-- Celebrating the Festival of Faith, Passover
After addressing atheists in last week’s
article, allow me to vent about believers.
But first let me share some of the correspondence I received
about the issues of atheism.
Some atheists took me to task as they felt that I was unfairly
attacking their beliefs. [One such letter is posted below
this article]. They wrote to me explaining that atheism
is not the belief that G-d does not exist but rather the
lack of belief that G-d exists. This therefore renders invalid
my definition of an atheist as a person who is “absolutely
sure and convinced that G-d does NOT exist."
I was made to understand that there are “strong atheists”
who claim to "know" there is no god, but most
atheists are “weak atheists” meaning that they
simply "lack belief in god." Basic atheism is
not a belief. It is merely the lack of belief.
The distinction is small but important. Denying something
means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are
being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular
concept. To be without a belief in G-d merely means that
the term 'G-d' has no importance or possibly no meaning
to you. Belief in G-d is not a factor in their lives. Surely
this is quite different from denying the existence of G-d.
Many atheists, in other words, don’t deny or reject
the existence of G-d. Rather, they don’t find that
G-d is relevant to them. Not believing that something is
true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one
may simply have no idea whether it is true or not.
Then there are atheists that are in between “strong”
and “weak” and they believe that it is substantially
more likely than not (though by no means a certainty) that
G-d does not exist.
It’s gets more complicated. Because in addition to all
these dimensions of atheism, comes a thing that Professor
T.H. Huxley coined “agnostic,” referring to someone who
disclaimed both atheism and theism, and who believed that
the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved
and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic
is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether
G-d exists. The “undecided.” Some agnostics believe that
we can never know.
When then, you may ask, is the difference between agnosticism
and “weak” atheism, when both are unsure? I
guess only G-d (sic) knows!
And you thought faith was complex!
Frankly, I was surprised to discover an extensive amount
of literature explaining the meaning of atheism and all
its variations. I assume that atheists too have a right
to create their bible and set of laws.
But it does seem like quite a stretch that atheists need
to create a philosophy out of something that is nothing
more than a… lack of belief.
Let me make this clear: Everyone has a right to choose
what and what not to believe. I respect that right, and
in truth any person of faith has to believe that G-d endowed
everyone with free will and the inalienable right to make
their own choices. And atheists, just as believers, also
have the right to doubt and question, and even to feel insecure
at times, with the need to justify their attitudes.
However, it’s just a little difficult to understand how
lack of belief should itself turn into a system and a philosophy.
I understand why believers need a system – that is very
much part of their belief, that G-d created a system by
which humans must live. But if one had doubts, or is pretty
sure that G-d does not exist, why the need to turn that
into a philosophy? Is it in order to present a counter-argument
To sum up, we have an entire series of categories:
Strong atheists, firm non-believers.
Weak Agnostics (or as some call them “empirical agnostics”).
Strong agnostics (or “strict agnostics”).
And of course, the many shades in between.
One thing is for sure: In one way or another people are
wrestling with G-d. I don’t know what G-d is thinking,
but he sure has us spinning our wheels.
Now to faith.
I wonder whether in faith there are also both “strong
believers” and “weak believers.”
A prominent Jewish leader once wrote that mainstream Jews
don’t accept the “radical immanence of G-d”
as do Chassidim. It made me laugh. What does he exactly
mean with the “radical immanence of G-d”? Does
is mean that G-d actually exists…
I gather that he was referring to the different opinions
in the meaning of the Lurianic doctrine of Tzimzum (as mentioned
week’s article). Some are of the opinion that the Tzimtzum
was “literal,” G-d actually withdrew His presence
from our existence, and G-d guides the universe from “above,”
from the “outside”. (This too breaks down into
two opinions: G-d literally withdrew His presence, or He
literally withdrew His light, i.e. His conscious presence).
The other opinion, as elaborated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman
of Liadi in Tanya (section 2 chapter 7), is that the Tzimtzum
is not “literal.” It is a withdrawal only from
the perspective of human consciousness, we don’t feel
G-d’s revealed presence, but from G-d’s perspective
He fills all of existence.
