In the winter of 1984, only months after I had returned from a year as a visiting student in a hesder yeshiva in the Judean Hills, I helped host a Shabbat for a group of the “best and brightest” Israeli high school students who were touring the United States. When the time came for the afternoon prayer, all the students were invited to the chapel of a Jewish home for the aged in my community. Many of the students seemed out of place, not knowing how to follow the service in the prayer book. One young man did not enter the chapel at all. When I went outside to ask him what was wrong, he laughed and told me “I am an atheist.” His words took me aback. I was sure that if he were visiting a church he would not have hesitated to enter. His articulation of his opposition to Judaism stood in contrast to his fellow students who did not have the conviction to oppose something they could not understand. Nevertheless, I sensed that this young Israeli’s atheism was neither the product of serious thought nor constituted a true rebellion against something that was crushing his soul. He was simply lazy.
My encounter with a Jewish World War II veteran two years ago was very different. Before I lectured in his retirement community, he told me he did not believe in God. After asking him why, he told me that he was a liberator of Dachau. The horror that he witnessed, the stench of rotting corpses, the living skeletons who managed to survive—they ripped away any faith that he had in a God of History and a God of Justice. I told him that if I were in his place, I would likely have come to the same conclusion. As I have written recently, my father was fighting in Germany at the end of the war. The terrible sights that he saw and his encounters with Jews who survived did not weaken his faith but emboldened him as a Jew. In contrast to the Israeli student, the Jewish liberator of Dachau I met had good reason to no longer believe in God. His atheism was rooted in horrific realities, not the style of the day. This Jewish veteran was a “holy rebel.” He rejected God but did so while serving his people and liberating Jews from enslavement and death.
Bialik, in his condemnation of the passivity of the Jews of Kishinev in the 1903 pogrom, was a holy rebel. M.J. Berdichevski, in his realization that religion had the power to shackle the individual and rob him of his warrior past, was a holy rebel. Shaul Tchernikhovsky, in wrapping the tefillin around the arm and head of the statue of Apollo, was a holy rebel. The men and women, the pioneers of the Second Aliya, were passionate in their rejection of religion because they had experienced the Judaism of the rabbis of the Pale of Settlement as life-denying. They were rejecting God for good reason while at the same time never forgetting that they were Jews. Their atheism was passionate. They were rebelling against forces that numbed the soul and left Jews defenseless in the face of their enemies. While I do not share their rejection of God, I understand it. Without Jerusalem there would be no Tel Aviv. But without Tel Aviv there would be no Jerusalem. Had most of the rabbis of Eastern Europe triumphed—had there been no rebellion by those who rejected them and rejected their God—all that would have been left of Jews and Judaism would have been Treblinka and Babi Yar.
I only take atheism seriously if the atheist is passionate in his rejection of what he knows and what he experiences. Those young Jews alienated from Judaism and God throughout the world today are not rejecting what they know. They are not even rebelling. They are simply getting up and walking out, never to take seriously again a formidable 4000-year-old heritage that is a treasure trove of great books, great ideas, and great personalities and role models. While Judaism today can still be viewed in some quarters as a laundry list of prohibitions that weakens individual freedom and expression, our faith still has the power to inspire and liberate. If a Jew takes that heritage seriously and after much searching of the mind and soul rejects it—so be it. But rejection must emerge from knowledge and experience. Anything less is sham rebellion.