A deeply pious and devoted Jew knocks on the rabbi’s door in a state of deep despair. The rabbi invites him into her office and, seeing his obvious melancholy, asks, “Samuel, what’s wrong?”
The man responds: “Rabbi, from the time that our son was born, my partner and I have raised him to follow in our people’s ways and live with faith. We brought him to synagogue every Shabbat, schooled him in the wisdom of our sacred texts, and prayed with him each night before going to bed, and every morning upon arising.”
“I know,” said the rabbi. “You have done well. What is the problem?”
Samuel wept, then replied, “Despite all of this, our beloved son has become a fervent atheist. He refuses to go to synagogue and adamantly denies the existence of the Holy One.”
The rabbi puts her arm on Samuel’s shoulder, and sits with him, silently, for a long time. Finally, she responds, “Samuel, all will be well, for God must have willed this to be the case.”
“How can you say that?” cried Samuel. “Why would God make my son become an atheist?”
“Well,” said the rabbi, “God dearly needs atheists. Because sometimes we people of faith tend to put all of our energy into prayer and learning and sacred reflection. That’s when we need atheists to set an example, to prod us into action. Atheists are essential because they remind the faithful that if we wait around for God to right the world’s ills, things will only get worse. They teach us that if we want to heal what’s broken, it is up each and every one of us. If we do not speak – and act – up, then we are complicit with evil.”
This story is new, but its message is not. Almost three thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah warned that religious piety without ethical action is the worst form of hypocrisy. One cannot truly love God without caring for God’s creatures. Isaiah lived in times much like our own, filled with so-called faithful worshipers who were zealous in performing religious rites and professing “family values” even as they oppressed the most vulnerable members of their society and abdicated their care of creation. The prophet spoke out:
The Holy One proclaims: What need have I for all of your sacrifices? I have no delight in lambs and goats that you bring to offer Me. Who asked that of you? Trample my courts no more! Your incense is offensive to me. When you pray at length, I will not listen, for your hands are stained with crime. Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves; every one of them is avid for bribes and greedy for gifts. They do not do justice in the case of the orphan and the widow’s cause never reaches them. Put away your evil doings. Cease to do wrong. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Uphold the rights of the orphan and defend the cause of the widow.
This message has never been more timely. Our social fabric is unraveling, like that in Isaiah’s day. Much of our nation has hardened its heart against immigrants, wallows in gun violence, abuses the natural world and revels in bigotry – starting with the president of the United States, whose insidious rhetoric is somehow still supported by those who claim to be people of faith.
If this is faith, give me atheism. Or, if you prefer, work to restore the vision of Isaiah, in which God demands justice and deplores evil and exploitation. This is the only God worth serving.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.