Gabi and I recently watched Religulous,a 2008 documentary film starring comedian Bill Maher that satirizes organized religion.
If only Bill Maher had interviewed a Modern Orthodox Jew…
I used to get very upset when cynics like Maher went public, but more recently I have come to appreciate the importance of the questions that Maher posses. I have realized that challenges to religious claims ultimately can be of great service to religion. Encountering and considering challenges like those presented by Maher makes faith stronger and richer.
Maher is merciless in his interviews of people he considers religious fanatics. He has clearly done his homework and seems to know the contents of the bible better than the subjects he interviews.
To be fair, he spreads his mockery equally between Christianity, Judaism and Islam…no faith is safe from his barbs and jibes.
There are a few aspects of the film that strike me as very important for Jews to consider. I will share my take on three of them.
The Bible is not teaching science: For the fundamentalist Christians depicted in the film this was a very difficult concept to understand. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes this point when he reminds us that there is too much that in concealed in the Genesis narrative for the record of the creation to be considered science.
I remember vividly how excited I when I read Rock of Ages by Stephen J. Gould where he sets out his theory of Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Basically his argument is that science teaches us how the natural world works and religion teaches us how we should behave. Since religion and science concentrate on different realms they do not come in conflict with one another. I was almost 30 when I read the book and his point seemed so obvious to me, yet, it had never been taught in my otherwise excellent Modern Orthodox education.
This simple yet profound point makes all the difference when teaching Torah in the modern world. Instead of trying to figure out if the Torah can be reconciled with the theory of evolution, we can focus on what the purpose of Torah and religion are.
We do not need to read the bible literarily: Bill Maher over and over again tries to convince people in the film that reading the Bible literally is silly. For me, it was shocking many in the film would not entertain another possibility.
Jews familiar with traditional Torah study are well aware that the Torah is not taken literally. From an “an eye for an eye” to God’s finger, there are numerous biblical passages that are not taken literally.
Maher’s favorite example is the talking snake. Even that story is interpreted non-literally by our classic commentators. My favorite is the interpretation of Abrabanel who suggests that the snake did not verbally tempt Adam and Eve, but rather they saw the snake eating the “forbidden fruit” and not die. Once they saw that, the subliminal message they got was that one can eat from the fruit, the very message put into the mouth of the snake.
These first two points should be included in the quiver of Modern Orthodox education for adults and youth. Many of our students are taught that God does not really have a finer and that “an eye for an eye” is not to be taken literally. It is much more rare for them to hear that some of the narrative pasts of the bible are also not considered to be literally true by many commentators.
Religious people need to exercise humility: One of the most shocking aspects of the film was how sure of themselves the fundamentalist were that they were right and that everyone else was wrong. For the fundamentalist Christians not only are non-Christians wrong, but we are all doomed unless we accepted Jesus.
This approach reminds me of a warning sounded by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman: “A Jew dare not live with absolute certainly, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic and Judaism abhors fanaticism, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential ultimately to discover its creator.” (One Man’s Judaism pg 17)
Judaism has always taught that for non-Jews there are alternate paths to God.
On another level it is important to realize living in a world of certainty closes off learning. Once we stop learning we have given up on our path to God.
I do believe that one can live with doubt and still believe in God. This is why we call it faith.
At the end of the documentary, Maher, expresses, in no uncertain terms, that religion is bad, the cause of violence and that it is religion that will ultimately bring about the end of the world.
He forgot his own call for humility when talking about matters of faith.
Religulous raises many good questions about faith and how it is practiced in America and around the world. We should not shy away from the questions of critics, nor should we take them personally. I believe that Modern Orthodoxy offers an approach to religious life that addresses many of those challenges. Modern Orthodoxy can help religious regain the place of prominence it deserves.