An Atheist Is, Unfortunately, An Atheist

The title is a paraphrase of something Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik once said concerning an appiqorus, a word that once upon a time meant an Epicurean but came to be a general term for heretic in the post-Talmuidc Rabbinic literature. He was referring to those Jews who were honest and sincere believers in God and practitioners of the Torah and commandments, but, due to ignorance or some other intellectual disadvantage, harbored what were actually heretical beliefs. Dr. Marc Shapiro once wrote a book about the authority of Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith, (link to the article that spawned the book) and noted that although there is room to say that someone who inadvertently holds heretical beliefs, for example, he was never educated to believe that God is not corporeal and he is not learned enough to investigate the matter, should not be held liable in the eyes of the Torah, similar to the rule that one who violates the Sabbath inadvertently, by performing acts which he did not know were prohibited, is not held liable. However, many authorities, Rav Chaim included, apparently held that for whatever reason, one who held heretical beliefs was, unfortunately, still a heretic.

If so, then in my lifetime I have met many Atheist-yet-Orthodox rabbis, and I have read the works of still more such inadvertent Orthodox Atheists.

Some years ago I wrote how “R’ Schachter came to speak at Lander College. The first time was to sit on a panel with Rabbi Lau, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, and Rabbi Tendler, and discuss Religious Zionism in the post-Zionist era” but I did not get around to writing about what they had to say, although what R’ Schachter did say that day made a very strong impression on me. Firstly, he mentioned that he was disappointed in how the Zionist establishment had somehow not conveyed the historically positive approach to Zionism and the advent of the State of Israel Rabbi Soloveitchik had so eloquently expounded. After he spoke, I informed R’Schachter that in the mostly Modern-Orthodox Yeshiva Gedola I attended, the favored students ran the hashkafic spectrum from anti-Zionist to non-Zionist, and the situation was about the same in the yeshivas within his sphere of influence. Secondly, he made mention of the following issue described at the Daas Torah blog:

When the guns were silent after the incredibly short war in June 1967, Israelis discovered that not only had they survived but they had soundly thrashed the massive armies of the surrounding Arab countries and in addition had acquired the West Bank – which included the Old City of Jerusalem and the location of the Temple. Everyone seemed to say it was an open miracle. There was one major dissenting voice – the Satmar Rebbe – who insisted that it was not only not a miracle but the victory was in fact the work of Satan. He emphatically stated that miracles don’t happen for the Zionist  – especially to support the theological crime known as the State of Israel.
Several months later at the annual Aguda Convention, this astounding event was the central topic of discussion  Speaker after speaker spoke on the topic and the gedolim were clearly divided on whether to agree or disagree with the Satmar position. One of those who publicly agreed with the Satmar view was Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky.
At the Melava Malka that weekend, the keynote speaker was Rav Itchie Meyer Levin – the Gerrer Rebbe’s son-in-law. He of course spoke about the topic. After some introductory comments he made the following observation. “Not so long ago the Jewish people suffered the horrible loss of 6  million Jews in the Holocaust. When we went to the gedolim for an explanation we were told that we must be silent and accept this because it was G-d’s will. Now we were just faced with another possible holocaust in the Land of Israel but the Jews were saved this time. We hear gedolim who say that these millions who were saved were saved by Satan. How is that when it comes to the death of Jews it is G-d’s work but when it comes to rescuing them from death it is Satan? It can’t be.”
Rav Schachter then declared that we of course can not hold of the Satmar position, because “it is Avoda Zara.” Jews see God throughout history. We are bidden to thank him and praise Him for the good and for the bad. We attribute the Jewish people’s downfalls as punishments for our failures to keep His word, and victories are attributed to His acting out of love toward us and commitment to the Covenant. We certainly do not believe in the Christian notion of a Satan who can act outside of whatever role he has been given by God, nor do we believe in some kind of dualistic conflict between a good God and a Devil bent on evil. The traditional conception of the Satan is merely the angel who acts to tempt men, to test them if they will walk in God’s ways, an integral part of the creation but no more powerful to influence history than any other of the ministering angels who are charged with the other natural forces. To believe that something other than God saved His people is the height of idolatry. And a prophetic pronouncement if there ever was one.
But what would we call someone who believes that the events of the Six Day war, or for that matter, the founding of the state, were innocuous, neither acts of Divine providence, nor some nefarious doings of the Devil, but just part of a long chain of human wars and politics that will not matter in the long run? I believe that that would be the atheist approach, and a subscriber would be called an atheist, because he does not see God’s involvement in those events. Indeed, most rabbinical types I have met who are not observers of Israeli Independence Day as a religious celebration treat the day and its surrounding history as a mere historical curiosity, the day when the goyim stopped being in charge of the borders of the country and the political structure that generates the issues of national budgeting and shouldering the military burden was created. But it is not religious.
The question I fielded two weeks ago was, how come so many Rabbis, especially in and around Jerusalem, do not observe Independence Day, but still observe Jerusalem Day? Weren’t the circumstances surrounding the days similar?
The answer I gave them: There are no atheists in a foxhole. When it comes to Israeli Independence Day, they reason that the war was drawn out and the circumstances that precipitated the Declaration of Independence did not involve an immediate and clear threat of destruction, and the British just happened to forsake the mandate on that date. Perhaps history did not demand that the state be declared that day, and it could have worked out differently. But the six day war was thrust upon the Jews suddenly. All knew that they faced imminent and swift destruction:
As is well known by now, the mood leading up to the Six Days War was very gloomy. Many in Israeli [sic] and in the Diaspora were anticipating a war which would be very costly in life – both for the soldiers and civilian population. The more optimistic view was that Israel would take a harsh beating but would survive. There is no need to mention the pessimistic view.
and the victory came even more suddenly and involved the emotions of being able to return to the holy sites of the Kotel and Hebron. Further, many of the Rabbis the questioners are familiar with were possibly studying in Israel during the Six Day War or lived through the period of intense national anxiety that permeated the international Jewish community in the days leading up to war. In short, they experienced the miracle themselves. This distinction is critical and welcome, because it brought back many good, religious Jews from the brink of godlessness. More than that: even the Jews who did not consider themselves religious had a sensation of something more, and the great movement toward Teshuva that is so strong today, began.



2 thoughts on “An Atheist Is, Unfortunately, An Atheist

  1. Pingback: May The Year End Along With Its Curses |

  2. Pingback: Q&A: Lag Baomer Until Shavu’oth |

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