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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Why some are antagonistic towards religious people


Rosh Hashanah 22

The last few years has seen an upswing in the number of books that have come out attacking G-d and religion.   From Dawkins’s The God Delusion to Hitchens’s God is Not Great, it seems that atheists have a newfound chutzpah.   These ideologues are not content to live their own lives sans spirituality, but they’ve made it their life’s mission to ridicule and destroy G-d and religious belief for everyone.

For example, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, writes, “I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good.  Still the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the end of the eighteenth century.”   Similarly, physicist Steven Weinberg is famous for his remark to the effect of ‘the most important contribution modern science can make is to destroy the influence of religion on young people.’

Why is it so important to these atheists to destroy religion?

The Boethusians and Cutheans were two sects in the late second Temple period who opposed customary Jewish practice.  As the following three stories demonstrate, they would stop at nothing to subvert the traditional system.

All Roads Lead to Jerusalem
In order for the High Court in Jerusalem to declare the new month, they required the testimony of people who had seen the new moon.  It is such an important mitzvah that if one couldn’t make the journey on foot, one could ride a donkey on Shabbat! 

In an effort to subvert the system, the Boethusians would stand by the side of the road and ambush anyone who was attempting to reach Jerusalem.  The Mishnah teaches that one may even carry arms on Shabbat to protect oneself against the Boethusians.

The Calf-Moon
Originally, the High Court would accept testimony from whoever came.  Eventually they were forced to only accept witnesses that they knew.  Why?  One time the Boethusians hired two people to bear false witness.  Sure enough, the first arrived and his testimony was accepted.  Unbeknownst to them, however, the second fellow was a traditionalist.  

When he arrived the judges asked him how he saw the moon. 
He replied, “I was ascending Maaleh Adumim (a town near Jerusalem) and I saw it crouched between two rocks.  Its head was like a calf, its ears were kid-like and its horns resembled a deer’s.  Its tail was lying between its thighs.  I gazed at it, was startled and fell backwards!  If you don’t believe me, I have two hundred zuz bundled up in in my coat to prove it!”
“Who put you up to this?” they asked.
“I heard,” he replied, “that they were seeking Boethusians to trick the Sages.  I said to myself, let me go and inform them, lest deceitful individuals come and trick the Sages.”
“The two hundred zuz are yours as a present,” said the rabbis, “and may those who hired you receive their just desserts.”

Playing with Fire
Originally, following the High Court’s announcement of the new month, they would light fires to inform the world that the new month had arrived.  A fire was lit on the Mount of Olives.  When they saw it in Sartava, they lit theirs, which in turn was seen in Grophina, and so on “until the entire diaspora was lit up like a bonfire.”

But then the Cutheans began to light their own fires.  All they needed was one false fire and the domino effect began, confounding the entire system.  As a result, the Sages had to annul the fire method and they began sending out messengers each month who would inform the outlying communities that the new month had been established.

Here are three instances of the intolerance of breakaway Jewish groups towards traditional Judaism.  Why couldn’t they just let us be?  We never attempted to subvert their rituals or religious practices!

The problem is that groups that break from tradition are uncomfortable with the persistence of traditional practice.  The greatest example of such intolerance towards Judaism was the attitude of Christianity towards Judaism.  Yes, there were always allegations of deicide levelled at the Jewish people.  But their real issue was ‘If we’re the new Hebrews, why are the old Hebrews still here?  If G-d has abrogated our obligation to observe the commandments, why are the Jews still practicing?’  Consequently, they made it their life’s mission to destroy our way of life.

That’s the reason for the rhetoric of the new atheists.  They’re not content with simply living their lives the way they choose.  They feel the need to bring down everyone else with them.  It bothers them that people still believe in G-d, that people still have deeper meaning in their lives.  And they’ll do anything to destroy that.

We find it within religion as well.  People who adhere to more liberal religious streams often disdain those who still practice devoutly.   And yet they claim to be liberal and tolerant.  The problem is that they are only tolerant of people who are as ‘open-minded’ as themselves.  Present them with someone who believes in traditional religion and they become complete bigots.

Point in case: The leader of the Liberal party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, recently declared that only candidates who are pro-choice are welcome in his party.   He was widely condemned for his position, aptly described as an oxymoron: “There’s no choice but pro-choice.”  Many religious individuals have pro-life principles that they must abide by.   Not to countenance those principles is religious bigotry.

The strange thing is that – religious extremists aside – it doesn’t swing the other way.  We religious folk are pretty tolerant of those who aren’t.  There are no stories of Pharisees who saw the need to disrupt Boethusian rituals.  We’re not lashing out against atheists for believing what they believe, or don’t believe.  We’re not bombarding adherents of liberal religion with our letter-of-the-law convictions. 

We’re happy to live and let live.  We’d be quite pleased if they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them and everybody simply respected the other’s right to believe what they wish.   But they just can’t leave us alone.  It bothers them too much and they feel the need to constantly undermine our religious faith and practice.


Don’t let the naysayers sway you!  You know that you’re doing the right thing.  You know that you’re hanging with the right crowd.  Whether or not your observance level in your private life is reflective of your synagogue choice, you know where you belong.  Don’t let anybody convince you otherwise!