26 May

Secularism and Knowing God

All grand historical processes occur according the providence of God and His will, including those processes that seem to be in opposition to Him – such as secularism. The rise of secularism presents believers with a dilemma; it appears that they must choose between the religious world and the modern world. The solution to this dilemma is found by gaining a deeper understanding both of belief and of secularism.

Believers in the Torah should not be focusing on ‘serving’ God, but rather ‘knowing’ God. Because God created everything, a deep desire to know God will necessarily include all aspects of life and grant them meaning. Many came to neglect the Torah because the way it came to be passed through the tradition did not provide an appropriate framework for their spiritual and worldly aspirations. However, it is precisely because God desires that we know him, and knowing him requires us to think in grand terms, that he has brought to the world an abundance of wisdom in recent generations. So atheism is not only a reaction to narrow religious conceptions of divinity, but also a way of correcting them and making them more refined and pure. For this reason, today we must return to study the Torah with big-mindedness, with an eye to expanding our knowledge, our morality and our love of life itself.


Secularism and Atheism – Historical Background

What is secularism? The common definition is lack of observance of the Torah and its commandments, in other words: a secular person is one who drives during the Sabbath. This definition describes a secular attitude that ignores and negates religion, but it does not speak to the actual content of ideas – even to the point that one could incorrectly conclude that the only attribute of someone who is secular is that he is not religious. For this reason we will herein use the term ‘atheism’ to mean negation of religious authority or belief in God, and ‘secular’ to mean the lifestyle and worldview of modern man.

The past three hundred years have seen drastic changes in almost all fields of human thought: in the philosophy and understanding of the world and humanity; social ideals and political order; science and technology; art and literature; and more. The breadth and the speed at which these changes occurred – and most importantly the breakdown of norms and the spiritual and social structures that were bound to them – transformed these changes from gradual modifications of separate fields into a wide-reaching phenomenon. These changes became entrenched simultaneously with the waning of religion: some were made possible precisely as a result of the rejection of the religious way of thinking; others cast doubt on religion (or on truths that were seen as necessary for religion) and eventually, the concept of the ‘collective’ created a new social fabric in a way that relegated religious communal institutions to the sidelines.

The concept of the collective was generally expressed in two ways: on the political right, calls were made for realizing the national identity, for national self-determination, ‘nationalism’; whereas on the political left the recognition of classes became the pivotal issue, and the individual began to identify himself in the context of a world-wide class struggle. Amongst the working class, for example, there was the common phrase “Workers of the world, Unite!”

Looking at these developments, it is clear that the history of secularism is bound up with the history of atheism. The same experience has been seen within the Jewish people: A significant portion of the nation ceased to be religious, and at the same time there occurred a collective awakening to return to Zion (right), as well as social movements that called for changing the nature of the class structure (left).

This depiction presents the religious person with a dilemma, for one is left to choose between the religious world and the modern world. In order to find a solution to this dilemma we need a deeper understanding both of Judaism and of secularism.


A Process Foreseen

Let us contemplate a number of basic assumptions in Judaism regarding the analysis of historical phenomena:

The first assumption is the rule laid out by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (The Maharal of Prague) in his book, Netzah Yisrael (Chp. 6): “Because all the great things are not by chance.” Any process that includes millions of people, including Jews and the rest of humanity, is not an accident, and is not even a result of their own free will. History itself is a path for revealing God’s will. If Judaism was actually indifferent to history, as Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz tried to claim, we would have to say that the Tanach has no place in the Jewish library, seeing as it mostly deals with history.

Maimonides made a similar point in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers (Chp. 8), that the great historical processes occur in an inevitable manner, and all that is left for the individual is to choose whether or not to take part in them.

Looking at the Mishna at the end of the Tractate Sotah it can be seen clearly that the sages anticipated a historic period where there would be a breakaway from religion: “In the footsteps of the Messiah, audacity will become abundant.” Meaning, that at the beginning of the messianic period there will be more audacity (chutzpa) in the world. So not only is secularism not accidental, it is a process that was even predicted. One could say that the sages meant this as a warning to the religious faithful of this period and to instruct them to be patient until the audacity abides. But through the deeper understanding which attaches meaning to historical phenomena, we can see that the audacity is a process guided by the higher providence for a purpose.


