Modern Orthodoxy To The Rescue – Rabbi Barry Gelman

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.

10 Responses to Modern Orthodoxy To The Rescue – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Hyim Shafner says:

    Rav Barry,

    Very important points for the education of our children. I would also recommend the following lecture on which explores the (Modern Orthodox?) rishonim that took large sections of Birashit as metaphor:

    Rav Bigman’s article in the past Journal of Ideas and Ideals is also pertinent, showing the damage that can result when we teach children about God with out being clear that the Torah, the medieval rationalists and the kabalists all had very different and mutually exclusive conceptions of God.

  2. Barry Gelman says:

    Thanks. Next week I will post on the question of Hashgacha pratit – Divine Providence as many in our camp are still taught the God controls each and every event in life ad history. Modern Orthodoxy can help religion be more palatable if other approaches are presented.

  3. Moish says:

    Although it is true there are commentators who take many aspects of the Torah metephorically, there are many who don’t and we should not discount them because those views are equally as important.

    Regarding the age of the universe- some rishonim take the bible literary and some do not. Again, they are equally important Jewish views on the subject and should not be considered inconsistent with our modern sensibilities and therefore invalid. I understand we have to make Judaism more palatable for people, but to be honest there are aspects of Judaism that are not and we should accept them as they are equally important.

    I know many MO people love to pick and choose only the rational elements of Judaism, but I think that approach only takes away from the beauty of a religion that can teach you more than you can rationally realize on your own. Believing in miracles is a great thing Judaism has to offer.

  4. Barry Gelman says:

    Thanks for reading and for commenting. I would like the appraoch I offered to beceom one arrow in the quiver of appraoches that MO has to offer.
    Believeing in Miracles is not irrational. Eliezer Berkovits has written about believing the Biblical record of revelation and miracles. See God, Man and History starting on page 19.
    my concern is that only the literealist appraoch is taken and that makes learing from the Bible difficult for people.

  5. matjew says:

    In my experiences as an environmental activist, in different corners of the Americas and eventually in Israel, I discovered that the allegedly ‘irrational’ religious-mythic-ethnic attachment to homeland shared by ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘orthodox’ natives caused people to act far more RATIONALLY with respect to treatment of the land. Something about believing one’s seventh generation of grandchildren will inherit the ‘sacred’ homeland produces rational, sustainable behavior. I moved to Israel partly to explore that concept, as a Jew in my homeland (and I encourage all Jews to do the same).

    I wish Maher could also acknowledge that the spiritual and physical homelessness of the cosmopolitan agnostic he admires and aspires to be, does not actually produce the kind of commitment to stewardship of the land that homeland-based religion does.

    Of course, he’s stuck with mainly thinking of ‘religion’ as the non-location-specific universalist faiths– Christianity and Islam and Buddhism– and is clearly uncomfortable (as are many American Jews) with the inconvenient truth that Judaism is really a tribal homeland wisdom tradition, meant to be in a particular place.

  6. Moish says:

    Rabbi Gelman- you are truly a great Rabbi and one of the few who truly embodies modern orthodoxy.

    I have not read Rabbi Berkovitz’s book, but I plan to get a hold of it soon. What if someone were to come along and disprove Rabbi Berkovitz’s theory that miracles are rational? Is there anything about Judaism that is irrational and relies on faith alone?

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Moish, Thanks for your kind words.
      R. Berkovits says the following: “We may take it then, that the Biblical encounter contains no logical inconsistency, nor may it be rules out a priori as an empirical impossibility…”

  7. You have forgotten the old saying : Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

    Maher’s agenda was to ridicule religion. Period. Had he chosen to interview a Modern Orthodox contestant, he would have picked an academic who holds unacceptable views like the Documentary hypothesis and other narishkeit. Had he met a well balanced MO who believes in the truth of Torah and the revelation at Sinai yet is rational in his approach to matters, he would have dismissed him as a hypocrite for either not being a genuine religious fanatic or for deluding himself and not being non-religious.

    Folks like Maher are best ignored.

    • Barry Gelman says:


      Thank for commenting. My point was not to really deal with Maher but to suggest that the ?’s he raises are important and that even if he may not interested in honest debate, there are many peopel with similare question who are really interested in serious religious dialouge.
      All the best,

  8. pierre says:

    Spot on Garnel! A deeply disheartening aspect of seeking answers in my own religious life has been a matter of being referred to religious scholars who quietly held unjustifiable views, amidst a religious Torah system that was supposed to be…systematic! For this very reason, I don’t think “non-overlapping magisteria” is so simple and reliable an answer, anymore than constant recourse to a few Pop-science-friendly Rambams plucked out from a realm of Aristotlian physics. A fantastic presentation from R. Klapper at one of YCT’s Yomei Iyun (that I’m sure some readers/authors here were present for); “Should Facts Affect Faith?”,com_docman/task,cat_view/gid,164/Itemid,13/

    Just as Rabbi Slifkin’s books on “science” and Torah carefully dodge the vast and complex challenges “softer” sciences, unrelenting reiteration of the compatibility of one aspect of science (evolution), leaves an open door to those who believe (reasonably) about science that it should be “systematic” – but who would consider philological evidence for Bib Crit to be a science “compatible” with Torah and rote/Leibowitzian orthopraxy (some orthodox-smicha’ed rabbis I know), or archaeology and the evidence against mechitzot, etc, etc. Evolution is not stand alone. Feeling free to embrace evolution includes butting heads with the reigning theories of biological basis for “how we should behave”, the neurological basis for belief, “freewill” – all within science are treated as systematic. We can’t simply pluck one or two theories without leaving ourselves open to HAVING to address ALL of these issues, anymore than picking and choosing foundational ikkarim that even Kellner considers necessary to hold other kosher views. And thus far I have only found piecemeal, unsystematic, bracketed attempts from within relatively-safe, academic niches within niches, whispered allusions by rabbis to their acceptance of what could only be gene-altering viruses to the Jewish Torah systems. They speak of a seemingly-prophesied time when Torah Jewry will be religiously “MATURE” enough to blanketly accept BibCrit, Finkelstein & Silberman, Pinker & Dennett, et al…

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