Ben Avuyah

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Quick Fisk

Someone recently brought my attention to the following article, which is entitled “Danger ahead- there are good reasons why God created atheists”, by Rabbi Sacks, so I thought I would print the articles and sum up my response to it. Here it is with a spattering of my thoughts in Bold:



“DO YOU believe,” the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?”
“I do,” replied the rabbi.


“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”
The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.”

Here we are going straight into the toilet from the first paragraph. One would be left to believe that Rabbi’s voices get soft and intense when they are about to venture into territory they feel their listener may correctly identify as bunk, and few things smell as bad as when our Rabbinical greats tread around the dreaded issues of Theodicy and suffering. I think it is poor form to bring the all to common refrain: “This is the will of God” as the *mistaken* premise from which atheists will deliver us. After all, religious folks will be left with nothing more than these few words of comfort at the end of the day, with or without the help of well meaning nonbelievers. Furthermore it has rarely been the job of atheists to reform religion. To the contrary, most religious reforms have been forged by coreligionists with a different vision. Not by atheists who do not believe in a God that has provided a rulebook in the first place. But here Sacks lays his false premise, and I will beg to differ.
Atheists do not, “remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion”, No. Atheists remind us that we have no good reasons to believe in the things we claim to know with certainty.

Atheists remind us that intellectual honesty means that belief is proportional to evidence and when no evidence is evident truthfulness demands a default position of uncertainty.

Atheism reminds us that our self proclaimed absolute belief is an unfortunate psychotic break from the sane view of reality that regulates other areas of our life and this egomaniacal fantasy, fueled by unbridled ethnocentrisms, is demonstrably outrageous by any rules of logical engagement.



The Good Rabbi is happy to pretend Atheism is about reforming religion and proceed with his half baked theory from there, but he does not apparently have the stomach to tackle any of the real issues atheism raises for those struggling under the weight of a three thousand year old draconian belief system that deigns to force belief without ever gracing us with a shred of evidence.


Smoke and mirrors.

The first paragraph redefines the “problem” to something Rabbi Sacks has something to say about....'how we make our religion better'. And avoids the real issues of atheism and modernity and the problem he doesn't want to talk about...'why would any reasonable person believe any of this to begin with?'

I think one of the most powerfully disappointing aspects of our religious leadership is the avoidance of the real issues and problems of modernity. Rabbi Sacks continues….



Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.
Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.

Here he does make a good point. Humans will find reasons to kill each other even if religion becomes extinct.


There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.


Another good point, religion has certainly inspired, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.


It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”
Nietzsche was contemptuous of such attitudes. Wherever they prevail, he said, “language exhibits a tendency to bring the words ‘good’ and ‘stupid’ closer to each other”. Only slaves are foolish enough to believe that love and gentleness are ways to live. Masters know a different ethic entirely: “According to master morality it is precisely the ‘good’ who inspire fear and want to inspire it.”
On this Nietzsche agrees with Machiavelli, who said that in politics it is better to be feared than to be loved. And here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Nietzsche’s supreme value was the “will to power”.

This is a classical rabbinical mistake. In Orthodoxy we twist and bend to make unpalatable opinions of ancient Rabbinic authority figures make sense. But there is no such mandate in Atheism. It is simply skepticism about God or Gods. Nietzsche can conclude what he may but he is not as the Rabbi implies, the “greater atheist” that all other atheists humbly follow. There is no reason why atheism precludes compassion and fairness.

Look at Dawkins’s list of crimes committed in the name of God and you will see that they are all cases in which religion has been used to conquer, control or intimidate. They are all expressions of the will to power. This, if anything, is the root of all evil, whether it takes religious or secular forms. That is why the supreme virtue of Judaism and Christianity is humility, the opposite of the will to power.

I agree that religion is not the root of all evil, and while it may be that religion claims that humility is it’s "supreme virtue", the ample number of incidents in which it has been manipulated at the drop of a hat into an implement for bloodshed shows that humility can be hastily replaced by supremacy, ethnocentrism, and the need for conquest.

To seek to impose your will on another, against his or her will, is the first step on the road to dehumanisation. It leads people to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, and wage war in the name of the God of peace. If Richard Dawkins has done no more than warn us of this danger, then may he forgive me for saying that he is a fine example of why God creates atheists and why sometimes theirs is a prophetic voice.



