See now, that I, I am He - and no god is with Me. I put to death and bring life, I struck down and I will heal, and there is no rescuer from My hand. (Deut. 32:39)
The above verse is from the ending of the song of Parshat Ha'azinu, which amounts to a poetic eulogy of human history.
The message that this particular verse conveys is that human history cannot culminate till humanity reaches the clarity of vision to acknowledge that God has exclusive control over life and death, over sickness and health.
Last week the world took a giant step in the direction of attaining this clarity. To fully appreciate the impact of the terrible events that have washed over us, we must understand the profound importance our modern society places on the feeling of being in control and how this feeling influences our attitude towards God.
In the conception of sociologists, human religious feeling is inversely proportional to the human sense of control. Thus primitive man was intensely religious because he understood very little about the workings of the universe and consequently had zero control over natural processes. He didn't know how or why people were born or died, he didn't understand why the seasons changed, or why people got sick or how to cure them.
It is difficult for humans to live with mysteries.
It is difficult for humans to live with mysteries because it puts them into a state of anxiety. We can only plan for the future and invest today in whatever will produce a better tomorrow if we are confident that there will be a world out there tomorrow. As long as we understand and control nothing in our world we have nothing on which to base this confidence.
Consequently according to the sociologists, we human beings invented God.
The God-hypothesis was the perfect answer to our primitive anxieties. We invented a man-like God Who created the world and controls it. We understand His motives which are very like our own motives, and consequently, because He is predictable and He is in control, we are able to face the future with a sense of security.
Of course, He invariably has some demands, but meeting God's demands is a small price to pay for the security of a predictable future. While God is only predictable in a very broad sense (since you can never say for certain what God will do in each individual case), nevertheless inventing God was the best method primitive man had at his disposal to stave off his anxieties. On the whole it worked.
We have come an enormous way from that primitive man in the last 5,000 years. We have unraveled the mysteries of the physical world, and we are well on our way to unraveling the complexities of the human character as well through the development of the social sciences. We have even managed to get a grip on the world economy through the developments of post Keynesian economics. We are in control of our futures. We no longer need the God-hypothesis to feel secure. Consequently Western society has abandoned it and turned militantly secular.
It's not a matter of whether modern man believes in God or not. The issue doesn't even arise today; the possibility of the existence of a controlling Divinity has become irrelevant.
There is another non-religious dimension to this notion of control as well. Our society is liberal, tolerant and democratic. We look with a favorable eye at our neighbors; we are genuinely dedicated to helping everyone attain a share of the good life.
This attitude, which is the bedrock of Western democratic societies, is based on the assumption that it is within our power to keep our economies ever expanding, so that the social pie will continue to grow endlessly. As more and more will always be available, we are able to be liberal and generous and keep including ever increasing numbers of people within the American or European dream.
What if the Western confidence in this bubble of optimism were pricked?
But what if our confidence in this bubble of optimism were pricked, and the Western world would be filled with anxiety and uncertainty about the future?
To the degree that the average person would grow increasingly concerned about the welfare and security of his own immediate family, his generous feeling toward his fellow man would fade. A feeling of "either you or I" would inevitably result in the adoption of policies of exclusion, which in turn would literally destroy the whole fabric of the social contract that underlies our political system.
Thus, being in control not only determines how we feel about God, the feeling of being in control is the very life blood of the modern world that we have constructed.
ENEMIES OF SOCIETY
Now let us study the enemies of our society, the people who are responsible for terrorism. What is their interest? Are they merely interested in destruction for its own sake?
As long as terrorism was directed mainly against Israel, much of the liberal intelligentsia of the Western world managed to persuade themselves that even terrorism had a rational basis. There was no other recourse for deprived people lacking military resources. Their only chance was to demoralize their much more powerful enemy through savage acts of terror that would rob that enemy of his sense of security. The effects of terrorist acts might be unpleasantly gory, but from a distance the intelligentsia found it easy to sympathize with the terrorist.
