Secularists are cultural elites who despise faith - opinion

America today is engulfed in a culture war between those who believe that religion is backward and primitive and those who understand that faith in God is the foundation of American democracy.

New York City police officers block hassidic men from entering a synagogue, closed due to COVID-19, in Brooklyn, in March 2020. (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
New York City police officers block hassidic men from entering a synagogue, closed due to COVID-19, in Brooklyn, in March 2020.
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)

Unlike the Persians and the wicked Haman, the Greeks did not seek to annihilate the Jews. Hanukkah was not a genocidal war of extermination waged by the Assyrians against a Jewish people whose very being they despised.

Rather, Hanukkah was a war of cultural elites who believed their way of life – Greek Hellenism – was vastly sophisticated while the Jews were a bunch of country bumpkins.

The Greeks had philosophy, poetry and theater. The Jews had the Temple, the Torah and the synagogue. The Greeks looked down at monotheistic worship as monolithic and simplistic. The Greek pantheon of many gods seemed to offer a vastly greater variety than a contradictory, all-encompassing being who was all things to all men.

So the Greeks sought to impose their cultural hegemony over the Jews. The Jews fought back and the rest is history.

Its relevance to modern times is immediate.

The author speaking at Oxford during a debate on Israel. (credit: Courtesy)The author speaking at Oxford during a debate on Israel. (credit: Courtesy)

When I served as rabbi at Oxford University I saw the secular condescension to people of faith constantly. Oxford built its modern science museums to look like cathedrals to make a point: the primitive temple of worship had been replaced by the sophisticated temple of science.

It was for this reason that I challenged Prof. Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous evolutionary biologist, to a series of debates that spanned many years. In the spirit of the Maccabees, I wanted the arrogance of the secularists which holds that there is no place for the modern man or woman of faith to be challenged. Later those debates morphed into world-renowned debates with Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most famous atheist, which now have millions of views on YouTube.

But if you want to see just how arrogant the secular world can be about religion, look no further than to how the governments of the State of New York and so many other places tried to shut down the synagogues and churches during coronavirus.

Science was seen as the absolute essential remedy to the virus. And don’t get me wrong, science saved countless lives and the vaccines especially are a miracle that everyone should be taking. But, religion during the coronavirus was dismissed as a nuisance at best and something dangerous and murderous at worst.

In October 2020 then-governor Andrew Cuomo passed a law limiting synagogue and other places of religious worship in coronavirus hot zones to just 10 to 25 people, even in synagogues and churches built to house hundreds or even thousands. The governor’s restrictions on synagogues proceeded even while no such restrictions were placed on secular outlets such as bicycle shops, liquor stores and acupuncture clinics.

This is typical of the secular condescension. Food is essential. Faith is not. Doctors are essential. Rabbis are not. Bicycles are essential. Torah is not.

The Greeks similarly looked at philosophy as being essential while theology was not. Theater was essential. Religious celebrations were not.

Later, two modern religious Maccabees came to the fight: the Orthodox Agudath Israel and the Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn won an astounding victory in the United States Supreme Court, which issued a midnight ruling on the eve of Thanksgiving last year.

What Cuomo failed to recognize is that faith is a vaccine for hopelessness and worship, an antibody against despair. We need both the secular vaccines of doctors and the religious vaccines of rabbis.

People need to believe that they’re going to live. They need to have faith that we’re going to come out of this pandemic intact.

The Assyrian Greeks who persecuted the Jews and looked down on Judaism as a primitive belief system could not understand that it was Judaism, with its linear history of beginning at creation and progressing and evolving all the way to the perfection of the Messianic era, that set the stage of scientific progress as we know it.

Why do doctors search for cures for disease when perhaps they cannot be conquered? Because it has been foretold. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Zechariah – all of whom the Greeks tried to suppress – dreamed nearly three millennia ago that pandemics – along with war and murder – will one day be banished from the earth. Without the religious promise made thousands of years ago that God’s hand is guiding history and that history is therefore linear – growing, amid setbacks, ever more brightly by the day – we would be condemned to the vagaries of cyclical history in which nothing improves, everything just goes around and around as if on a carousel and we are left fumbling in the darkness.

It was not Homer’s Iliad or the Odyssey, with its glorification of war and conflict, that created the United Nations, whose purpose it is to foster peace, but rather the prophecies of Isaiah of men beating their swords into plowshares, as is reflected in the Isaiah Wall at the UN.

America today is engulfed in a culture war between those who believe that religion is backward and primitive and those who understand that faith in God is the foundation of American democracy and freedom. Our founding fathers believed our freedom stemmed from God as an inalienable right. It was not granted by kings and thus could not be taken away by a dictator or sovereign.

It’s time we grabbed the mantle of the Maccabees and pushed for a society where a tolerant and open-hearted religion is respected, promoted and embraced. And at no time is this more important than as the world faces a global pandemic that keeps on coming back with ever more virulent variants. We need to all take the vaccines which are jabbed into our arms, and the vaccines that are uttered with our mouths and felt with our hearts – the antibodies of prayer and faith.

The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” is the author of 36 books, most recently Kosher Hate. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.