His ending suffers from the same problems as his first paragraph, he has not solved the difficulties atheism and modernity pose to orthodoxy. He has only correctly identified the weak point in Dawkins argument: that not all evil comes from religion. But by concluding that this “prophetic voice of atheism” which helps religion.... is Gods work, he avoids every fundamental problem that truly troubles the members of his community. Those whom actually understand the challenge of modernity are going to be left wanting at the end of his article. The whole piece has the slippery feel of politics and yet another succesful escape through the magic of well lubricated prose.

I will be impressed when a Rabbinic figure actually begins to consider the problem from some type of even ground. "Why does God create atheists" assumes much in an argument against atheism- the lack of belief in a God.

I would have been willing to overlook that had he actually dealt with any of the difficulties rational thought posses to religion. But when he chose to ignore any of the more difficult aspects in favor of restructuring the debate into "we can all be shown better ways to be religious by our unwitting atheist freinds who are pupets in God's great game, the rules for which I will be kind enough to explain to all you ignoramuses out there..", well....let's agree to just flush this dvar torah down to it's peers.

49 Comments:

At 11:34 PM, Blogger XGH said...

I had a different take on this. I have read a few of the Chief's books, and he would never argue against an atheist position directly, because he's no fool. He knows there's no evidence for God or religion and would never argue that there was. He generally seems to equate faith with hope. He's all about hope in the future. He thinks religion is a good system, and therefore was only interested in attacking Dawkins on the point of whether religion is bad for you.

One thing you could debate the Chief on is why he's so sure that hope in the future correlates with hope in God. Couldn't we have hope in the future without God?

 
At 1:49 AM, Anonymous Moshe Shoshan said...

Well, I got you talking again.
I dont have time for a full response, nor will I likely have in the near future. However, as you yourself have noted, Dawkins is a straw man, an easy target for sophisticated religious thinkers.

I think the Chief's equasion of religion with morality is highly problematic. However I think it would do your argument good if you would acknowledge that Sir Rabbi Dr. has a far better knowledge and understanding of the western philophical tradition than you. He is not one of your yeshiva rebbe's, a kiruv clown or a Young Israel rabbi. Cambridge does not give out triple first class degree in philosphy very often. I think he is wrong on a lot of points, but he cannot be so easily dismissed as theologicaly naive.

 
At 10:27 AM, Blogger dbs said...

I agree that the question/answer in the beginning of the article had nothing to do with Dawkins’ arguments for atheism. It seems like R’ Sacks just used that device as a little aside to make a point which he is fond of. To add to the silliness of it, the real answer which any Rav would really offer is “God gave man bechirah, and some chose to be kofers because they want to enjoy taivah (or are morally lazy, or are confused, etc.)”.

Actually, I do think that religion is improved by the secular world – very, very slowly. Hence, there is no more slavery or animal sacrifices or capital punishment for Sabbath violation, etc..

And I’m also really sick and tired of hearing about Nietzsche. If he was a ‘greater atheist’ than Dawkins, perhaps Osama bin Laden is a ‘greater theist’ then the Chief.

 
At 11:06 AM, Blogger SS said...

The question really is, what was he claiming/trying to say? Did R' Sacks ever say that he would refute the "atheist position"? He begins by assuming a belief in God and a belief that "God created atheists". I'm not sure he actually made any salient points on that end, but he did have some good ideas in there...

 
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At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Resh Lakish said...

This reminds me of a secular Israeli writer's response (I think it was Amos Oz) to R' Kook's position that secular Zionists who participated in building up the state were "hamoro shel mashiah"; he complained that although R' Kook is trying to be conciliatory, that presenting people with their own thoughts and ideologies as the unwitting tool of Divine Providence takes away their spiritual autonomy.

This is a similar situation. However, I don't think skeptics should reject this -- it is an example of a figure from within Orthodoxy making a place in his worldview for the Atheist and the skeptic.

And most importantly, it is an example of a rabbinical figure of some authority (although not so much authority in Haredi circles) actually crediting skeptics/Atheists with genuine, thought-out positions, rather than merely trying to justify their taavot while they know that they are wrong.

 
At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Resh Lakish said...

Btw, good to see you back. You and DH are both posting again, and there are signs of life from Orthoprax. All I need is R2JB to resume, and Mis-Nagid to restore his blog kekedem, and there will be plenty of thought-provoking reading.

 
At 2:51 AM, Blogger BaconEating AtheistJew said...

God didn't directly create Atheists, he just placed no evidence of his existence in the universe which created Atheists.

 
At 10:06 AM, Blogger jewish philosopher said...

Professor Dawkins makes an excellent point. He believes that if everyone would only accept his beliefs there would be far less strife in the world. True. My only problem is, why shouldn't everyone accept my beliefs instead?

