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    Higher & lower chutzpah

    There are some people who go to Yom Kippur services out of mere habit or because of respect for their parents.

    They join in the familiar tunes but they wriggle for most of the time that they are in synagogue. It could be out of intellectual honesty.

    They have very little sympathy with the theology of the prayers and they are not so sure that they really want to be in a situation which more or less pressures you towards conventional religious belief.

    The inter-war chief rabbi of Eretz Yisra’el, the mystic, poet and philosopher Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, was in two minds about the people who had problems with religion.

    On the one hand he thought rebellion against religion was real chutzpah; on the other he saw it as genuine grappling with God.

    He used, however, two qualifying adjectives – higher and lower chutzpah.

    Lower chutzpah was the sneering dismissal of all religion; higher chutzpah was the sincere attempt to argue with belief.

    Rav Kook was criticised for suggesting that atheists were really honest seekers after the truth. The criticism was not merely from the believers but from the atheists themselves. In colloquial language they were telling him, “Don’t kid yourself!”

    Yet Rav Kook was not really so naive. His attitude is searchingly analysed in the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, for example in “Tradition in an Untraditional Age”.

    Rabbi Sacks argues that Rav Kook believed that the secular were wrestling with illusions. Their engagement with belief would influence both them and the world of belief. Belief was not a form of primitive totem-worship, though some people make it one.

    In a higher sense it represented the totality, the harmony, the unity of reality. It was part of an overarching vision, though – as Rabbi Sacks points out – it seems to be a vision without a program.

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