Survey of Research in Jewish Education
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
The Jewish God Delusion:
Orthodoxy and the New Atheism
Director of Research and Projects, ATID
It was only a matter of time. Once the "New Atheism" began spreading
across America, selling aggressively atheistic books by the millions to an
apparently interested American public, it was inevitable that this trend would
make it to Judaism as well. It now has, in the form of R. D. Gold's
Bondage of the Mind, a book that comes together with its own
"outreach" apparatus and a student essay contest.1
The book follows a wave of aggressive and combative books, written by figures like Richard Dawkins and
Christopher Hitchens, arguing that not only does God not exist, but that religious belief is dangerous,
and that atheists need to educate the public lest superstition destroy the fabric of civil society. "Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs," declares newatheists.org.
Bondage of the Mind is, frankly, an abysmal book: poorly informed, poorly researched, and poorly argued. In the coming pages, I would like to begin with what is to my mind the less important task of critiquing the book itself, and then move on to what I take to be the more important task, thinking about the implications of the New Atheism for our community and our educational work.
Kol HaPosel BeMumo Posel (Or, It Takes One to Know One)
Bondage of the Mind is presented as a critique of Orthodox Judaism - which Gold sometimes prefers to call Jewish Fundamentalism or even Old Testament Fundamentalism. The book involves a critique of three recent books of English-language popular theology: Emanuel Feldman's
On Judaism, Ezriel Tauber's Choose Life, and Dovid Gottlieb's Living Up To
Truth. Gold finds the arguments in each of these books inadequate, particularly their attempts to prove the truths of Judaism. More than that, he explains that Modern Orthodoxy is no different than its less modern counterpart, and both are so closely linked to the most dangerous kinds of Islamic fundamentalism that Orthodox Judaism (together with all other religious Orthodoxies) poses a fundamental threat to personal freedom and democracy in America, Israel, and the world.
It is somewhat out of character for me to defend the recent works of English-language Jewish theology that attempt to "prove" the truth of Orthodox Judaism. I do not find these works convincing. Still,
Bondage of the Mind is a truly bad book. To begin with, our author is an
am ha'aretz [ignoramus]. Or to put it more precisely and charitably, if he has any familiarity with traditional Jewish sources from after the Bible through the beginning of the twentieth century, his book provided no inkling of that fact. Indeed, the reader has no reason to suspect that he reads Hebrew at all.2
Gold's ignorance forces him to rely for his information about Orthodoxy on popular secondary sources: three outreach-oriented books aimed at newcomers to Judaism, a handful of articles from the New York Times, and some emails from Orthodox acquaintances. Why does Gold think that these are representative of the intellectual agenda of all of Orthodox Judaism, for the past 2000 years no less!?3 Needless to say, the Orthodoxy he describes bears little or no resemblance to that which I try to live and to the communities which make up Orthodoxy. How can anybody possible claim to critique what Orthodox Jews believe if he does not have access to the texts which we learn, interpret, and accept as binding!? Perhaps Gold would be less enamored with the idea that Orthodoxy is dependent on "Old Testament" literalism if he had some familiarity with, say, the Talmud, Midrash, Rashi, Rambam, the
Zohar, Maharal, Rav Kook or any of the other numerous exegetes and philosophers in the Orthodox canon whose claims about the nature of the Bible and its meaning are radically different from his caricature of Orthodoxy. Are we really supposed to take seriously a critique of Orthodox Jewish beliefs that has more extensive discussion of female rights-of-passage in Taliban Afghanistan than all the combined works of Jewish thought since the closing of the biblical canon? I am open to a critique of Orthodox belief, but do your homework, please.