Fundamentalist terrorism exposed its true face on a grand scale in the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Many thousands of innocent lives were wiped out for no apparent positive purpose. The United States was not at war with any of the countries or peoples apparently responsible, and they had no apparent strategic gain from planting the seeds of fear and terror in the streets of America. So why did they do it?
Terrorists also subscribe to the sociologist theory of religion.
The answer is that the terrorists also subscribe to the sociologist theory of religion.
The uninterrupted success of the Western world, especially now that it has emerged triumphant over Communism, is an existential threat to the continued existence of fundamentalist primitive societies.
In the information age, it is quite impossible to isolate pockets of the world from the main body of humanity. If the development of the Western world and the spread of its ideology continued unabated, it would not take that long for the repressed populations of fundamentalist societies to catch on to the fact that a better future was available around the corner for anyone who was willing to master the information necessary to learn how to control his world. Such a conclusion is the death knell of a fundamentalist regime.
How can fundamentalists protect themselves? By exposing the weakness of Western society. This weakness, as is very often the case, is the opposite side of the coin of its strength - its utter lack of belief in anything other than its own ability to control the world. The minute that anxiety spreads and the sense of being in control weakens, Western society begins to totter.
POWER OF A TERRORIST
Without control you need something to believe in and Western man as a social being is faithless.
Terrorism is not inherently threatening. Even if the power of the terrorist - always at its highest when he is totally unexpected as he was in this instance - would continue to be applied full force, he could not truly threaten the national survival of a powerful modern nation seriously.
But he doesn't need to.
The power of the terrorist is psychological. He destroys the feeling of being in control and induces a feeling of anxiety. For people who are entirely dependent on the bubble of confidence, this conveys a very real sense of danger.
Western society and its arch enemy, the fundamentalist society, both really share a common outlook with regard to religion. They both subscribe to the sociological notion that belief in God is inversely proportional to man's sense of being in control of his world.
We Jews do not subscribe to this attitude. We did not invent God to stave off our feelings of anxiety. Even 4,000 years ago, Abraham was a modern individual. He projected the success of Western society and he found it empty of content. He saw no point in investing all his energy into developing a world where the pinnacle of success would be the ability to guarantee 70 years of relatively trouble-free existence. It just wasn't enough. He turned to God out of a desire for more, not out of fear. He was after everlasting life, something over which man has zero control by definition.
Abraham's worldview necessitates the handing over of all control to God by definition. Man turns to God not to allay his anxieties, but to hand Him back a world over which man is in total control (on the grounds that such a world simply isn't enough).
Abraham could only do this effectively when everything in his own little world was in order and under total control.
Maimonides explains (Laws of Repentance, 9:1-2) that this is the reason the Torah is replete with promises of worldly well-being for the conscientiously observant, although this clearly cannot be on the grounds of reward as true reward is only attainable in the next world.
God told humanity that He designed this world as a tool.
God told humanity that He designed this world as a tool. When used properly to accomplish the task for which it was designed, it works well, but when it is allocated to other tasks it will surely break down.
But when the well-being in this world becomes the goal of humanity, the sociologists' view is validated; there is no need of God.
Parshat Ha'azinu informs us that such a world must ultimately break down.
THE TROUBLES IN ISRAEL
The troubles in Israel broke out immediately prior to the Rosh Hashana of this past year. In retrospect they were clearly a signal that the secular Zionist dream was being brought to an end.
The philosophy of "never again" (referring to the Holocaust) which drives modern Jews to control their own fate with technological superiority and military might has been demonstrated to be an empty bubble by the events of the past year.
In the view of the farsighted person, the face of the world has permanently changed in the space of one short year for the Jewish people. We may still have a lot of travail to face before the message penetrates, but the pattern is already set - crystal clear to anyone who is willing to look with an open mind.
The fact that God sent another powerful signal immediately prior to this Rosh Hashana, this time to the Western world, is frightening to say the least.