This makes you wonder: Which is more “radical”
– G-d’s immanence or G-d’s withdrawal?
To say that G-d literally withdrew Himself is applying an
inappropriate corporeality to G-d, as explained in Tanya.
That is quite a radical position.
Perhaps a few stories can help illuminate these issues.
They tell the story that when Czarist Russia was seeking
to arrest Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Rebbe consulted
with some of his Chassidim whether he should allow himself
to be arrested or go into hiding. One of the people he consulted
was the great Chassid, Rabbi Shmuel Munkes. Rabbi Shmuel
unequivocally stated his opinion that the Rebbe should not
resist being arrested. “But how,” asked the
Rebbe, “how can you suggest that I place myself in
such danger?” Rabbi Shmuel answered: “Because
either or. If you are a true Rebbe then no harm will befall
you. If you are not, you deserve what’s coming to
you for depriving so many Jews of material pleasure in this
This story always moves me. This is what we call “radical
immanence” of G-d. Yes, G-d actually exists within
our lives, and yes, you either believe it completely or
faith is rendered a farce. Faith is qualitative; it cannot
be dissected into parts. Faith does not exist only when
it’s convenient. Either G-d is here with us completely,
or He is completely not here. If G-d exists then you have
to go all the way.
When the Torah states that “ayn oid melvado,”
“nothing else exists but Him,” it means literally,
not as a figure of poetry.
Which leads us to story #2: An excellent Talmud student
once came to his Rosh Yeshiva (the head of the school),
in deep frustration. “I have been studying here many
years. I feel that I have grown immensely and I appreciate
your dedication in teaching me to master the Talmud and
all its commentaries. But something is missing in my soul.
I feel the need to explore.”
“Where do you intend to go,” asked the Rosh Yeshiva. “I
think I want to go to the Chassidim and study some Chassidic
teachings,” replied the student. The Rosh Yeshiva was deeply
disappointed, but he could do nothing to stop his student.
Years later the student returned to his old teacher, and
shared with him his experiences and how he had indeed discovered
amongst Chassidim what was missing in his soul. The teacher
became very curious. “What did you learn there that
you could not learn here?” The student couldn’t
find the right words to explain, so he blurted out: “There
I learned how to read minds.”
“How to read minds – give me break”! the teacher exclaimed.
“What mishugas is that? I always told you that the Chassidim
were weird.” Yet the student persisted. So his teacher played
along. “Ok, if you can read minds, tell me what I am now
thinking?” The student replied: “It’s not so simple. First
concentrate on something important to you, and then I’ll
read your mind.”
The teacher closed his eyes and concentrated. “You’re
thinking about G-d,” the student said, “as it
says ‘shoviti Hashem l’negdi tomid,’ I
place G-d always before me.” The teacher triumphantly
exclaimed, “You see, you can’t read my mind.
No, that’s not what I am thinking about!”
Somberly the student said: “well, that’s why
Story #3: A philosopher was arguing with a respected rabbi
about the existence of G-d. The philosopher felt that,
although there were some valid arguments for proving G-d’s
existence, there were many equally valid ones disproving
His existence. After a time, the philosopher grew exasperated.
“You are a wise man,” he said to the rabbi. “Why is it that
you are not moved by all the arguments disputing G-d’s existence?”
The rabbi smiled. “I envy you,” he said to the philosopher.
“Because you are so involved in pondering the existence
of G-d, you are always thinking about Him, while I spend
most of my time thinking about myself.” With that, they
The philosopher was flattered by the rabbi’s remarks,
yet disturbed that his question was never answered. Later,
as he was telling a friend about the encounter, the deeper
meaning of the rabbi’s words dawned on him. “The
rabbi actually insulted me,” he said to the friend.
“The reason I spend all my time pondering G-d’s
existence is that I am sure that I exist, so the only question
is whether G-d also exists. For the rabbi, G-d’s existence
is a given, so the eternal question is whether he exists,
and if so, why?”