Furthermore, the book is also fundamentally hypocritical. Its accusations against what it takes to be Orthodoxy's arguments are equally applicable to the book's own arguments. Gold blasts Orthodoxy's apologetics for being uninformed about the nuances of Biblical archeology (something that is probably true), but he is happy to draw wide-ranging conclusions about the similarities between Modern and Haredi Orthodoxy on the basis of an anonymous email that he got from a what he assures us is a real live Modern Orthodox rabbi. Our author could at least have glanced at works of Rav Soloveitchik, Hazon Ish, Rav Dessler, Walter Wurzburger, Shalom Carmy, Rav Shagar, Shalom Rosenberg, etc., to provide some nuance to his generalizations. Gold would prefer that his Orthodox interlocutors be more informed about history. But if he knows anything more about Jewish history from the end of the Biblical period until the beginning of the 20th century than can be gleaned from the two books he does cite - Paul Johnson's one volume
A History of the Jews, and Michael Meyer's (admittedly superb) history of the Jewish Reform movement then he might want to bring that information into the conversation.
Gold attacks all "slippery slope" arguments as being fallacious (he is right that they are under all circumstances at least difficult), but has no problem explaining that Jewish Orthodoxy differs from Taliban fundamentalism only in a manner of degree, and that we Orthodox are inevitably proceeding along the same path, unless the forces of good can stop us. Gold rejects, as one should, circular reasoning, but gleefully attacks the meaning and binding nature of the commandments based on what he already knows to be the essence of Judaism and the goal of the commandments. Our author attacks Orthodox books for using judgmental terminology instead of the language of dispassionate analysis,4 but loads
Bondage of the Mind with language like "bogus," "humbug," or "shameful."
I could go on, but I will not, both because ein ladavar sof, there is no limit to the foolishness and ignorance that this book spouts. A page by page, point by point refutation of this work is certainly in order, if for no other reason than to be a convenient resource for a religious person troubled by having read this book5 Still, I would like to continue with a discussion of the implications of the New Atheism for Orthodox education and thought.
Orthodoxy and the "New Atheism"
It is too early to determine whether this book is one unfortunate example or a wider trend, much as it is hard to predict in advance the long-term influence of the New Atheism movement on American intellectual and cultural life. However, Jewish educators should be prepared on two grounds. First, it becomes increasingly likely that we and our students will be exposed, in whatever level of depth, to a new aggressive kind of atheism at some point in our lives. Secondly, Orthodoxy has benefited enormously from the central role that religion has played in American cultural life, and we ought to be prepared to face the consequences if and when religion ceases to play such a role.
On the one hand, we should not let our intellectual and spiritual agenda be determined exclusively by the trends and fads of contemporary culture. Still, we ought to be aware of those trends, particularly if they are influential. Are we prepared at the level of
dah mah shetashiv [know what to respond]? We have, up to now, been happy to watch from the sidelines as Christians and the New Atheists battle it out, but we may not be able to remain on the sidelines for so long. Are we witnessing the beginning of a larger trend in which religious Orthodoxies will find themselves more on the defensive than they are today? Our students may find themselves confronted by an aggressive atheism on college campuses, in literature, or in the media, and this encounter may create challenges. Potential
ba'alei teshuvah might find themselves given a gift copy of Bondage of the Mind or like books.
Hence, questions like the historicity of canonical Jewish texts, biblical criticism, evolution, or biblical archaeology ought to be on our agenda, both because these ideas are out there in the world, and, perhaps more importantly, because they raise serious questions. Gold does not do an adequate job of demonstrating that biblical archeology (which he takes to be "scientific") disproves the divine nature of the Bible the consensus of academics is, at least on its own, hardly proof but what has biblical archeology really uncovered, how does it challenge our beliefs, and how do we respond? The Orthodox books that Gold cites are, indeed, largely uninformed about recent developments in archeology, historiography, and philosophy, and if we are to combat the threatening ideas that the contemporary world puts forward we ought to make it our business to know something about them, if for no other reason than to protect ourselves from interlocutors like Gold, as misinformed about Orthodoxy as he may be.
