By Steven Philp
Friday evening, nearly 3,000 people packed themselves in to the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada to witness former-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens grapple with the merits of religion. The event was part of the Munk Debate series, organized by the Aurea Foundation, for which the prompt was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” Blair–a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church – was tasked with defending the necessity of faith communities, while Hitchens–author of the best-seller God is Not Great–argued that religion is the source of incalculable misery throughout human history. During the 90-minute debate, Hitchens seemed to hold sway over the crowd although a pre-debate poll showed 57% of the audience already agreed with his position, compared to the 22% who were sympathetic with Blair. The remaining participants were undecided.
As might be expected from such vocal personalities, both men conceded little to their opponent. Hitchens characterized religion as a dangerous anachronism, comparing G-d to “a kind of divine North Korea.” He equated omniscience to malevolence, arguing, “Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us subjects in a cruel experiment.” Blair held the defensive through most of the debate, returning to the theme that throughout history people of faith have been engaged in acts for the betterment of humankind. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” Blair argued, pointing out that such generalizations ignore the multifaceted nature of faith communities. Yet in the end, he failed to qualify religion as more than “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives.”
That this debate occurred Friday evening is apropos of a similar discussion within the Jewish community, as each Shabbat we are asked to make a conscious decision about what it means to be a Jew. On one hand, Judaism is a matter of faith affirmed by the commandments of shamor v’zachor, to keep and remember, the Sabbath. On the other, it is a cultural heritage that extends beyond the synagogue–if it includes it at all. As Jews we ask ourselves if Judaism as religion is “a force for good” in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large.
Unfortunately, elements of faith have been used through our history for oppression; consequently, it may not be surprising that traditionally subjugated minorities–women and the LGBT community, for example–have found greater degrees of mobility within those denominations of Judaism that have moved further away from strict observance. At the same time, there have been countless Jews who have contributed to the betterment of our communities – looking at the Forward 50 published earlier this year, we can see contemporary examples of fellow Jews who have taken leadership on a variety of issues. Yet contrary to Blair’s characterization of do-gooders their individual relationship to Judaism is not necessarily one of faith, even as this heritage may have inspired them toward a certain moral imperative. In this way, the religious element may not be necessary for the performing of good deeds. At the same time, there are many on the list that have an intimate relationship with Judaism as a faith practice. For them, it’s an inextricable part of their Jewish identity.
Then is it possible to separate Judaism as faith from Judaism as cultural heritage? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Chadash, a growing Humanistic community north of Chicago proper. He explained that the purpose of Humanistic Judaism is to honor Jewish culture in a way that is human-centered; it is a space for the secular Jew to celebrate his or her heritage, while “saying what they believe, and believing what they say.” In some cases, that may mean removing G-d from the equation. On the other hand, as a Jew-by-choice my approach to Judaism is one defined almost exclusively by faith; unlike Rabbi Chalom, I lack the cultural heritage of a born-Jew. Yet through our conversation, it was evident that we shared one key belief: Judaism can be “a force for good in the world.” It is true that our tradition – inherited or chosen–has been used to maintain systems of oppression. Yet it has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of inspiration for the betterment of mankind, for both secular and observant Jews alike.