“Strong” faith means that G-d is actually present in our
lives in a very real way. It is not just an abstract belief
in some detached concept. If faith in G-d is true, then
like the nature of truth itself, faith cannot be conditional
And that’s what makes faith so difficult and demanding.
Faith in G-d is the absolute belief that there is Higher
Reality that we must live up to, and that this calling must
permeate every aspect of our lives.
Faith therefore requires constant nourishing and cultivation.
It can never be taken for granted. Indeed, there are many
religious atheists and non-religious believers. There are
people who lack belief in G-d, yet they are the most G-d
fearing people I know. Perhaps their integrity and sincerity
allowed them the courage to reject the false gods that were
presented to them. Perhaps if they discovered a new type
of G-d, or better said, the “original” G-d before
He was shaped and distorted by humans, they would be the
firmest believers. I have no doubt about that.
What non-believers can teach us all is that G-d's existence
is nothing like the way we humans perceive existence. In
other words, when mortals say "G-d exists"
they mean "exists" as we humans understand existence.
In truth, however, G-d does "not exist" as we
understand the term. G-d does not exist in our context
of material, corporeal existence. Conversely, G-d's type
of existence is not an "existence" as
we define existence. As some Jewish philosophers put it,
G-d's existence is a "non-existential existence,"
an existence that we can never fathom or experience.
Then there are people who look like or claim to be believers,
and their behavior is anything but. Indeed, the Talmud says
that there is a thief who prays to G-d before he goes out
to steal! How is it possible that a person should turn to
G-d and beseech Him to help him succeed in defying G-d’s
very command “thou shalt not steal”?!
The nature of faith is such that it can remain detached
form the person professing faith. Yes, he may be a man or
woman of true faith, but the faith is amorphous and abstract,
it has not permeated the person’s behavior. All people
believe in ideals that they don’t live up to. Our
ideals always exceed our actions to reach those ideals.
So whether you are an atheist or a believer we are all
in the same boat – do we truly believe in our convictions,
and do we live up to them.
Perhaps we are all both believers and non-believers. After
all, G-d did create a pretty powerful agnostic universe,
and the tzimtzum engine after all is driven by Divine energy.
So it’s inevitable that there are areas in each of
our lives where the tzimtzum takes its toll and leaves us
feeling often alone and disconnected from G-d.
Yet, it is not an airtight tzimtzum, and even non-believers
have their doubts. I even know some self-proclaimed atheists
that put on tefillin daily.
It is true that ultimately the virtue of our lives is dependent
not merely on our claims for or against religion, but on
our behavior, hence, the phenomenon of so called “non-believers”
being more G-d fearing and ethical than so called “believers.”
Yet I submit that a refined human being who also embraces
G-d has the ability to reach much farther than he would
with his natural virtue.
After all is said and done it feels more secure to live
in a world driven by faith in G-d than in a godless world.
Though religion can and has been abused, atheism or agnosticism
is hardly the solution. True and healthy faith creates a
platform for a life of meaning and purpose, a life in which
our actions matter and our experiences are driven with direction.
While a life of no belief may feel alright, it renders life
as a random set of circumstances, with survival of the fittest
being the cardinal rule.
Religion is no panacea. History is a witness to the immeasurable
misery that has been perpetrated in the name of so-called
religious beliefs. Many power hungry, corrupt individuals
simply (ab)used religion as a good cloak to smokescreen
their own depravity.
Yet, when religion does live up to its standards, it can
produce the noblest results. Take this country: Belief in
a Creator inspired the opening of the Declaration of Independence,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights.” Faith in G-d dictates
faith that all people are equal. Can atheism or agnosticism
offer the same guarantee?
The key is not to throw out the “baby with the bath
water” and reject the power of faith in G-d while
we reject false prophets.
I speak for myself when I say that it is hardly comforting
to wake up each morning and feel that my actions make no
true difference. It is hard to live a life with no mission
statement that has cosmic consequences. So, I say this to
my atheist and agnostic friends: whether it is mathematically
correct or not, I would rather delude myself into thinking
that life has true meaning than live in a reality where
life has no meaning.
