Every Sunday we get a paean to Christianity by Tish Harrison Warren, and yesterday we read Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe touting the advantages of Judaism—and of religion in general. Wolpe isn’t as irritating as the smarmy Warren, who provides only bromides. Wolpe seems like a nice and caring guy, and I’m sure he’s brought solace to many in his rabbinical duties. He’s also had his own tribulations: two surgeries for a brain tumor as well as lymphoma. But can’t the NYT occasionally produce columns in praise of atheism and humanism? After all, there’s no good evidence for a God, and yet that viewpoint is resolutely ignored by the paper, which publishes piece after piece by people who think not only that there is a God, but a specific kind of God, like the Christian one (e.g., Warren).
According to Wikipedia, Wolpe is infamous among conservative Jews for questioning the historicity of the Old Testament:
On Passover 2001, Wolpe told his congregation that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Casting doubt on the historicity of the Exodus during the holiday that commemorates it brought condemnation from congregants and several rabbis (especially Orthodox Rabbis). The ensuing theological debate included whole issues of Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and editorials in The Jerusalem Post, as well as an article in the Los Angeles Times. Critics asserted that Wolpe was attacking Jewish oral history, the significance of Passover and even the First Commandment. Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hier wrote that “Rabbi Wolpe has chosen Aristotle over Maimonides, theories and scientific method over facts”. Wolpe, on the other hand, was defended by Reform Rabbi Steven Leder from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who argued that “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”
Wolpe asserted that he was arguing that the historicity of the events should not matter, since he believes faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. Wolpe argues that his views are based on the fact that no archeological digs have produced evidence of the Jews wandering the Sinai Desert for forty years, and that excavations in Israel consistently show settlement patterns at variance with the Biblical account of a sudden influx of Jews from Egypt.
In March 2010, Wolpe expounded on his views saying that it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites with their traditions. This opinion is, in fact, shared by the majority of historians and biblical scholars. He added that the controversy of 2001 stemmed from the fact that Conservative Jewish congregations have been slow to accept and embrace biblical criticism. Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, are taught biblical criticism in rabbinical school.
It’s to Wolpe’s credit that he accepts the historical and archaeological evidence against the Exodus. As he says below, he thinks that religion isn’t really about “a set of beliefs to one assents.” He’s wrong, of course. Maybe that’s true for Wolpe, but why would there have been a controversy about the Exodus if some people didn’t adhere to the Old Testament claims? But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll just add that you may know Wolpe from his several debates about religion with Christopher Hitchens. Here’s one about the existence of God. (Note: it’s 90 minutes long.)
Click on the headline below to read, and you can find the piece archived here
This column seems to serve as Wolpe’s swan song: his retirement thoughts on the human condition and how it’s ameliorated by religion, which to him serves as a kind of social glue. (Wolpe’s statements are indented.)
For over a quarter century now, I have listened to people’s stories, sat by their bedsides as life slipped away, buried their parents, spouses and sometimes their children. Marriages have ended in my office, as have engagements.
I have watched families as they say cruel, cutting things to one another or, just as devastating, refuse to say anything at all. I have seen the iron claw of grief scrape out the insides of mourners, grip their windpipes, blind their eyes so that they cannot accept the mercy of people or of God.
After 26 years in the rabbinate, as I approach retirement, I have come to several realizations. All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize it in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through the brokenness.
This is what binds together a faith community. No religious tradition, certainly not my own, looks at an individual and says: “There. You are perfect.” It is humility and sadness and striving that raises us, doing good that proves the tractability of the world and its openness to improvement, and faith that allows us to continue through the shared valleys.
Well, I’ve never been a member of a “faith community,” even a Jewish one, but it seems to me that what binds a faith community together is a desire to belong to a tribe which whose members care for each other. That, plus the factors that make a tribe a tribe: shared beliefs. Jews can never be members of a Christian faith community because they don’t think the Messiah ever came back. Nor can Muslims be members of either community because they think the Qur’an is the final and correct faith, and Muhammad is the prophet. And that brings us to Wolpe’s misguided claim about religion not being about a “set of beliefs”:
I have had a privileged view of the human condition, and the essential place of religion on that hard road. Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?