God’s Will is not only in the Commandments

The second basic assumption is put forth by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (The Ramchal) in his book, Da’at T’vunot, and other places, where there is room to see God’s will even in developments that are against the laws of the Torah. The accepted religious view holds that observing the Torah and the commandments is the exclusive pathway to express God’s will. From this follows the position that every phenomenon in reality should be measured according to its degree of alignment with the Torah law, and therefore any human phenomenon that rejects the obligations of the commandments is necessarily antithetical to God’s will. However, the Ramchal explains that God’s providence is not limited to giving the Torah and the commandments and setting reward and punishment (the ‘providence of justice’), but rather it entails a deeper purpose: the revealing of God’s oneness, or unity (Da’at T’vunot, paragraph 43-44):

The soul said: I still have room for a little doubt. Why do we need to say that everything depends on this unification? Your original explanation was better, that God wanted to give the ultimate goodness to his creations and therefore had to allow them to earn it and not receive it by grace, and therefore put reward and punishment in the world, so that they would receive the goodness in their reward, and this required free will so that reward and punishment could be justified.

The intellect said: but reality demonstrates that the oneness will be revealed… therefore, if so, the fundamental intent is not reward and punishment but rather the ultimate perfection.

The revealing of the oneness is the knowledge that everything in reality is aligned with the will of God, and to this end all aspects of life should be directed and uplifted. The Ramchal uses similar language in his introduction to Ma’amar Havikuach:

The true wisdom understands holiness and the resting of the divine presence on his creations and connecting with them… such that God’s most central desire in the world is that all the affairs of the world will reach perfection and become sanctified.

In order to bring the world to the eventual revelation of oneness there is a hidden providence – the ‘providence of oneness’ – whose role is to promote deeper processes even at the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of Torah law. For example, the are periods where evil is allowed to rule or when free will is suspended – in total contradiction to the Torah’s understanding of retribution, and to the basic human sense of morality – in order to create an opening to achieve the oneness (Da’at Tvunot, paragraph 42-43). The Ramchal exhorts us to recognize God’s will not only in the realm of the commandments and their rewards, but also, and more so, in the complex and hidden developments of history, including those that seem to be in opposition to God’s will.


The Purpose of Man: To Know God

Within the Ramchal’s presentation of the ‘providence of oneness’ lies an additional assumption: that the purpose of man’s life is not to fulfill the commandments, but rather to know God. God guides the world toward the revelation of his oneness because of his desire for mankind to know Him, and the commandments are instrumental toward achieving this goal. This is also the opinion of Maimonides, who wrote in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers (Chp. 5):

Man must rule over his different powers and abilities… and place before his eyes always a single purpose, which is: to know God, according to man’s capacity to know him.

And in Guide to the Perplexed (Part I, Chp. 54):

He who knows God will be he who finds favor in God’s eyes, and not he who only fasts and prays to him. Moreover, all who know him are desirable and close to him, and all who do not know him are ones who are despised and distant. According to the extent of knowledge or ignorance, such is the extent of satisfaction or hatred, closeness or distance.

And so, the main objective that students of the Torah should be focusing on is not serving God, but rather knowing God. A deep desire to know God will necessarily include all aspects of life and grant them meaning; because the Holy One is the God of everything, it is impossible for there to be an aspect of life that is void of Him: Science, art, sport, various cultures and so on. There cannot be knowledge of God, without knowledge of his entire world.


Secularism – the Call for Wisdom, Morality, and Life

Let us consider now secularism itself. If the commandment observing Jews possessed all the desirable human traits – greatness of thought, love of life, demand for justice – while the secular Jews possessed only crime, base desires, and hazy thinking, then one could make the claim that the whole process was negative and distorted. Instead, through honest and clear contemplation, Rabbi Kook recognized that the secularist trend was fueled by an aspiration for wisdom, morality, and a healthy life – an aspiration that did not find enough of these qualities within the religious world.

Thus, for example, Rabbi Kook describes his generation (Eder Hayakar, p.108):

This generation is strange. It is mischievous and wild, but also lofty and inspired… On the one hand – ‘audacity will increase’, a son will not have reverence for his father, teenagers will be disrespectful of elders; on the other hand – feelings of kindness, honesty, justice, and compassion are also being strengthened. The scientific ability and idealistic drive is breaking out and becoming prominent. A significant portion of the younger generation does not honor at all what it was brought up into, not because its soul has become darkened… but rather because it has arisen to the point at which the way it has been taught to see the tradition and the faith seems to be beneath its level. It has grown and ascended suddenly, its strife has refined it, washed it. It has been given a new heart and a thoughtful, innovative mind that soars, and cannot remain lowly. Its spirit has given it wings and it will fly high, but there its object of its longing was not found.