American reaction has so far followed the Israeli reaction almost to the letter. Buoyed by a resurgent tide of patriotism, president Bush is getting set to take care of the problem of terrorism with American might and know-how. His message is clear: "We can handle this."
But the descendant of Abraham watching from the sidelines cannot help but tremble.
Human beings always need a unifying idea they can believe in to found successful societies. Keeping people in line by brute force does not work over long periods of time. The breakup of the Soviet Union amply testifies to the chaos that results when the rule of brute force runs out of steam.
Torah tradition teaches that there are only four secular unifying ideas, each representing one of the "four kingdoms." As follows:
- The first idea, the greatness of the power of civilization was embodied in the Babylonian Empire. The power organized by this early civilization swept the ancient world and provided the first successful alternative to a God-centered world, symbolized by the destruction of the first Temple.
- The next unifying idea to come along was the power of wealth. Properly organized, a steadily-expanding economy can provide the promise of the good life for all of humanity without the need for conquest. This idea was symbolized by Achashverosh's empire in Persia, embracing a federation of 127 countries.
- The ancient Greek empire stood for the power of science and culture, and it swept through the world like a powerful fire during the short life of Alexander the Great. Each of these ideas incorporated its predecessors' experience and built on it.
- According to Jewish tradition the fourth and final kingdom, upon whose fall the world will return to the knowledge of God (expressed in the verse quoted in the beginning of this essay), represents the power of all these ideas combined. This is our own modern Western world, a world that was founded upon the remnants of the Roman Empire which destroyed the Second Temple.
Our world indeed believes that the power of modern civilization with its market-driven economy and ever expanding frontiers of knowledge and technology can eventually deliver Utopia. When God begins picking apart this final idea, it is a sign that the end is near. When it breaks down, there is nothing beyond but chaos.
THE POWER OF IDEAS
Ideas are spiritual things. They cannot be destroyed by physical force. An idea must be logically refuted. It must collapse from within. The loss of confidence that results from impotence in the face of terror can rapidly bring the Western world to its knees.
As anxious people withdraw their money from investment in equities, companies begin to shrink and contract. The result is deflation and depression.
Without the prospect of a better world tomorrow, the political structure of our society will collapse.
Without the prospect of a better world tomorrow, the political structure on which our society is based will collapse. Beyond it is chaos and the void.
No one is saying that this will happen tomorrow. Deeply held beliefs take time to disintegrate. People cling stubbornly to the worldview that sustains them.
But once again the pattern is clear. It is all too easy for God to allow the terrorists to succeed just a few more times on a mass scale, and this is all that will be necessary to bring our world to its knees.
Is there anything we can do? Of course there is! Yom Kippur is upon us. There is nothing to prevent us from realizing what God is showing us that He can do now. We do not need to wait years while the scenario slowly and painfully plays itself out.
The Torah informs us that all our troubles are a result of refusing to follow in the steps of Abraham. We have been drawn in by the notion that we can control our own future without God's help.
We are all well aware that there is no real promise out there in the secular world. It is as true as it ever was that the secular world has very little to offer in the way of permanent happiness, while it brings much in the way of pain and suffering.
We have surrendered a great deal for the sake of the illusion of being able to control our own fate without anyone's help.
Let us be wise and voluntarily abandon the illusion now. Let us do teshuva this Yom Kippur and stand before our Creator and inform Him that He has shown us enough. There is no need for more - we get the message. Please spare us the rest.
For I shall raise My hand to heaven and say, "As I live forever, if I sharpen My flashing sword and My hand grasps judgment, I shall return vengeance upon My enemies and upon those that hate Me shall I bring retribution, I shall intoxicate My arrows with blood and My sword shall devour flesh, because of the blood of corpse and captive, because of the earliest depredations of the enemy."
O nations -- sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants; He will bring retribution upon His foes, and He will appease His land and His people. (Deut. 32:40-43)