Of course, it helps to know that this may be no delusion
but the actual truth.
At the same time I sometimes envy those people that have
pure faith with no doubts. Yes, there are some very normal
people that carry such innocence. They too have the challenge
of integrating their faith into their daily lives, but they
never have doubts.
And finally, I can’t help but wonder what G-d is thinking
about all us people contemplating whether He exists. If
it weren’t so hurtful it probably would be quite amusing.
Happy Passover! May the pure “food of faith”
in the Matzah enrich all our lives and bring deeper faith
into all our lives.
I have heard you speak on at least two occasions…
I've also read one of your books. Based on those experiences,
I have a high regard for your thoughtfulness and tolerance.
I was therefore surprised by the intolerance and lack of
rigor reflected in your piece on atheists. I am an
atheist. You assume that to be an atheist a person
must "be absolutely sure and convinced that G-d does
NOT exist." This is not true. I believe a lot
of things - including things relating to tax policy, the
likely winner of elections, the likely outcome of sporting
events, etc. As to none of these am I absolutely sure and
convinced that I am right.
You are correct that no one can prove whether or not G-d
exists. You are a theist because you believe, despite
this uncertainty, that G-d exists. I am an atheist
because I believe, despite this uncertainty, that G-d does
not exist. I respect your conclusion which I readily
admit is supported (but not conclusively) by many facts,
in addition to faith. I would request that you respect
my conclusion which is supported (but not conclusively)
by many facts (such as overwhelming events like the
Holocaust, and mundane events like my father's Alzheimers).
Your implication that, without theism, the only alternative
is moral relativism is also unfounded. Many systems of moral
philosophy are not based on divine will and are not relativistic.
Moreover, history is replete with examples of religions
and religious people applying morality in a relativistic
or worse way. Again, I respect your morality and
I expect mine to be respected based on my actions, not on
my theism or lack thereof.
Finally, it is disturbing to me that you fail to see the
dangers to our society (and especially to Jews) that would
arise from failing to maintain a strong fence between church
and state (like the fence that our laws build around the
Torah). Our founding fathers did (generally) believe
in G-d, and they also believed in Jesus Christ as the messiah.
They had the wisdom to know that government should not sponsor
their religious views. We need to guard against a society
that shows intolerance towards Jews and adherents to other
religious (including atheist) belief systems. One way
to guard against that is to avoid the intolerance towards
atheists that you demonstrate and support in your article.
I hope that this is not a path that you will continue to
Your points are well taken, and I appreciate them.
I would even ask your permission to post your e-mail on
our website as a reply to my article (with or without your
name, as you see fit).
I also want to extend my empathy and best wishes that you
have the strength to get through your father's condition,
and that he be as healthy and peaceful as is humanly and
(as a believer) divinely possible.
To continue the discussion, may I say this: Firstly, I
am sorry to hear that you took my words as an attack on
and intolerance of atheism. That was not at all my
intention. Indeed, I know many so-called atheists who
are more G-dly and more ethical than so-called "theists."
I even know atheists that put on tefillin every day. My
intention was to be rigorous with the topic, not any
personal attack, and to help create a dialogue between us
all. It's funny, because right before I read your e-mail
I received an e-mail from a believer criticizing me
for attacking believers.
I think we are all mature enough to get beyond our personal
beliefs and discuss the issues on their own merit. As such,
even if atheism does not mean that one must "be
absolutely sure and convinced that G-d does NOT exist," the
questions I posed in my article are still valid. If
I may ask you, I would be interested to know, if you have
an instinct, intuition or emotion that G-d does not
exist? Or is it based on lack of proof, or because you have
seen senseless pain? I understand what you write that your
atheism is supported by many facts, such as the Holocaust
and your father's Alzheimer’s -- but I am wondering
what made you come to this conclusion in the final analysis
Also, why atheist more than agnostic since it isn't conclusive
Regarding moral relativism - I don't see how one can possible
argue absolute morality if the laws of morality are not
etched in stone by some higher authority. Indeed, if there
is no G-d than all morality is simply a result of man-made
laws that help us live efficiently, like red lights
and green lights, which are completely relativistic. Which
non-relativistic moral philosophical system are you
referring to that is not based on divine will?