 
At 10:08 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

XGH, that's an interesting take, and you may have more exposure to his work than I do, but I am not letting him off the hook so easily. He is sidestepping the true challenges posed to religion by a modern world that demands belief only in the presence of evidence.

Saying God created athiests to help me be a better jew is so awfuly condescending. And it is revealing of the prototypical religious mindset that can never take a step back and analyze all the data in situations where this means criticaly analyzing cherished beliefs. Where is the Rabbi who will say the challenge of modernity is that we have to face the overwhelmingly real probability that we are an Amish-like variant of nostalgics who hold ancient ritual and belief as sacred as they hold barn building?

Which Talmudist of note will admit that in the face of this accusation we have little to answer?

Even if Sacks admits this difficulty in other works I think his message to the masses in this popular article is that atheism and those cantancerous moderns are *not a central challenge to our beliefs*, rather, by redifining them as a preexisting cog in our belief system which we find utilitarian, he relieves his readers of the burden of ever having to consider the difficulties with thier beliefs at all.

Dishonest, shortsighted, and evasive. He may already be the chief but he's not getting my vote.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Moshe, thanks for pointing me to the article, and you are right, the Chief has accomplished more, with greater honors than I ever will, even given a couple more lifetimes. But pedigrees don't win arguments. And it is infact twice as upseting to see this issue, an issue that I think is deserving of Modern orthodoxies full attention, so happily sidestepped by one of the few people who could do it justice.

We are left to suspect that our leaders know where this conversation ends and just don't want to go there...

It's depressing

 
At 10:17 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

DBS,

>>>And I’m also really sick and tired of hearing about Nietzsche. If he was a ‘greater atheist’ than Dawkins, perhaps Osama bin Laden is a ‘greater theist’ then the Chief.


Right on !!

And again, it's disturbing to see our greatest leaders lugubriate their way our of real questions, as if they have an extra secretory gland behind the ear that oozes crisco.

Is that all our heritage boils down to?? Wordy, trial court, saviness, that let's one slip through the important debates...I hope not !!

 
At 12:21 PM, Blogger rebelmo said...

I think the Chief did a good job in debunking Dawkins central tenet of religon being responsible for evil in this world. Dawkins goes a bit too far - watch his BBC clips- he is a kiruv atheist and does manipulate his audience. This was a sidestep, but Dawkins is a bit of a performer, and needed some wind taken out of his sails.

Read the Chief on Unity within Diversity- clash of civilizations, he clearly is not a fundamentalist, and realizes torah cannot be proved objectively to be true, and has faith/hope instead, which works for most in getting by day by day in this crazy world.

 
At 6:02 PM, Blogger Just me said...

>We are left to suspect that our leaders know where this conversation ends and just don't want to go there...

Ben: I think you done hit the nail right on the head...Methinks they have no real interest in engaging the skeptic/atheist, or in exploring those positions; rather, they are interested in keeping their flock in the fold by deflecting any interest in skpeticism/atheism by appearing to engage the issue and "resolve" it.

 
At 5:59 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

ss,

I think you have a point in saying that he doesn't specify the goal of his article. I view that as part of the necessary haze that allows rational religious people to discuss these topics in the first place.

By the end he does conclude that athiesm is *not even* a thorn in the religious collective toe. It is in fact a catalyst for religioius progression.

I don't think you can honestly conclude that while never once dealing with the fact that atheism/modernity is a central challenge to everything we believe.

 
At 6:10 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

RL,


>>>>This reminds me of a secular Israeli writer's response (I think it was Amos Oz) to R' Kook's position that secular Zionists who participated in building up the state were "hamoro shel mashiah"; he complained that although R' Kook is trying to be conciliatory, that presenting people with their own thoughts and ideologies as the unwitting tool of Divine Providence takes away their spiritual autonomy.


Yeah, exactly ! How develish is it to allow for anothers world view only as a subservient component of your own. It's as if the chief had said, "I under stand christianity, they exist so I can better appreciate the unity of God in our beliefs"....It's a symptom of the inability to ever step outside of your own preconcieved notions...it's childish in a sense.




>>>This is a similar situation. However, I don't think skeptics should reject this -- it is an example of a figure from within Orthodoxy making a place in his worldview for the Atheist and the skeptic.

>>>And most importantly, it is an example of a rabbinical figure of some authority (although not so much authority in Haredi circles) actually crediting skeptics/Atheists with genuine, thought-out positions, rather than merely trying to justify their taavot while they know that they are wrong.


