While the Jewish community is energetic about replying to perceived slurs against Jews or the State of Israel, we are remarkably passive when it comes to answering insults against our religion or our God.
For example, best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins mocks the God of the Hebrew Bible as “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Dawkins’s book, “The God Delusion,” is devoted to excoriating Judaism no less than Christianity. An Oxford University biologist and celebrity evolutionist, Dawkins has now been on The New York Times best-seller list for 28 weeks.
Another aggressively atheist author, Sam Harris, joined Dawkins at the top of Publishers Weekly’s list of “religion best-sellers” last month with his crudely effective polemic “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Despite the title, the crudest caricature he draws is of the Hebrew Bible.
The title of another atheist tract, written by journalist Christopher Hitchens and due out next month, gives you a sense of what view the author will take of the God of Israel: “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” As the entertainingly acidic Hitchens writes, “monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.”
Interestingly, Harris and Hitchens are both Jewish by birth. But Jews are accustomed to confronting other Jews about their objectionable views.
In calling for confrontation, I most certainly do not have in mind demands for retractions or apologies. Instead, consider the popular Christian tradition of “apologetics.”
The term doesn’t mean saying you’re sorry. To be an “apologist” means to defend your faith before a general public in a sophisticated literary mode. C.S. Lewis, an Oxford scholar and author of “Mere Christianity,” is perhaps the most beloved modern Christian apologist.
Today, Jews do nothing remotely like that. We once did, however, with gusto. Maimonides’s “The Guide for the Perplexed” is a classic apologetic book, championing Torah against doubts raised by then-modern skeptics.
In fact, the Mishnah makes it every Jew’s obligation to be an effective apologist, an obligation that most of us ignore nowadays: “Know how to answer an unbeliever” (Pirke Avot 2:14) — with the word for unbeliever being apikorus, a follower of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher.
Epicurus is known as a primary exponent of materialism, the belief that material reality is all there is in the universe. And materialism happens to be one of the most serious challenges that religion is up against today.
There are other challenges, like the idea, taught in many university religion departments around the country, that the Torah is in effect a literary fraud. According to more than a few secular scholars, the Five Books of Moses weren’t authored by Moses, as the Torah claims, but rather were stitched together centuries later from works by other writers.
Richard Elliott Friedman’s book “Who Wrote the Bible?” gives a popular-level rendition of this theory. No one in academia that I’m aware of has been bold enough to directly call the Torah a fraud. But surely if we were talking about any nonsacred book, that is what the conclusions of modern biblical criticism would add up to.
The same academic viewpoint designates the Zohar, the Bible of Jewish mysticism, as a cynical medieval hoax masquerading as the more ancient work it purports to be.
That the Zohar was authored not in the second century by Shimon bar Yochai but instead in the 13th by Moses de Leon — who allegedly thought no one would buy his work if it appeared under his own name — is the accepted secular scholarly view and is approved by authorities in the field, such as Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby. If you’ve got a kid in college, just check his Judaic studies syllabi; no class on Kabbalah would be complete without Scholem.
We hardly even consider that these opinions present our faith as nothing better than, to quote Hitchens, “a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.”
Traditional Jews may see the problem, but they do virtually nothing to address it. The Orthodox community, to which I belong, invests generous resources in Torah for consumption by other Orthodox Jews. That’s wonderful. But we don’t see the need when it comes to defending Judaism’s honor before the world — as the future King David did in facing down Goliath, who had “disgraced the battalions of the living God” (I Samuel 17:36).
In the case of David, the other Jews were too timid to face down the blaspheming giant. But at least the young hero had the sponsorship of the king, Saul, and thus the blessing of his fellow citizens. We have no David and no Saul.
Liberal Jews may not initially see the problem. Judaism’s assailants aren’t born-again Christians, after all, and the Jewish community has been conditioned by an irrational prejudice that the primary domestic threat worth worrying about is from born-again Christians.
But the children of liberal and traditional Jews alike will grow up in a world where God is routinely dismissed in academic and media venues as a fiction and a fraud, and where these charges go unanswered in the wider public by any Jew.
We thus teach our children, implicitly, that their religion is either indefensible or not worth defending. For anyone concerned about the future of the Jews, that is an utter disaster.