A figure of great stature, and sometimes the center of controversy in England, where he has served as chief rabbi and the public face of British Jewry for two decades, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is certain to add to both his stature and the controversy that surrounds him with the publication of his newest book.
Starting with his first words.
“If the new atheists are right…” Rabbi Sacks writes at the beginning of his new book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” (Schocken Books), setting the tone for insights into what he sees as an evolving relationship between the empirical and the spiritual. He goes on to discount some of chief claims of nonbelievers against the worldview of believers — he defends the accomplishments of religion and its followers. But a religious authority even harboring the possibility of atheists’ rectitude (“If…”) is surely to be provocative in some religious circles.
Since when do Orthodox rabbis — a chief rabbi, yet? — indicate that there may something good to say about the people who traditionally are the opponents of the religious?
Throughout his book, Rabbi Sacks has plenty good to say, as he praises individual atheists he has known while skillfully demolishing their beliefs. Or, in their case, their non-beliefs.
The rabbi, who will retire next year, has established himself as a spokesman for morality who defies narrow labeling; sometimes he draws criticism from both the left-wing and right-wing flanks of Judaism for some of his statements and actions. And with “The Great Partnership” he again shows himself to be unafraid to set himself up as a target.
The “new atheists,” a group of prominent writers — several of whom the rabbi has publicly debated and privately befriended — have in recent decades aggressively taken up intellectual arms against religious thought. They are misguided, but, as advocates of science, they have much to contribute to society, Rabbi Sacks writes, likely to anger his fellow believers of all faiths.
And, he continues, the atheists are, simply, wrong theologically. That assertion is unlikely to earn him any followers in atheistic-secular no-religion circles.
“All other civilizations rise and fall. The faith of Abraham survives,” he writes. “If neo-Darwinism is true and reproductive success a measure of inclusive fitness, then every neo-Darwinian should abandon atheism immediately and become a religious believer, because no genes have spread more widely than those of Abraham, and no memes more extensively than that of monotheism.”
Like such Jewish writers as Gerald Schroeder, Nathan Aviezer and David Medved, who have broached the divide between science and religion — all of them are scientists and believers — and who seek to prove the inaccuracy of the atheistic perspective, Rabbi Sacks approaches the topic as a theologian (albeit an inordinately well-read and scientifically sophisticated one). He advocates a rapprochement, showing unexpected respect to what many religious people would call the other side.
Society needs both religion and science, Rabbi Sacks argues in innovative, articulate and well-documented words. The two are not mutually exclusive. Hence, “partnership” in his book’s title.
To Rabbi Sacks, a willingness to view scientific thinkers as allies, and science as complementary to religious endeavors, has wide precedent in Jewish history. He gives as examples Maimonides, and rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Joseph Soloveitchik, among others. “Common to all of them,” Rabbi Sacks writes, is an openness to science, a commitment to engagement with the wider culture of the age, and a belief that faith is enhanced, not compromised, by a willingness honestly to confront the intellectual challenges of the age.”
The rabbi’s book is a very Jewish book, citing all sorts of Jewish sources, and at the same time not a uniquely Jewish one; it speaks in a language common to believers from any background. “Judaism is a conversation scored for many voices.” He effortlessly includes statistics and history, personal stories and culture-wide experiences, all the time making clear the differences he sees between the Weltanschauung of his world and that of the atheists. One of his constant themes is an apparent schism between the brain’s left-side and right-side orientations. (According to accepted scientific explanations, the left cerebral hemisphere is dominant for language, coldly logical and verbal; the right hemisphere emphasizes emotions and imagination.)
“It is my argument that religion and science are to human life what the right and left hemispheres are to the brain,” Rabbi Sacks writes. “They perform different functions and if one is damaged, or if the connections between them are broken, the result is dysfunction. The brain is highly plastic and in some cases there can be almost miraculous recovery. But no one would wish on anyone the need for such recovery.
“Science invokes the power of reason, religion the highest power of revelation,” the rabbi writes. “Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyzes, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as subjects.
“We need,” Rabbi Sacks writes, “scientific explanation to understand nature.”
But, the rabbi posits, the reach of science is limited. It’s good at the what, not so good at the why. “It can track mental activity from the outside. What it cannot do is track it on the inside.”
Rabbi Sacks saves some of his most biting criticism for the new atheists, the group of atheists whose high visibility has come to dominate public debate on atheistic “belief.”
He criticizes them as being bad for the cause of atheism.
“Atheism deserves better than the new atheist, whose methodology consists in criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing fold belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity,” the rabbi writes.
“Religion has done harm,” he writes. “But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”