We not only need to know how to argue against contemporary trends that we find problematic, but we also need to put forward accessible alternatives to the popular theology currently produced in English. Why are shallow "proofs" for the existence of God the easiest material for an outsider to get access to when trying to learn something about Orthodox Jewish beliefs? Even a less antagonistic and more curiously inquisitive reader might find Orthodoxy lacking if this is all they find. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated theological work that exists in the Orthodox world is often not accessible, even to an educated layperson, both because it is buried in the back-issues of periodicals or because it is written in the language of insiders. Modern Orthodox theology has, to a great degree, abandoned the field of popular religious thought to certain shallow and inadequate genres. It behooves us to produce sophistical and accessible works of a popular nature.6
Furthermore, those alternatives should make it to the classrooms, summer camps, youth groups, and synagogues of the Orthodox community, so that, among other reasons, our students and our teachers will understand that the God whom the new atheists reject is not the God who we worship, that the religion of which our opponents are so frightened is not the religion that we profess. Furthermore, if there is
heshbon hanefesh that we must do if the critics of religion make strong arguments we should make it our business to do the necessary communal self-evaluation, and to do it in public. A student whose religious sophistication has not progressed significantly since elementary school is one who is likely to be vulnerable to the attacks of New Atheists and their rejection of a childish misrepresentation of religion.
Furthermore, Orthodoxy must also begin to think now about the possibility that the role of religion in American culture may change dramatically in the coming years. Orthodoxy's growth in the second half of the twentieth century is, no doubt, related to the ways in which American culture embraced religion as well as the ways in which America's celebration of multiculturalism has made it more acceptable for distinctively Orthodox Jews to live their lives. What would happen if America moves toward a more Western European model, in which a hegemonic atheism views religion as backward and unworthy (recent studies have shown that "atheism" is the largest growing religious group in America, particularly among the educated and wealthy)? Where will the various versions of American Orthodoxy find themselves? Will Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism be facing an increased rate of drop out, shrinking numbers, new challenges in putting forth their agendas, or simply intellectual and social discomfort? And how do we prepare in advance for those possibilities?
Alternatively, and this strikes me as more likely, what will happen if American culture begins drifting toward extremes, those of devout politicized fundamentalism and aggressive even militant atheism? Will Modern Orthodoxy's attempt to find a middle ground begin to make less sense, both intellectually and socially? Where will Modern Orthodoxy find itself in a potential cultural battle between self-proclaimed enlightened atheists and self-proclaimed true-blue believers?
I do not mean to sound alarmist. "The hardest thing of all to predict is the future," proclaimed Yogi Berra (or was it Niels Bohr?), and I am not claiming to know in any precise terms where the place of religion in America is heading. I am merely suggesting that Gold's book is perhaps the first shot in a potentially long term and unpleasant battle between Orthodox Judaism and the New Atheism.
1 R. D. Gold, Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit (Menlo Park, CA: Aldus Books, 2008). For more on the book's associated "outreach" efforts and essay contests, see
www.aldusbooks.com. The book and website provide virtually no biographical information about him, and one gets the distinct impression that it might be a pseudonym.
2 The publisher's website includes an interview with the author, which indicates that he ended his formal Jewish education after Hebrew school led up to his Bar Mitzvah celebration. It shows.
3 I refer to Orthodoxy as being 2000 years old not because it is as recent historical studies have shown, Orthodoxy is a modern movement. But this is Gold's language, and it would be too confusing to try to distinguish in this context between Orthodoxy as a modern movement, and the pre-modern sources which are canonical to those Orthodox Jews.
4 Does he really think that it is out of bounds for religion to critique contemporary culture?!
5 A more detailed critique of the book was penned by Gil Student, and is available at
6 The recent publication of Shalom Rosenberg's
In the Footsteps of the
Kuzari, Vol. I (Jerusalem and Brooklyn: ATID and Yashar Books, 2008) is a welcome exception. The works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Norman Lamm are also examples of accessible and sophisticated Orthodox Jewish religious thought.