I don't know, I am less optimistic than you are. He makes a place for modernity and atheism only by ignoring their actual message. I'd rather he hadn't bothered. To me he just appears devious.

 
At 6:11 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

>>>All I need is R2JB to resume, and Mis-Nagid to restore his blog kekedem, and there will be plenty of thought-provoking reading



Bimherah, biyamenu, umein !!

 
At 6:14 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

>>>>Professor Dawkins makes an excellent point. He believes that if everyone would only accept his beliefs there would be far less strife in the world. True. My only problem is, why shouldn't everyone accept my beliefs instead?


Did hell just freeze over ? I think I agree with the Jewish philosopher.

I would hate to see a world that couldn't allow for diverse beliefs. I just wish that people would attach the appropriate level of certainty to them that they deserve !

 
At 7:37 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Rebelmo,

>>> Read the Chief on Unity within Diversity- clash of civilizations, he clearly is not a fundamentalist, and realizes torah cannot be proved objectively to be true, and has faith/hope instead, which works for most in getting by day by day in this crazy world.


Do you have a link to it ?? I am interested, it would really put a dent in my theory of universal denial of modernity from the religious right.

But if he really does hold those views...doesn't that make this article even more a cheap shot ? shouldn't the intro be about a Rabbi telling his student that we don't even know if God exists and our entire mountain of exegisis is based on the same hope that supports mormonism ???

 
At 7:39 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

>>>Ben: I think you done hit the nail right on the head...Methinks they have no real interest in engaging the skeptic/atheist, or in exploring those positions; rather, they are interested in keeping their flock in the fold by deflecting any interest in skpeticism/atheism by appearing to engage the issue and "resolve" it.


Yup, we are on the same page, that's exactly what I see when I read his article.

 
At 3:12 PM, Blogger rebelmo said...

I was referring to his book Dignity of Difference,which i have an recommend, which was controversial b/c it implied that all religons are equal (and cannot claim to have absolute truths) and rather the diversity of the worlds religons and their adherents reflect the multifaceted unity of the creator, who by defintion cannot be limited by any one religon.

He is not an atheist, but he is a realist. I dont think he would have a problem debating Dawkins on the core atheist issue.

although i havent read the book, just read reviews, it seems Dawkins was attacking religon more than god, and the chief hit him on that point.

 
At 7:50 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

rebelmo,

I think the middle three paragraphs deal with Dawkins overeaching argument, but the first and the last seem to deal with atheism in a more general way..and in my opinion, they do so poorly.

 
At 10:56 PM, Anonymous karl said...

Atheism reminds us that our self proclaimed absolute belief is an unfortunate psychotic break from the sane view of reality that regulates other areas of our life and this egomaniacal fantasy, fueled by unbridled ethnocentrisms, is demonstrably outrageous by any rules of logical engagement.

Beautiful.

 
At 3:43 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Thanks Karl!

 
At 3:45 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Beaj,

Good point, I think all a nonevidentiary God is entitled to is a planet full of atheists.

 
At 11:46 PM, Blogger SS said...

>>>"I under stand christianity, they exist so I can better appreciate the unity of God in our beliefs"....

How ironic that that is (almost) exactly what I've been told the Rambam said - that Christianity and Islam exist to bring ethical monotheism to the world...

 
At 5:41 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

SS, I missed it, where did that qoute come from ?

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger SS said...

Which - when I quoted your above comment to RL, or the Rambam, which I do not know but only heard of - I could probably find out, though.

 
At 5:55 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Oh, ok, I see what you were quoting, yeah that is ironic, I didn't realize the Rambam had that take on things. I just goes to show you that enourmous intelligence doesn't necessarily hold a candle to well intrenched perspectives.

 
At 2:30 AM, Anonymous moshe shoshan said...

Ben,

On discussing this article with a few people, I see that my reading of it was far from universal. I see the Cheif as actualy showing real respect for the the intellectual and moral ingerety of atheists. This might no come out in this article.

My point about his credentials is not that they mean anything per se. However, as I have been arguing consistantly here, there are in fact Orthodox thinkers who understand all of your points about rationalism. Most of them think that sorts of arguments made the Kiruv Klowns- ie mainstream orthodoxy today, are too silly to merit response. this may not be the right approach. however, untill you have seriously read the works of figures like R. Kook, R. Berkowitz, the Rav and their students, I think you should with hold your blanket criticisms of Orthodoxy.

Similarly, untill you have better understanding of the modern philosophical critiques of reason, I think you might want to be more cautious in your positivist advocacy of a life lead by reason.