Yes, religion is about the solace of being a member of a community. But, for most, it’s also about shared beliefs, something I discuss in Faith versus Fact. Does a Christian community have any meaning if the members don’t accept the fact that Jesus came to earth as God/son of God, was crucified, and thereby gave us the possibility of eternal life? Are Muslims not a community because they all accept the tenets of the Qur’an, dictated to Mohamed by an angel? In fact, Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life—a way of life based on shared beliefs about empirical circumstances. And so it goes for many religions: without accepting at least the existence of a divine being, most religions—and all Abrahamic religions—center largely on “a set of beliefs to one assents.”
Now as a heterodox rabbi Wolpe may indeed reject a conventional god. As he says in the debate below, he defines his god as something quite nebulous:
“God is the source of everything that exists, and God is someone, something, with whom a human being can have a relationship, and that you can live your life in alignment with a godly purpose. That any definition that is greater than that is in some ways to traduce God.”
But he has no right to pronounce on what religion is about for everyone else! And there’s ample evidence that he’s wrong.
In some ways, Wolpe’s claims are a final defense against the increasing secularization of America, which he mentions twice. Pushing back against that, he sees religion as, without question, a net good:
I know the percentage of those who not only call themselves religious but also find themselves in religious communities declines each year. The cost of this ebbing of social cohesion is multifaceted. At the most basic, it tears away at the social fabric. Many charities rely solely on religious institutions. People in churches and synagogues and mosques reliably contribute more to charities — religious and nonreligious — than their secular counterparts do. The disunity that plagues us in each political cycle is also partly because of a loss of shared moral purpose which people once found each week in the pews.
If lack of religion “tears away at the social fabric,” especially because religions promote charities, then you’d expect that atheistic countries would have a badly torn social fabric. The evidence is against that—at least the evidence from Scandinavia, where government has simply taken over the care of sick people, old people, disabled people, and poor people. There is no lack of charity in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or other countries. (And virtually every European country has government-provided health care.)
Of course Wolpe doesn’t mention the bad things that religion does—things that Hitchens eloquently mentions in the debate above. Why are Jews demonized by many in the U.S., something mentioned by Wolpe in this article? It’s because they’ve inherited the legacy of being “Christ killers.” Why do Muslims and Jews battle each other to the death? Religion. Why did Hindus and Muslims kill each other during India’s partition in 1947, and continue to do so today? Religion, of course. Now you can say that without religion people would find other reasons to kill each other and form tribes. That may be true, but religion is perhaps the greatest cause of tribalism in the history of the world, and I’m pretty sure that, had it never arisen, the world would be a better place.
Wolpe paints the Old Testament, even if it be fictitious, as a source of solace:
I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that patterns of life that might escape us become clear. Sibling rivalries and their costs are clear in the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The consequences of kindness emanate from the book of Ruth. We share unanswerable questions with Job and passion with the Song of Songs. The Torah acts as a spur and a salve.
But so do many other nonreligious works! If the Torah is more efficacious than these works, it’s because people believe those stories, something Wolpe says they don’t do. Otherwise, sibling rivalries, kindness, and questioning can be found in gazillions of nonreligious works of fiction and nonfiction. And, as reader Leo (who sent me this link) noted, “I guess he wants us to ignore the Bible stories about slavery, war, genocide, etc.”
In his last paragraph, Wolpe again claims that religion is a bulwark against creeping secularism and the social damage it apparently causes:
Religion may be on the decline in this country and in the West, but if you wish to see the full panoply of a human life, moments of ecstatic joy and deepest sorrow, the summit of hopes and the connections of community, they exist concentrated in one place: your local house of worship.
Well, they also exist concentrated in a better place: your local library.