In Rabbi Kook’s writings there are dozens of analyses of the phenomenon of secularism. His explanations are not only based on his own depth of thought, but also on fundamental principles in the Jewish faith that have been laid out in the writings of the great sages over the generations. For example: God’s providence in the world, the relationship between holy and mundane, the essence of prophecy, the exceptionality of the Jewish people, and more.

Rabbi Kook’s above point is not complicated, although many people in his time, as well as today, are reluctant to accept it: People neglected the path of Torah and the commandments not because of laziness or ‘going astray’, but precisely because the way the Torah and the commandments were passed through the tradition did not provide an appropriate framework for their spiritual and worldly aspirations.

As mentioned above, in the last 300 years mankind has developed rapidly in a number of fields – in philosophy, science, politics, ethics – and this progress led people to see their previous lifestyle and worldview in a critical light. And so, Rabbi Kook claims, secularism is correct in its criticism and rejection of social structures and worldviews that stand in opposition to spiritual and ethical progress, such as slavery, the status of women, monarchal regimes, ignorance, decadence etc.

It is because God desires that we know him, and knowing him requires us to think big and have strong will, that he brought to the world in the past few hundred years an abundance of wisdom and talents. The Zohar provides a hint to this process (Section I, 117A):

And in the sixth century of the sixth millennium [1840 in the Gregorian calendar] the gates of wisdom will be opened on high and the fountains of wisdom down below, and the world will get ready to enter the seventh millennium, as one who prepares himself on the eve of the Sabbath to enter the Sabbath.

The abundance that came into the world eventually lead to heresy and the neglect of religion; But God desires this process despite its negative results because it is bringing the world to a higher level of knowledge of God.


Is the Existing Torah Inadequate?

Rabbi Kook’s statements above also outline the beginning of a solution: the problem is not the Torah and the commandments in and of themselves. But instead, the problem is that the popular understanding of issues of faith, and the reasons for the commandments, were and still remain guilty of small-mindedness and a negative attitude toward vitality in life.

Secularism, as said, is correct in its rejection of certain social structures and worldviews, but is mistaken in including the Jewish Torah along with them – because the Torah itself is not inadequate. Rather, because of the neglect of the study of how to know God and the troubles of the exile, the Torah was diminished (Brachot 8B): “From the day of the destruction of the holy temple, God has only the 4 cubits of the halacha.” But, had Torah been known in its true and complete form it would not have been rejected.

The claim that the Torah, as it has been passed down through the generations is deficient, is not a heretical one. On the contrary, it reflects a deeper faith in the eternity of the Torah. We have seen already during the first Temple that Jeremiah laments (Jeremiah 2:8): “The priests did not ask: ‘Where is God’ and keepers of the Torah did not know me.” The Talmud (Bava Metziah 85B) explains that the sages and prophets did not know how to understand the reason for the exile, until God Himself outlined it: “That they left my Torah – that they did not begin with the Torah blessings” meaning, they were occupied with the Torah, but with no connection to its giver, the Holy One.

The Zohar warned those who study Torah while neglecting the goal of knowing God, and connected it to the verse (Job 14:11): “As water flows from a sea, and the river becomes arid and dry.” That is, the occupation with all the multitude of details without the grand goal of knowing God makes the Torah dull. In other place the book of the Zohar accuses those who study Torah of being only interested in ‘their Torah’ and not ‘God’s Torah’.

Rabbi Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, called for his students to engage in the Torah’s inner meaning, so that they could become the guides of the new generation (Sichot Haratzaya, Hador, 7):

There has never been such spiritual space as in our day, and it needs to be guided to a belief in grand ideas… all the giants of the earlier and later generations protested the lack of the serious and deep study of belief… Books dealing with faith were available at the time, but scholars did not study them, and therefore they could not function as guides to the perplexed of the generation… There is more prestige in focusing on the intricacies of the law than in diving into the depths of the Torah. And the habit became natural and this expressed itself with a vengeance in the state of the generation.