Thank you again for writing. I intend to continue
this subject in next week's article, and hopefully
we will all grow through this dialogue.
Blessings and best wishes,
Thank you for your response. I'm sure you did not
intend to be intolerant or to attack atheists, but if you
reread your piece as I have, I think you will see the tone
I am referring to in a number of places, including: your
reference to an "atheist's irrational conviction";
your reference to "Mr. Atheist"; your question
whether an atheist is "worshipping himself" with
"irrational certainty"; your suggestion that Dr.
Newdow's desire that his daughter not have thrust upon her
religious beliefs at school that are contrary to his own
is just the result of an "injured ego" and
of his taking himself "too seriously". All of
these are essentially ad hominem in nature rather than reasoned
You ask why I don't refer to myself as an agnostic rather
than an atheist. Since you acknowledge that there is
no certainty either way, why don't you refer to yourself
as an agnostic? I think the answer for both of us is that
an agnostic is someone who thinks there is approximately
a 50/50 chance (give or take a few percentage points) of
G-d's existence. A theist, like you, believes it is
substantially more likely than not (though by no means a
certainty) that G-d exists. An atheist, like me, believes
it is substantially more likely than not (though by no means
a certainty) that G-d does not exist.
You ask about whether I have an intuition as to G-d's non-existence
and what is the ultimate source of my non-belief. I
would say that I do have an intuition that G-d does not
exist. There is no single source. I believe that the single
most important source was my father's worldview. He
was brought up in Brooklyn by orthodox eastern European
immigrants. I was raised in a conservative suburban Philadelphia
synagogue (Beth Sholom - Frank Lloyd Wright). My parents
attended Friday night services almost every week until my
mother's M.S. made it impractical.
My father's ethnic identity was extremely important to
him. However, even though he never talked about it
directly and I picked it up only subliminally, his worldview
did not admit of any divine intervention. I think this is
what I absorbed. I would also add that the brand of
conservative Judaism propounded at Beth Sholom in those
years was so lacking in any sense of spirituality that it
contributed to my intuition of atheism.
Beginning around when I turned 40 (I'm now 51), I engaged
in a spiritual quest of sorts that involved study of Judaism
(with both Chasidic and Reconstructionist teachers) as well
as study of eastern philosophy and, to a lesser extent,
Christian mysticism. This was very useful to me. Although
I never changed my atheist beliefs, I became more sympathetic
to theistic beliefs. However, watching Alzheimer’s
strip my father's humanity from him inch by inch (he died
two and a half years ago) made me much more resentful of
the notion that there is a divinity that chose to create
diseases like that (I realize that there are worse evils
in the world that Alzheimer’s, but I guess we tend
to react most strongly to things that strike closest to
As to moral relativism, I understand that to refer to the
notion that there is no principled basis on which to judge
one moral system superior to another. Plato for example
had a fairly elaborate moral system that was not relativistic. More
modern systems were propounded by Mill and Kant. Of
course, no one can say for sure which if any of these systems
is right - just as no one can say which religion's moral
system is right. It is also significant to note that the
Jewish moral system, even from an orthodox standpoint, is
not static. We obviously would not permit slavery or
polygamy today. More fundamentally, as my younger son
the philosophy major points out, whether or not maintaining
a moral system without a G-d is problematic implies nothing
about whether G-d exists.
Again, all that I am asking is respect for my beliefs and
that I not be referred to as irrational or egotistical or
too self-serious or lacking in moral foundations on account
of them. I would also ask that you be mindful of the
dangers to Jews, theist and atheist alike, from permitting
government to impose religious beliefs (however much you
may agree with them) on our children. You can be confident
that if governmental imposition of religious beliefs is
allowed to continue, it won't be long before some of those
beliefs will be very noxious to you and by then it may be
Feel free to use my initial response and/or this response,
but please do not include my name. I trust you with
it, but not necessarily all those you may send it to.