the lowest level of economic survival – not cor­rupt governments but poverty-stricken villages. We have to teach the residents how to fertilize their fields, how to provide for sanitary living, how to manage the distribution and sales of their local products. We have to persuade all developed nations to take only 0.7 percent of their gross national product and “invest” it in this noble project. With this minimal and feasible gift, the problem of extreme poverty can be alleviated within twenty years.

Poor nations are a continuous provoca­tion to world stability and world peace. Poor people in poor nations are easily swept away by extremist movements and religious funda­mentalism. Rich nations have a choice. They can cynically hang on to their possessions without sharing and simultaneously endure the misfortunes of hatred and terrorism. Or they can offer consistent and modest help and discover, to their surprise, that they have created wonderful new markets and shrunk violence by providing hope.

The power of Sachs’ message can be ex­perienced only by reading his book, You will be excited by his realism and his optimism.

A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe A Review

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Irving Howe is no ordinary Jewish intellectual. He is a famous one. Not only because of what he has written, but especially because of his poli­tical consistency. He is one of the few former reigning Jewish social­ists who has not fled to the Right, who has not turned into a neo­conservative. Howe remains a believing socialist — even though a chastened one.

As the creator and editor of a moderately leftist journal called Dissent, he is one of the major liberal voices for social democracy in America. Together with Michael Harrington and his Democratic Social­ists, he preaches a non-dogmatic, non-revolutionary egalitarianism. He resists the elitism that many of his former colleagues now find so attractive.

As the author of the enormously popular World of Our Fathers, he has assumed a special place in the Jewish community. The socialist visionary has become the major presenter of Yiddish nostalgia to the English-speaking world. Ameri­can Jewish roots have become his specialty. For a one-time universalist who found no important value in Jewish identity, his second career has a touch of irony.

Howe’s book A Margin of Hope is an autobiography. Like Making It by Norman Podhoretz (who defected to the Right), it is a confession of an American Jewish intellectual. But, unlike Podhoretz’s statement, it is refreshingly free of ideological repentance.

Howe had all the qualifications to become an American Jewish intellec­tual. New York City. Immigrant parents. East Bronx. Depression hard­ship. City College. Partisan Review. All the informal credentials for radical commitment. In addition, he had a perceptive mind and a talent for writing.

Dozens of other Jewish intellec­tuals form the setting for his radical activity. Max Shachtman, Morris Cohen, Isaac Rosenfeld, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and Saul Bellow were among his conversational circle. How ironic that so much universalism was confined to a few Jews!

The autobiography is a marvelous introduction to the political and intellectual controversies of the last five decades. Howe was in the middle of most of them, agonizing over which decision to make, which side to choose.

There was Roosevelt and the New Deal. Should a Norman Thomas socialist support this wishy-washy compromise of the Democrats just because the Democrats had a chance to win? There was Stalin and the purges. Should a defender of the Left give comfort to the Right by condemning the rulers of the Marxist motherland? There was Trotsky and the revolution. Was bold radical thought still preferable to the peace­ful pleas of the social democrats? There was the war in Europe. Could an opponent of capitalism support a capitalistic war, even when the enemy was a fascist anti-Semite? There was the anti-Communism of the early fifties. Could a confirmed anti-Stalinist of the Left join forces with the rabid anti-Communists of the Right? There was the emergence of the Vietnam struggle and the New Left. Were the radicals of the sixties an undisciplined rabble of anarchists who would subvert the ideals of the Left? There was the rise of neo-conservatism. Had socialism turned out to be a dead-end path of betrayal and failure?

To read Howe’s story is to relive the drama of the arguments which dominated Jewish intellectual con­versations. The Bolshevik Revolu­tion and its aftermath was a focal point of discussion. So much hope had been invested in the success of that upheaval that the subsequent failure was almost too much to bear. The crumbling utopia forced the socialist faithful to undergo painful changes. For the emotionally in­tense, it was easy to go from loving Russia to hating it. For many others, it took a long time to wake up to the truth. There was an understandable reluctance to be on the same side as the anti-Soviet fascists. Anti- Stalinists on the Left were torn between their socialist purity and the allies that awaited them.

Howe was consistently anti- Stalinist. But he does admit to a certain utopian naivete. There was too much faith in slogans and in the moral difference between workers and rulers. In the end, the Marxist sureness disappears. Socialism be­comes an egalitarian wish with no guarantees of success. A pious dream replaces the forces of history.

As his socialist ardor was tamed, and as the fury of Hitler made his Jewish identity more important, Howe returned to the culture of his childhood. Unable by conviction to carry out religious observances, he found his Jewish niche in the Yid­dish speech of his ancestors. He began to translate modern Yiddish stories and to discover the richness of that literature. In time he became a self-proclaimed secular Jew. Jewishness was no longer a reaction­ary parochialism.