I highly doubt that such explorations will lead you back to religious Orthodoxy, but they will lead you further along path of the unstinting pursuit of truth that you have so admirably pursued thus far.

As Melville wrote,
The truth uncompromisingly told must always have its rough edges.


Moshe

 
At 5:00 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Moshe, insightful thoughts as always...

>>>however, untill you have seriously read the works of figures like R. Kook, R. Berkowitz, the Rav and their students, I think you should with hold your blanket criticisms of Orthodoxy.

I went to a couple of shiurim on Rav Kook, but I didn't get enough of a taste of his personality. I made it through amost half of the Rav book (halachik man ?) I don't know, the one where he contrasts the two differing passages of Adam and tries to resolve that one couplet with a drasha. But I found it dissapointing in that it ignored the larger issue. I wouldn't mind reading up on some of our modern thinkers but I really don't hold out much hope for their views.

My thinking leads me to realize that religion is best approached as a hope, and realisticaly organized religion is basicaly a well meaning, and honestly conceived hoax. If others have come to this conclusion but manage to still promote an orthodox version of service, complete with "women's roles" and "medical end of life issues" mandated by the klal and pratim of the biblical exegesis....I don't know if they deserve as much respect for courage as they do for knowledge......but read more I will.

>>>Similarly, untill you have better understanding of the modern philosophical critiques of reason, I think you might want to be more cautious in your positivist advocacy of a life lead by reason.


I have to admit, I got a headache with my first go round with Kant. I'll have to try again.



>>>>I highly doubt that such explorations will lead you back to religious Orthodoxy, but they will lead you further along path of the unstinting pursuit of truth that you have so admirably pursued thus far.

Moshe, I always thought you were shilling for orthodoxy ? Am I wrong ?

>>As Melville wrote,
The truth uncompromisingly told must always have its rough edges.

Well said.

 
At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Moshe Shoshan said...

Moshe, I always thought you were shilling for orthodoxy ? Am I wrong ?
Ben-
My position has always been that Orthodoxy cannot be "proven" by empirical rational means. This is why the quote from the Rav's "lonely man of faith" that I cited a while back is so important to me.

I therefore dont have any illusion that some one who has apparently lost faith (and now it seems practice) can be "convinced" to turn back.
Furthermore, in the spirit of Rav Kook and the Rav, I see the quest for truth, in all of its modalities to be of inherent religious value. This is despite the fact that such pursuits (what the Rav classifies as Adam I in the lonely man of faith,) conflict both in their methodology and their conlusions with traditional religious faith and practice (Adam II). We live in a world of shivrei luchos, we can only graps at what we find, but we cannot expect all the pieces to fit together. Someone who eager grasps some shards but not others is still, in my mind, seeking out God. I thus respect people to my right and to my left, provided their intellectual, moral and/or spiritual sincerity.

In corresponding with you, my main goal to warn you against what G B Shaw called "fleeing his cell as soon as the prison door swings open with out any thought to where his next meal is coming from." There is far more intellectual and moral value traditional religion and Orthodox judasim in particular than you guve credit for, for all your legitamate critiques. On the flip side, the Life of reason is not all it is cracked up to be, despite its legitmately powerfull attraction.

I would love it if you were frum because of my arguments, however, I dont see why that should happen. It would be greatly gratified if,as some one who has been priveleged with forms of secular and religious education that have been denied, i had helped you make some more informed decisions.

Moshe

 
At 5:27 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

>>>Someone who eager grasps some shards but not others is still, in my mind, seeking out God. I thus respect people to my right and to my left, provided their intellectual, moral and/or spiritual sincerity

If only your coreligionists were so understanding, there would barely be a bone left to pick.

>>>There is far more intellectual and moral value traditional religion and Orthodox judasim in particular than you guve credit for

that may be true, and I should probably start looking for it, as it appears I will be living in a religious community for the long hall. I suppose in the end we all have to find something meaningful to hang on to. But for myself I can't see the beauty in anything untill the major deciets are stripped of their camouflage...I think that is why my blog invariably takes the form of the skeptic exposing what needs to be rethought.

 
At 7:04 PM, Blogger Ittay said...

In the first chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins embraces what he calls the God of Einstein, which is not based on the “mythological” torah stories but rather in the belief of a power behind the world. Throughout the book, Dawkins critique of faith seems to be more with poor interpretations of religious texts that lead to violent or downright stupid acts, rather than the notion of God existing. In this sense, I believe Rabbi Sack’s response to him is thoroughly appropriate.

 
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