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Recently, BBC has been airing a television series called "A Short History of Disbelief," hosted by a prominent figure in the British literary and artistic scene, Jonathan Miller.
Miller also happens to be Jewish by birth. The topic of the program is atheism, and who has been an atheist and why, starting with ancient times and continuing until today.
The topic is indeed an interesting one, and one in which the host takes a prominent part because he is a well-known professing atheist. Miller therefore included a segment taped in the synagogue where his bar mitzva was held, the New London Synagogue. The exterior and interior of the synagogue were beautifully shown - close-ups of the Aron Kodesh and the Ner Tamid - with Miller himself sitting in the back pew and talking about his relationship to Judaism and synagogues - which is rather distant, to say the least.
He told how his father - a Holocaust survivor - had not told him about his being Jewish until he was 10 or 11, and how he didn't quite understand what being a Jew meant. He could not particularly relate to his father's call that he feel a member of the Jewish people - he felt only British. The synagogue was strange to him, Hebrew a language he could not understand, synagogue melodies strange tunes he was not familiar with and all in all, he could hardly wait to get out so he could play football.
It is perhaps instructive that only two houses of worship were shown during the first installment - New London and the Christian chapel at Cambridge. When he showed the latter he pointed out the windows telling the story of the crucifixion and detailed it. Then he said that of course he did not believe a word of it, but that his life and western civilization would be so much the poorer in the absence of these stories. He did not find a similar word to say about the stories of the Torah.
Miller's disdain for religion is well known, and at certain points he was not only disdainful but outright sarcastic - the holy land was a place of loonies, the whole religion began in the desert when people had nothing else to do, and so forth.
Although he was able to quote from many prominent atheists, he also included many who do not really fit the definition. For example, he indicated that American presidents such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were atheists. They were not. They were not devout Christians, but the first two were certainly at least Deists, if not believers, and Lincoln was profoundly religious.
The worst part was that he seemed to equate religion and religious belief with belief in immortality, as if that were the be-all and end-all of religious belief. And he made absolutely no distinctions between religion and superstition, between belief in God and belief in ghosts, between one religion and another, between monotheism and paganism.
When you set up such a straw man it is quite easy to demolish it. Not all religions are the same, and not all beliefs posited in the name of one religion or another need be accepted. There is room for reasoned debate and discussion, but in the end, there is certainly room to come to a conclusion that religion can be reasonable and can be a positive contribution to civilization and to our lives. That is certainly the case with Judaism.
There is a place for questioning within Judaism. Judaism does not ask us to believe that which is absurd, but that which is reasonable, even if not provable. Nor does it ask us to cease questioning. In the magnificent book of Job it is Job, the questioner, who is vindicated by God and not his "friends," who simply repeat old slogans and outworn beliefs. "You have not spoken correctly about Me as has my servant Job," says God to the "friends."
It is Job who seeks the truth, who speaks correctly about God. Judaism itself began as the rejection of the ancient beliefs that paganism had posited, and sought instead a new and purer concept of divinity. Unfortunately, superstitions often find their way back into religion and many people cannot differentiate between superstition and true belief, but it is important that we do so.
I have little doubt that Mr. Miller is indeed an atheist, but at the same time, there are probably many who define themselves as "not-religious" and unbelievers who simply reject some of the superstitions that pass for religion in today's world. If they were to truly examine and try to understand the beliefs of Judaism in all their depth and complexity, it is quite possible that they would find a place for themselves within the community of believers.
It is one of the tragedies of Judaism today, especially in Israel, that those who do not accept everything that is taught in the name of Judaism place themselves into the camp of the non-religious, rather than searching the sources and questioning deeper to find a belief that they can accept.