We should point out that the deficiencies amongst the studiers of Torah are not only the result of their sin, but also of the general state of humanity and of necessary historical processes. For example, during the time of the destruction of the temple, Rabbi Akiva explained the verse (Isaiah 44:25): “Who makes wise men retreat and makes their knowledge foolish,” as referring to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, and teaching that the removal of wisdom was God’s doing, and was meant to allow for the destruction.

For this reason today we must return to study the Torah with big-mindedness, with an eye to expanding our knowledge, our morality and to love life.[1]


The Role of Atheism

One could look at atheism as a form of resistance to the narrow and childish way of thinking that characterizes religious society; resistance to the profound seriousness with which the believer declares ‘God exists’, even though God cannot be bound into the human concepts of ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’. That being said, the atheist who announces ‘God does not exist’ falls into the very same trap. And so it is clear that the topic of belief and disbelief needs further explanation.

In another place (Kevatzim Michtav Yad Kodsho, volume 2, p.59), Rav Kook explains that the religious world lacks a knowledge of God that is attained through engaging in all facets of life, and for this reason religion remains on the sidelines and does not attain the status it is worthy of:

Because God was not known outside of religion, the world was thrown into the depths of decadence. God should be looked for in all of life and in all of existence, and then he will automatically be known in all of life and all of existence… God is revealed in religion only insofar as the religion itself is grounded in that which is beyond religion… ‘Religion’ should only have mandate over issues of holiness, and leave worldly matters alone. This follows from the very concept of religion. God, however, is revealed in all, within holiness and within the secular realm.

Even more so, Rav Kook explains that atheism is not only a reaction to narrow religious conceptions of divinity, but also a way of correcting them and making them more refined and pure. As soon as the world will voice its urgent need for wisdom, justice and higher emotions, the conception of God will be forced to return to its original purity (Orot, 126):

As a result of the general refraining from the spiritual study of divine issues, the concept of divinity becomes darkened, without the intellectual and emotional effort to purify it… Then, God is not revealed in the soul but rather in lowly and wild imaginations, that construct a blurry and fictional picture, diluted and convoluted, that frightens all believers and represses their spirit, dampens their heart and prevents the gentleness in man’s soul from prevailing, and uproots the divine light of his soul. And even if he would say all day that his belief is in the One God – this is as an empty word and the soul does not recognize whatsoever, and any person of gentle character must necessarily distract his thoughts from it…

And Atheism comes as a sort of outcry from the intense hurt to redeem man from this narrow and foreign source, to uplift it from the darkness of the letters and sayings unto the light of the idea and feeling, until it finds its place too in the center of morality. This atheism has a temporary reason for existing, because it must digest the pollution that has become mixed with belief that has no knowledge and effort.


The Secrets of the Torah

These above points are part of ‘the secrets of the Torah,’ and are potentially dangerous – seeing that as soon as one recognizes that there is positive meaning to secularism he is liable to adopt it entirely and uncritically. But in our generation we must state them, as they are major processes that are ongoing in humanity in general and amongst the Jewish people in particular, and we must understand them in depth.

The sages describe in a Midrash a similar dilemma that Moses had to deal with:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: When Moses was writing the Torah he would write each day. When he came to the verse that says “And then God said: ‘let us make man in our image’, he said to God: King of the Universe, why do you leave an opening for heretics? This is incomprehensible! [God] replied: write it, and he who desires to err will err.

The same applies for the issue of secularism: the utility that arises from saying the proper thing in the place where it is needed – the demand for revealing of God’s full oneness in all aspects of life, in the holy and the secular – is greater than the danger that someone may misunderstand from lack of ability or from taking things out of context.

*Note: The following is an unofficial translation of the original Hebrew article.*


[1] See also Rav Kook’s Orot Hakodesh Section II, p. 317 (‘The Struggle between Holiness and Nature’): “The secret of the contemporary movements becomes clear, that holiness itself, the light of the world, that stands above nature, the material, and the social, – holiness itself demands from the world in general, and from the scattered and broken Israel in particular, nature’s fair due; simplicity, health, normalcy in life in emotion and in intellect, in admiration…” In the book, Shemona Kevatzim (section 8:153), Rav Kook deals with the pressing question why was Moses not the messiah? His answer his built on the concept of audacity (chutzpah).

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