Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins

Watched Jonathan Sacks vs. Richard Dawkins debate. (This is not the same as Sacks' half hour program on the BBC that also included a discussion with Dawkins)

Let me start by explaining why I dont like Sacks. He does not address the questions and challenges of his opponents, is never concise, and inevitably goes off into long eloquent speeches which have almost no relationship to the topic at hand. Dawkins makes his point in few words and stays on topic. He makes arguments not speeches, and it is always clear what he means. Sacks is a preacher not a theologian and definitely not a debater and although he sounds nice, he is ill equipped (or perhaps doesn't want) to argue with the likes of a scientist and an experienced debater. 

Sacks, answer the bleeding questions! There is a segment in the discussion where Dawkins and the moderator ask Sacks whether he believes in the literalism of certain Biblical stories. Every time the moderator asks Sacks whether something literally happened in the Bible Sacks says "Yes, but..." and then proceeds to talk about how morally edifying and important the Biblical story is. That's not the question and its irrelevant. The moderator even tries reminding him to answer the question and tries to keep him on track. But he keeps talking. Because he just wants to hear his own voice and just wants to talk about how great Judaism is without addressing the crux of atheist arguments against religion.

Was the Binding of Isaac literal? "Yes.. but I want to talk about how it stopped Jews from sacrificing their children". "Did the sea really split? Yes.. but I want to talk about WHY it split..." Sacks refuses to let himself be pinned down and discuss factual claims. The second Dawkins tries to discuss things that can be addressed by science, Sacks goes off track. It's a classic diversionary tactic. Sacks wants to avoid discussing the nitty gritty of whether the Bible is history or not and wants to say short laconic "yes"s and then run away from the topic at hand and preach about morality and Judasim and blah blah blah. Sacks is clearly not used to hearing anything besides the sound of his own voice from his pulpit.

Sacks also uses the classically problematic "line of literalism" approach which I've discussed elsewhere. His criteria is "if it makes sense its literal, otherwise it's a metaphor". How convenient. Such an approach of allegorizing anything which is problematic essentially leaves one defended from all criticism. Maimonides could say it, but we cannot.

Also enough Bullshit about how enlightened Judaism is. "Judaism encourages questions" "Judaism encourages challenging beliefs" Sacks even has the audacity to say that were Salman Rushdi Jewish "we would have welcomed him with open arms". Well, Sacks, we are glad that if YOU were running the show things would be so hunky dory, but unfortunately you don't run the show and MOST Jews do not share you enlightened views. Were you sleeping during the Slifkin affair? Have you ever seen a pashekvil in your life? Are Charedim not part of Judaism according to you, cuz I promise you that were Salman Rushdi a Charedi or even anything besides a Left Wing Modern Orthodox Jew, they would've kicked him out in a second.

This is classic sugar coating, classic no-true-scotsman-REAL-Judaism-is-enlightened-and -lovely - rubbish. You cannot take your own views and just DECIDE that they represent a huge and variegated religion.

But wait a second this bring something to mind actually... Louis Jacobs remember him, Sacks? What about Hugo Gryn? Were they encouraged to ask questions? Did YOU encourage them to ask questions?  Do YOU even believe the stuff you're saying about how enlightened Judaism is and how it accepts kofrim with open arms?

Jonathan Sacks is nothing more than a more educated, more eloquent version of Shmuley Boteach.  


Chatzkaleh Kofer said...

Excellent review, just what I was feeling!

G*3 said...

Is R’ Sacks a shul rav? If so, I’d be curious to know what
he says from the pulpit, when there are no cameras around.

Everyone claims that Judaism allows you, even
encourages you to ask questions… right
up until you start asking questions. Then you’re a mechutzif, a menuval looking
for excuses, and a kofer. You can ask respectful, self-deprecatin g questions
about how to understand a gemara, how to reconcile an amora’s statement here
with his statement over there. Don’t ask why bad things happen, and certainly
don’t ask for proof – and if you do, don’t you dare challenge the Kuzari. Who
do you think you are, to think you know better than all the gedolim of all the

I also noticed that R’ Sacks never gives straight answers.
He presents a rosy, liberal interpretation of Judaism for the viewing public
and goes on and on about how moral and edifying Judaism is, stays away from
questions of truth, and in his BBC program claimed to have found common ground
with scientists because they agreed with him that science probably won’t ever
know everything and that everyone can work together towards a moral society.

S. said...

Were you sleeping during the Slifkin affair?"

He himself was subject to something similar. The difference is, Slifkin didn't roll over, but Sacks did.

Prag said...

Loved the finishing sentence!

zach said...

Sure, Judaism encourages questions. As long as you come up with the acceptable ANSWERS! If the answers are problematic, one is expected to push them aside with the platitude "You don't die from a kasha". (God, how I hate that glib remark. The epitome of an anti-intellectual statement that tries to pass for chochmah.)

zach said...

Almost forgot to mention another person who came up with the wrong answers: James Kugel.

R.W. said...


I think it's posts like these that justify the long wait between them.

