…I could do worse than turn to someone who calls themselves a Jewish atheist. Some of them seem to find an easy affinity with the best teachings of Jesus.
Why not? Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, didn’t preach anything that wasn’t preached by the best of his predecessors in ancient Judea. Jesus was as Jewish as Yom Kippur. These Jewish atheists (their own self-designation) are simply acting in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets who railed against injustice and hatred and hollow ritual.
But it’s Jesus as often as Isaiah that today’s prophets quote to express how they feel. The most recent example of this I found in a column by Matthew Norman in the British Independent.
“In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. ‘Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. ‘They live it out.’
“As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by
‘loving they neighbour as thyself’. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.
“And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that ‘thy neighbour’ actually meant ‘everyone else’; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful’, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.”
Noam Chomsky is also fond of quoting the gospels, citing their “preferential treatment for the poor” and praising Pope John XXIII. (He also doesn’t hesitate to name a more recent pontiff as co-conspirator in the murder of Liberation Theology priests and even a bishop.) I don’t think this affinity for the gospels is because Chomsky was secretly baptized as a newborn by his Irish nursemaid, any more than I believe Matthew Norman’s humaneness is the result of his subjection to four days a week of Christian propaganda during his
formative years. Otherwise the Fundamentalist Christian wet dream of converting “the Jews” would have been accomplished simply by bombarding Jewish neighborhoods with Christian tracts.
What I think is going on is a response that is natural to human beings when they find themselves in a position of freedom from religious cant, whether Christian, Jewish or other, and have a warmly beating heart in their breasts. To be sure, such freedom does not affect everyone this way. There are plenty of atheists who are out-and-out monsters. I just happen to keep coming across the Matthew Normans and Noam Chomskys. Long may they flourish!