Howe’s story has a certain sad­ness. His socialist dream loses its innocence in America. And his Jewish identity is attached to a dying linguistic culture. Nostalgia replaces optimism.

The secular Jewish radical ironi­cally looks to the past rather than to the future. The “world of our fathers” becomes safer to talk about than the “world of our children.”

The autobiography is a good intro­duction to what went wrong with the secular faith of the first secular Jews.

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  

————————————————————————— 

Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

The Real Story of the Bible: Richard Friedman’s Hidden Book

Recorded February 1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Richard Elliott Friedman, the author of Who Wrote the Bible?,  wrote another challenging book, The Hidden Book in the BibleFriedman claims to have uncovered the text of the document which is the oldest part of the Bible.  Standing alone it is very different from the  Bible as a whole.  It forces us to rethink Biblical history.  It is certainly  an exciting new way to view the messages of the Bible.

 

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheism

Recorded 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

A preeminent scientist – and the world’s most prominent atheist – asserts that a belief in God is irrational and that religion is harmful. Richard Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He maintains that religion fuels war, ferments bigotry and abuses children. He also asserts that atheism is superior to religion, providing a clearer truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

Jewish Book Month 1986

The Jewish Humanist, November 1986

November is the month when we think about books we should be reading, especially books about Jewish history and Jewish culture, philosophy and ethics.

During the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services I either used or made reference to books which many people subsequently wanted to read. In response to their request I am presenting the following recommended reading list. Some of the books are easy to read. Others are painful. All are important.

Shcharansky by Martin Gilbert – This is a powerful biography of one of the genuine Jewish heroes of this century. As the son of a devoted communist, Shcharansky repudiated the life of comfortable conformity and became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents. Fearlessly challenging the Soviet government on human rights issues and demanding the right of emigration for himself and all Russian Jews who wanted to leave. Shcharansky was ultimately imprisoned and subjected to torture and humiliation. The story of his personal resistance – with its extraordinary courage and with its intensification of his Jewish identity is inspirational reading. Gilbert, the historian of the Holocaust, relied heavily for his information on the letters Shcharansky wrote to his wife Avital while in jail.

The Affair by Jean-Marie Brevin – Brevin is a successful French lawyer who is fascinated with the famous Dreyfus Affair and the political drama which surrounded it. When an obscure Jewish officer is convicted in 1894 of giving military secrets to the German enemy, France explodes into a mighty confrontation between those who think him innocent and those who think him guilty. The Anti -Dreyfusards want to use his conviction and the anti-Semitism which accompanies it to overthrow the fragile Third Republic and replace it with the elitist rule of monarchy, army and church. The Pro-Dreyfusards, like Emile Zola, want to use the case to promote a secular democratic state. The details of the story are so compelling that you cannot put the book down once you start reading it.

Shoah, a documentary with Claude Lanzman – No film has more devastatingly revealed the horror of the Holocaust than this production by this eccentric French Jewish director. Using none of the usual “body scenes” of most Holocaust presentations, Lanzmann relies only on the verbal testimony of victims and observers. The imagination of the viewer takes over from there. The most powerful scene – recorded in this book version of the movie script – is the interview with the barber from Czestochowa who is spared at Treblinka to cut the hair of other victims before gassing. The Jews were turned into the executioners of their own people.

Arab and Jew by David Shipler – Few books have revealed the di lemma of modern Israel more than this powerful commentary by the former New York Times reporter in Jerusalem. Two nations – Arab and Jew – live within the boundaries of the Jewish state. How do they see each other? How strong is their mutual fear and anger? What are the possibilities for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Shipler attempts to answer these questions through his assessment of dozens of Jews and Arabs from every walk of life and from every political and religious persuasion. The revelations are startling and frightening. The most pathetic story is the tale of love between a Palestinian radical woman and a Jewish right-wing Likudnik who discover that there is too much hate to allow for their love. No book has presented the problem of mutual intolerance more vividly and more dramatically.

Falling in Love by Francesco Alberoni – This Italian classic, recently translated into English, allows sociologist Alberoni to explore the meaning of love. He makes a very sharp distinction between falling in love with all its anguish and euphoria and love itself. Falling in love he regards as a disease. It happens to people who are experiencing strong senses of personal inadequacy and who project unrealistically on to the beloved what they themselves do not think they have but want for themselves. The result is that most romantic- love, like most revolutionary fervor, ends in disappointment. Or it may resolve itself into something healthier and realistic, which he calls love. Alberoni’s exploration is a unique assessment of an important emotion.

World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow – A novel by Doctorow is always a treat, especially when it is a nostalgia trip. A Jewish boy in New York in 1939 (most likely Doctorow himself) is taken to that wondrous vision of the future called the World’s Fair. The naive excitement of an enthusiastic child allows the wonder and innocence of the reader himself to reawaken.

Happy reading!