It's been years since I've come to the realization that Lord Sucks is nothing so much as a smooth talking snake oil salesman whose responses would never make it out of the starting gate if he ever faced a debate moderator who forced him to dispense with the flowery mush and stick to matters of substance instead. In fact, I sometimes feel that it is only proper etiquette that keeps many in the audience from pelting him with every object at their disposal in frustration over his smarmy evasion of the issues that prompted them to attend the debate in the first place.

And ditto for his written materials. My only regret is that it took as long as it did before I realized what a sorry waste of vision it's been to wade through all that worthless glop in the vain hope that he'll engage the issues he pretends to address.

David Sher said...

I strongly suggest that you read the article that was sited on Jewish Ideas Daily. Here is a philosopher that addresses the Dawkins argument on sophisticated grounds and ends up pointing out the utter incompatibility of Naturalistic Materialism with the Scientific Method. One need not agree with his conclusions to agree that Dawkins has a lot of explaining to do.

R.W. said...

What you conveniently fail to mention is that the philosopher in question, T. Nagel, is himself an avowed atheist, and the author whose book he's reviewing is none other than christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who is convinced that Jesus is the only reliable path to salvation.

So even if we were to assume that their arguments have any validity -- and that's a big 'if', as I will show in a moment -- they certainly can't be counted on to provide even a morsel of support for the kind of Orthodox jewish narrative espoused by R' Sacks.

In any event, the reason Richard Dawkins needn't worry about his standing in the scientific community is because Nagel's article has been roundly criticized on other forums by many seasoned scientists who think he's way off the reservation on this one.

For a taste of what I'm talking about, see this takedown of Nagel by noted biologist Jerry Coyne and his posse of commentators.

zach said...

OK, I gave a listen to pretty much the whole discussion (it really isn't a debate by any stretch) and I think you are misrepresenting Rabbi Sacks in the "was it literal" segment when you state "The second Dawkins tries to discuss things that can be addressed by
science, Sacks goes off track. It's a classic diversionary tactic." Dawkins asks about the Adam/Eve story & Sacks answers emphatically that it certainly didn't happen, and gets in a few words about mitochondrial Eve. He said that the Akeidas Yitzchak story DID happen and then explains the purpose. Dawkins questions why the purpose (a polemic against child sacrifice) had to come about through such apparently cruel means and Sacks gives one possible explanation. The barest beginnings of a philosophical discussion on morals & ethics, but nothing for Dawkins to debate. The splitting of the sea? Sacks says it did happen, explains how it could scientifically come about, and then what the purpose was. Nothing to challenge here either (since Sacks nor Dawkins are qualified to assess the feasibility of the meteorologic/hydrodynamic study that Sacks referred to!)

Sacks is certainly disingenuous when says that 10th century rabbinic authorities stated that it's not literal when science says it's incompatible with established scientific fact, implying that this is the standard Orthodox view. He would never say such a thing to chareidim (many of whom already think he's a kofer.) (And is he actually denying miracles?)

BTW, why does Dawkins refer to Sacks only as "Chief Rabbi" whereas Sacks doesn't say "Professor Dawkins" but only "Richard"?? That seemed sort of arrogant, but perhaps there is an established protocol here?

Shilton HaSechel said...

I agree that Sacks gave answers. When asked whether something was literal or not he always said a yes or a no. However, he very quickly deviated from the simple Yes or No and tried to discuss the morality of the whole issue. When arguing with an atheist the Yes and No are of profound importance but Sacks did not want to discuss literalism at any great length... the moderator tries a few times to get Sacks to stay on point but he just keeps talking about morality, even though Dawkins wanted to focus more on the nitty gritty questions of did it happen or not...

OTD said...

I miss Hitch.

David Sher said...

I don't need to mention those things since they are clearly explained within the article.

The basic idea here is that there is no scientific explanation for why human beings evolved with a consciousness that is self aware. Yes, there is conjecture suggesting that awareness and even faith are traits that are selected by evolution because they provided a benefit, but they are just that...conjecture. Certainly intelligence is a positive evolutionary trait, but self awareness? Why? No answer is given.

David Sher said...

I would add that the "takedown" you mention above is no such thing. It is a self satisfied rant by a biologist who clearly did not read the article either. Please show me someone who endeavors to actually interact with the material rather than talking past it.

eeeeeerm? said...

are you being serious???

sacks is a profound theologian and is very well regarded by his contempories. what a nonsense comment by yourself.

what is wrong with, "if it makes sense its literal, otherwise it's a metaphor"? this is what our scholars proclaimed in 1043 during the Amorim period. it is integral to jewish integrity, for it is heresy to take the torah literally hence the need for Talmud (oral law).

Sackssuccintly answered dawkins point on the splitting of the red sea by using science to explain how it happened before Dawkins 'conveniently' brushed it aside and asked him about adam and eve which evoked the response by sacks that it was clearly a parable.

what was most interesting was dawkins claim that fundamental reading was dangerous before using literal quotations as ammunition for his own point, a contradiction, sacks was very clever to point out at the end.

what more do you want?

sacks completely disarmed dawkins and made him concede at least 3 points in this discussion... literary reading, the splitting of the red sea and the role of religion in binding communities. i have never seen dawkins concede any point to a religious scholar before. .

no one owned anybody, indeed that is unrealistic in 45 minutes of discussion between two heavy weight thinkers but to dismiss sacks is reflective more of an agenda than what actually happened.

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