The Sephardic tradition has championed great Jewish thinkers who explored all facets of Torah and human knowledge. From While we Sephardim are known these days for our strong faith and communal unity, we are heirs to the great dynasty of rationalist philosophers like Saadya Gaon and Rambam, to the equally the great Kabbalists like Ramban and Chayim Vital, or Shalom Sharabi or to anthropologists like the Kuzari and linguists and commentators like Ibn Ezra, not to mention political thinkers like Yehudah Alkali. And let us not forget men of the world and of letters like Abarnabel. Scott Shay has returned to this tradition. A banker by trade, a businessman with a thirst for knowledge in all areas of human inquiry, he has also written a beautiful book about the relationship between Torah and the world that is a must read for those estranged from our tradition and those faithful to it.
Shay’s book is formulated as a response to the new atheism. In the last fifteen years, aggressive atheist thinkers have been disparaging Judaism and Torah as immoral and irrational. Many Unfortunately, too many Jews in America today share this view and are increasingly not only lost to our tradition, but to our people. Yet these same Jews are heads of universities and business, tops of thein their fields in all forms of knowledge, except Torah. This division Shay claims is not only tragic it is fundamentally wrong. The atheist criticisms so many Jews have come to believe are not just based on mis-readings of our texts they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Atheists, many of who are rationalists and scientists, mistake belief in God for idolatry. Yet the prohibition against idolatry is the heart of the Torah. In a lively style Shay shows how it is much more fundamental that simply making statues or bowing to them. He explains why, as the Rambam writes, that all prohibitions in the Torah are fundamentally forms of idolatry. Shay makes these arguments by weaving together concepts of Torah with psychology, history, physics, and much more showing the unity of Torah and science.
Shay demonstrates to the modern reader that idolatry is really lies about power and authority. Anytime man a person deifies a personnother human being, a thing, and even an idea he/sheand thereby gives bestows him extraordinary authority and power and , he believes in such idolatrous lies. These lies then become how we humans justify our misdeeds. What Scott shows is how idolatry is alive and well today. Dictators like Kim jong-ilJong-Il, who built statues of himself for people to bow down to and taught school children that his familye created the world, are no different that the Pharaohs of old. Sadaam Hussein believed that a rock he carried would make him immortal. But idolatry hides in less obvious forms. He also shows how many of these lies enter into our everyday life.
As Shay describes Shay recounts how some fellow traders and bankers began to believe in themselves above others, to the extent that the laws such aslike do not to steal that bind mere “humans” did not apply to them. These lies became the justification for the kind of corruption that lead to the 2008 financial crisis. In fact Shay describes how modern ideologies like racism are simply reformulations of idolatry – they are based on a lie about the power and authority of one group of humans over another. Every time we steal or abuse another person as Shay explains we justify our actions with lies about power and authority. The thrill of Shay’s work is how he combines these classic Jewish concepts from Tanakh and Chazal not only to cutting edge research but to stories from the world of business and family that touch the heart.
Shay explains why monotheism is not idolatry. Idolatry is by definition irrational. No finite creature can have an aspect of the infinite. In contrast belief in God is belief in the divinity that is beyond our human finite understanding as the Rambam explains. Shay shows how the atheists constantly make this mistake. Under the banner of criticism of religion they lump in idolatrous beliefs with the belief in the God of Abraham. But sometimes their criticism of monotheism ring true. This is, as Shay argues because we Jews often betray our belief in Gd.
Shay gives as inspired reading of the third commandment. Most of us are not in the habit of blaspheming, so like idolatry, it takes less room in our consciousness than Shabbat or chinnuch tzedakah or lashon hara. But as Sshay explains it is no coincidence that this command follows the first two, for the moment from the instant we speak in the name of Hashem but our words and actions are against the Torah we are taking God’s name in vain.
We are making an idol out of God, no wonder there is not repentance in the Torah for this sin. Shay reminds us that we must constantly return to the texts and the Torah when we speak in the name of Hashem. In fact the greatness of the Torah is that even the greatest of our Hahamim sages refer to the texts and make arguments. And even the Jewish people were warned to stay away from a prophet who sought to change the Torah.
Shay’s book is divided into six parts, each one will be enriching for people of all backgrounds in Torah. But it is not just for rationalists, reader will find inspiring stories about faith and prayer and well as fascinating insights into different cultures and the human heart. From exploration of world history to physics and archeology, Shay’s In Good Faith is in the finest Jewish tradition that God’s seal is truth and as our Hahamim sages say, the sciences are the handmaiden of Torah.
By: Isaac Cohen
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