Originally published in A.J.A. Quarterly 3:4 (1957), pp. 29-31.
Why I am not a Christian and other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. By Bertrand Russell. Ed. by Professor Paul Edwards. George Allen and Unwin. 16s.
The late Rav Kook was fond of saying that the sceptic fulfils a useful function even from the religious point of view for his attacks have the effect of making those against whose faith they are directed re-examine their beliefs to emerge strengthened from the ordeal. It is always a delight to read Russell and with this rabbinic justification his essays can be enjoyed unsurreptitiously. But with all respect to Russell’s brilliant mind and lucid exposition there is nothing here to disturb or shock any but the most superficial believer. The problem of pain, for instance, the strongest plank in Russell’s atheistic platform, is no discovery of this twentieth century thinker. The author’s urbanities bear the same relation to the majestic probings and defiances of the book of Job as a school text book to his own magnum opus on the higher mathematics.
In Yeshiva circles a distinction is frequently drawn between two kinds of answer—the one which replies to a question and the one which demolishes a question, showing it to be ill-founded in the first place. The Jewish reply to Russell’s question belongs, of course, to the second type not only because the Christian faith has no attraction for the Jew but because some of the author’s fiercest barbs are directed specifically against the Christian approach to life and lose all their point when turned against Judaism. Although Russell frankly states his conviction that all the great religions are both untrue and harmful his main strictures are reserved for Christianity. He finds defects in the character of Jesus, he cannot see the sense in the Church’s more or less negative attitude towards sex, he is disgusted with the attempts of religious leaders to keep men in ignorance, he protests vehemently at the horrors of the Inquisition and the holy wars perpetrated in the name of religion, he finds it impossible to believe that a faith which was responsible for the burning as witches of millions (sic) of unfortunate women to be a true faith. Little of this has any relevance to Jewish teaching. The Catholic Church, Russell tells us, still forbids the divorce of a woman married to a syphilitic man and forbids her, moreover, to take steps to prevent her from giving birth to syphilitic children. But almost two thousand years ago the Mishnah ruled that a husband suffering from an infectious disease is compelled to divorce his wife.
Russell is, in fact, unaware that Judaism has something to teach in the modern world. Speaking of the great religions of the world he mentions Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Communism. Judaism, apparently, is not even considered to be worthy of his strife. In a passage on the sources of religious intolerance the truly astonishing statement is made that before the rise of Christianity a persecuting attitude in the name of religion was unknown to the ancient world except among the Jews. Has Russell never heard of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus? And why should he not know that the official view of the Synagogue since the early second century has been that of R. Joshua who taught that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the Afterlife?
A well-known convert to Judaism recently called our Community’s attention to the need for a far more effective dissemination of Jewish truth among non-Jews. When a thinker of the calibre of Bertrand Russell can display such appalling ignorance of our faith then Judaism is truly, in Aim Falliere’s famous phrase, “The Unknown Sanctuary”. If its custodians would only recognise the need for opening its doors more invitingly very many of those who came to scoff would remain to pray.