Sunday, February 19, 2012

My Question of the Rabbi: Faith and the Holocaust

So I saw a discussion between the great Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor and an extremely learned and distinguished British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the question of religion in a secular age. I was moved to send this note to the Rabbi, who I'm thinking will have better things to do than to answer me.

In any event here it is:

...Dear Rabbi Sacks:

I live in Toronto and you would think I am a "tone deaf" Jew.

I last night watched a broadcast of your Toronto colloquy with Charles Taylor as moderated nicely by the professor of Jewish Studies from York University whose name I can't recall.

You were most impressive and elucidating, even inspiring. You said there are three fundamental questions: who am I; why am I here; and, then, how shall I live. You said, in observing the place and prominence of religion in these secular times, that man is a meaning seeking animal.

The intellectual problem I have is why is God integral to you or why he should be. I understand from reading Mark Lilla that particularly during the German Enlightenment thinkers came to God from the opposite end, what Lilla calls something like "the great reversal": they started with a conception of the highest moral order for men being in the world and reasoned from it to the virtue of religion, some arguing for it as state based, as a way of institutionalizing and inculcating that highest moral order.

I have, as a tone death atheist, trouble getting with any reasoning along these lines and can see detaching (and living by) moral imperatives from such religious moorings as they may be derived from and from faith.

I am no lover of faith.

I read quite a while ago in Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish of a train car of Jews transported by the Nazis to their death and being in a state of anxiety at no one being able to say Kaddish for them and therefore improvising by, if I'm remembering correctly, saying it for themselves in advance, all as fueled by their reverence. This story was meant, I think, to exemplify the boundless depths of the ritual, its magnificent beneficence and the intensity of the belief and faith of those death bound Jews.

But I took an opposite reaction to that story. In my reaction, I granted them their God and then in my mind and heart raged against him for bringing those Jews and their brothers and sisters and wives and parents and children and and all their other family and friends, and my Uncle Chatzkel and his son Aaron and all Jews who perished and who suffered in the Holocaust to their unspeakable fate. And I could have wept for the infinite pathos of those particular death bound Jews in their anxiety over Kaddish.

So I suppose my question is how you come to faith as essential to your moral life and how in arriving at that faith you take account of the Holocaust.

Sincerely,

Itzik Basman...

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