Religion’s most urgent problem
by Rabbi Shai Held
Speaking in 1945, Orthodox Zionist leader Moshe Unna made an impassioned case for what he called “Jewish humanism.” Unna was calling not for humanism in the sense of putting human beings rather than God at the center of the universe - a view no religious thinker could embrace - but rather humanism in the sense of an uncompromising commitment to universal human well-being and mutual responsibility. Humanistic ideals, Unna emphasized, are inherently universalistic; they are, he said, “moral and cultural values that generate a commitment to the world and to humanity.”
Scholar Moshe Hellinger has described Unna’s vision of Judaism as a two-tiered structure in which the universal-humanistic is the first floor, while the national-Jewish is the second. Unna insisted that the second floor must be interpreted in light of the first - that is, that Torah must be understood through the lens of a fundamental commitment to the human, and not merely the Jewish.
Unna concluded his talk with a courageous declaration: He advocated for a “Jewish humanism learned from our Torah,” and then added: “It is crucial to emphasize the word ‘humanism.’ It is not enough simply to say ‘according to the Torah,’ because from the Torah many different things can be learned. ‘The Torah has 70 faces,’ and one can even learn from it the obligation to commit acts of terrorism ... The word ‘humanism,’ therefore, comes to explain and clarify which values from among those values found in our literature we seek to internalize in our educational system.”
What Unna was saying is that we cannot pretend to derive our values from a simple, straightforward reading of Torah, since Torah contains multitudes, and can be read as advocating universal humanism, on the one hand, and radically particularistic chauvinism, on the other - and, of course, anything and everything in between. We need a principle of interpretation in light of which we read everything else. For Unna, that principle is “Jewish humanism.”
Although it may not be obvious at first glance, these words of a now sadly forgotten religious Zionist figure have everything to do with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Unna’s remarks are in many ways more pertinent now than ever, and not just for Jews. What Unna demands of us is relentless honesty about what guides our reading of religious traditions, about what values ultimately animate us.
The world is not divided between those who read selectively and those who don’t. It is more accurate to say that the real division is between those who acknowledge that they read selectively, and those who do not - or who, given their assumptions, simply cannot. If contemporary Jews want to accentuate those voices in Torah that stand for the ontological superiority of Jews over Gentiles, voices that often end up demeaning the other, we can do so. If, on the other hand, we want to focus on those sources that insist upon the shared dignity of every human being created in the image of God, and upon God’s concern with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, we can do that, too. If we want to be responsible heirs of Torah, we will have to decide - either explicitly or implicitly, either consciously or unconsciously - what to read in light of what.
All religious traditions contain the raw material to generate and cultivate lives of enormous beauty and moral sensitivity, and the raw material to generate and cultivate unspeakable ugliness and moral obtuseness. In this regard, Judaism is no exception.
People often ask whether religion leads to violence. To be honest, I find this question baffling. Of course religion leads to violence. History is littered with the victims of humanity’s seemingly insatiable hunger for crusades and holy wars. But religion also leads to goodness, and kindness, and acts of love that boggle the imagination. History is filled with countless examples of compassion and self-sacrifice in the service of a God who summons human beings to care for the vulnerable. To ask whether religion engenders violence, then, is to ask the wrong question. A better question, I think, is this: Given that religion has the capacity to inspire both wanton brutality and immense generosity, how do we become responsible heirs of tradition? How do we raise children whose religious passion leads them down the path of loving-kindness rather than the path of callous indifference or even murderous hate?
“It is forbidden,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes, “for the fear of heaven [yirat shamayim] to push aside the human being’s natural morality, for then it would no longer be pure fear of heaven.” Kook argues that every human being has an internal - we might say, God-given - moral compass, and that religious passion must never override its teachings. Piety is pure when it deepens our concern for others, impure when it dilutes our sense of ethics, or even gives us license to behave in ways we would have found unconscionable had we not been religious. (Many of Rabbi Kook’s presumed spiritual heirs would no doubt benefit from an intensive review of his words. )
In light of Rabbi Kook’s words, I would remind religious leaders around the world: If your religious commitments render you less moral than you would otherwise have been, then your religion is impure and idolatrous. Each of us, all of us, must ask: How do we build religious lives in which our care for others is intensified rather than attenuated? There is no more urgent religious question.
This article originally published on Haaretz and reprinted on TAM with the permission of the author. Rabbi Shai Held is co-founder and dean of Mechon Hadar in New York City.