Sermon: What would Richard Dawkins think of this?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 20 August 2010

Just before the summer Mark, Laura and I played one of our favourite games – the ‘who should we invite to come and speak at Alyth’ game.

There is a common pattern whenever we have this conversation.  First we start high: How about Tony Blair? Shimon Peres would be good; Maybe we could get the Pope to change his schedule when he is in town next month?

And then it gets more realistic.  We know we are more likely to get slightly less prominent figures from Israel and Jewish study.  But the real trick is to also find someone ‘other’ to invite.  To hear from our own is great, but it is in dialogue with the other that we can often think best about who we are.  The difficult questions others ask are sometimes the ones that we really need to answer to approach our tradition with integrity.  Hence the Pope idea is not so silly – from our perspective, at least.

Of course, those from other faiths are not the real ‘others’ any more.  The true other in the modern world is the militant secularist.  And the arch secularist, Richard Dawkins, is back on our screens again – with a season of programmes titled Age of Reason.

What is so powerful about the secularist is the challenge of rationality. I well recall watching one of Dawkins’ programmes on new age culture a few years back.  I sat there willing him on against the worst of complementary medicine.  “Go get ‘em, Richard” I thought as he laid into a bogus practitioner about the absence of double blind clinical trials.  ‘You tell em’ I said as he berated the viewer for suspending our rationality. And then I had a sudden jolt as I remembered that he thinks of me as one of them.  To Dawkins there is little difference between me and an astrologer.  And on some level is he right?  Certainly there is an onus on me to prove there is a difference – to show that we can reconcile our tradition with reason.

What does this mean? It is important, I think, to recognise that for most modern religion the basic critique of secularism, in fact misses the point.  That science is far better at explaining the world than religion is, many of us would find hard to disagree.  The rabbis themselves acknowledged the importance of scientific enquiry.  Religion’s greatest power is not explanatory.  As a rabbi I do not seek to provide detailed explanation of the origins of the world – this is neither in my abilities nor in my job description.

But what I do believe is that Judaism, as well as being beautiful, challenging and inspiring, offers the best structure for thinking about how to be in the world.  It provides a framework for thinking about responsibilities and what is truly important.

And here is where there is an argument to be had: For while this is fundamental to my view of Judaism, the militant secularist rejects the role of religion in moral thinking – seeing religion as producing immoral acts through ancient laws.  This, rather than creationism, is actually the battleground.  Our challenge is to show that religion enables rational thinking, and produces positive moral outcomes.

But what happens when we apply this test to this week’s portion? The portion does not contain tales of supernatural miracles – so far so good – but a list of laws about how we are to behave towards each other.  In fact, this parashah contains more commandments than any other, 72 different Mitzvot, many of them not found elsewhere.  These cover a wide territory, many of them very positive even when read 2500 years on: responsibility towards the property of others, building regulations, the charging of interest, workers’ rights, consideration for the orphan and the widow, support for the poor, and the need for honest weights and measures.

Yet some of the laws are problematic for us as modern readers – exactly the types of laws that our ‘other’ might point to.  The two main laws that we read about this morning, the Yafat Toar – the beautiful captive woman – and the Ben Sorer u’morer – the wayward and rebellious son, both seem out of place to even be read in a modern religion.  Both on first reading give ammunition to a Dawkins-ian rejection of religion in modern society.

So how do we answer this challenge? Well, if we scratch beneath the surface, we can see that both are actually examples of our ancestors struggling with issues that we also face – and coming to what, for the time, were radically progressive answers.

The first gives permission for a man to take a beautiful captured woman home and after a month’s process to take ownership of her as his wife.  On one level it is a truly horrible text – it presents a model of male ownership of women, where privilege is given to male desire over female rights.  And yet, when seen in the context of a society where the victor had power to do as he wished, it is astonishingly advanced.  We often read of the horrors perpetrated by soldiers in war, are horrified by the lack of regard for other human beings.  And in this light, it is astonishing how far our tradition had come as early as the eight century BCE when this is likely to have been written.  Our tradition demanded that rights be accorded to captive women, that they would not merely be taken as slaves but accorded some level of protection.  As the scholar David Resnick has written in the Journal of Moral Education:

In the midst of the elation of victory, the law instructs the victorious soldier to be sensitive to the wrenching personal and cultural situation of his captive, postponing his sexual desire in favour of her need for mourning and transition

More importantly perhaps, the captive was to be accorded the status of a wife.  She was not therefore disposable – to be taken on a whim – but received the same rights as any wife to continued food clothing and shelter.

I am not pretending that this is a law suitable for application today, but the underlying principles, that how we treat those we defeat matters, that even the vulnerable should be accorded rights – these are principles that are relevant and demand our attention in modern warfare.  They are principles which religion offers to the world through a belief in human responsibility and the sanctity of human life.

And then we come to the law of the wayward and rebellious son – to be stoned to death on his presentation by his parents to the elders of the town.  I am not sure that this offers us any real guidance on the modern challenge of the wayward teenager, but what is clear is that our ancestors too struggled with our issues, with how to deal with children who were out of control.  At first read their answer fills us with horror.  But yet again we can see this as part of a moral progression towards the development of human rights.  It is likely that this law developed in a context in which a parent had the ultimate right to punish their child.  The law as presented in the Torah removed this right from the parent and introduced a legal structure, narrowing its applicability.  Importantly, as we saw in the shiur this morning, the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud narrowed the law even further, introducing qualification after qualification to ensure that the law was never applied at all – According to the Tosefta, a collection of law from the third century CE, the law of the stoning of the rebellious child was a law “that never was and never will be, and was only written to reward those who expound it”

What is clear from this is that Judaism in its earliest form was a progressive, with a small p, religion – and that the answers set by Torah were themselves not always enough for the early rabbis, who continued to develop laws to meet their own understanding of the world.

The history and development of these laws underlines perhaps the fundamental idea in Judaism – that how we behave towards each other matters and that therefore human interaction needs regulation.  Many of us choose to understand this principle from a religious perspective – to believe that God cares how we treat each other and expressed this in law.  But this faith is not necessary to understand the text and to see its importance.  From a more humanist angle it is enough to acknowledge that this is a set of laws grounded in religious identity which demands that each of us as human beings must be treated with respect.

And it is this, I think, that the secularist misses – seeing religion as unprogressive, while in truth it can, and always has been capable of development; seeing religion as out of touch, while in truth it continues to have lessons for all of us today, even if we sometimes need to scratch beneath the surface of ancient texts to see them; and most important, believing that religion fails because it cannot explain the world, while in truth explanation is only half of the picture – the really important question is what we do with the world we are in – and here even some of the most challenging sections of Torah still have an enormous amount to offer.

So I would like to thank Richard – for helping us to look at our tradition again.  Perhaps he should be near the top in our ‘who should we invite to come and speak at Alyth’ game. We’ll ask him next – if the pope says no.