I’ve been mulling the fact that some of the leading figures in the New Atheist movement are born-Jews, at least according to their own accounts. Christopher Hitchens is Jewish through his mother’s mother (and proud of it, which I find charming). So too Sam Harris. Jerry Coyne is ethnically Jewish. Ditto Steven Weinberg. Neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett is, thank God. I know that Jews are disproportionately represented in all fields of intellectual, business, entertainment, and other public endeavors — everything except public moral leadership, our natural calling, which we strenuously resist. (See the book of Jonah.) So in a way it’s not surprising that we lead the field of evangelizing atheism too.
It’s unsurprising for another reason, however, alluded to in the haftarah reading from this past Sabbath — Shabbat Hazon. “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3). Meditating on that verse, Nehama Leibowitz quotes from Rabbeinu Bachya in the Duties of the Heart:
Should they fail to appreciate the wonders of creation bearing witness to His wisdom and kindness, this would not be beastlike but worse, as the text has it, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know.”
Animals, at least, know their master. Atheists don’t. That Jews would sink to this level was part of the plan, part of the history that God anticipated. It is an apparently necessary aspect of the drama of redemption.
This is a great week to contemplate such issues — the Jewish angle in secular culture’s increasing alienation from God — with Tisha b’Av coming up on Thursday, a day of mourning and fasting over our current alienated condition, symbolized by the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago.
According to mystical tradition, this past Sabbath came to be called the Sabbath of Hazon, or “Vision,” superficially because that’s how the reading from the prophet Isaiah begins — “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz” — but at a deeper level because as a prelude to Tisha b’Av, every Jew is granted a sort of unconscious vision of the ultimate symbol of redemption, the as yet unrealized Third Temple. Some Jews, obviously, fight off that vision at the cost of embracing the existence of a brainy animal, which is what a human being is reduced to under the atheist vision.
More on the theme later.