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Religion’s Most Urgent Problem

This column by Shai Held ties in nicely with my Sunday school class’s ongoing discussion with Dr. Kirby Godsey of his book, Is God a Christian?

What Held writes of Judaism can and should be said of any world religion:

The world is not divided between those who read selectively and those who don’t. It is more accurate to say that the real division is between those who acknowledge that they read selectively, and those who do not – or who, given their assumptions, simply cannot. If contemporary Jews want to accentuate those voices in Torah that stand for the ontological superiority of Jews over Gentiles, voices that often end up demeaning the other, we can do so. If, on the other hand, we want to focus on those sources that insist upon the shared dignity of every human being created in the image of God, and upon God’s concern with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, we can do that, too. If we want to be responsible heirs of Torah, we will have to decide – either explicitly or implicitly, either consciously or unconsciously – what to read in light of what.

He concludes:

“It is forbidden,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes, “for the fear of heaven [yirat shamayim] to push aside the human being’s natural morality, for then it would no longer be pure fear of heaven.” Kook argues that every human being has an internal – we might say, God-given – moral compass, and that religious passion must never override its teachings. Piety is pure when it deepens our concern for others, impure when it dilutes our sense of ethics, or even gives us license to behave in ways we would have found unconscionable had we not been religious. (Many of Rabbi Kook’s presumed spiritual heirs would no doubt benefit from an intensive review of his words. )

In light of Rabbi Kook’s words, I would remind religious leaders around the world: If your religious commitments render you less moral than you would otherwise have been, then your religion is impure and idolatrous. Each of us, all of us, must ask: How do we build religious lives in which our care for others is intensified rather than attenuated? There is no more urgent religious question.



  1. […] 13, 2011 by James F. McGrath GA_googleAddAttr("author", "JamesFMcGrath"); Tweet ShareDarrell Pursiful shared excerpts from and a link to an article by Shai Held on the use of the Bible in Judaism. The same points could be made for any […]


  2. On the “selective reading” – Does Held leave no room at all for the Torah to prioritize itself, for there to be an internal agenda native to the text rather than added on from the outside? Or if not native to the text, native to God?

    Otherwise, he’d made all Torah-based things entirely whimsical and man-made … raw materials but not formed theologies … just to go by the excerpts.

    Take care & God bless


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