Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was an Orthodox rabbi, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He was also a mystic and scholar; his receptivity to the sciences helped him articulate a philosophy of Judaism that proved compelling. When his followers asked him about atheism, he refused to consider it as a depraved cultural force. Even atheism possesses a spark of holiness because it challenges the religious status quo to purge itself of its dross. Atheism can serve to help people abandon ideas about God that are unhealthy, “Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service.” He adds further:
Atheism arises as a pained outcry to liberate man from this narrow and alien pit, to raise him from the darkness . . . Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service. This is its sole function in existence—to remove the particular images from the speculations concerning Him who is the essence of all life and the source of all thought . . . [Its purpose is to] uproot the dross that separates man from the truly divine light, and in the ruins wrought by atheism will the higher knowledge of God erect her Temple. To cleanse the air of the arrogant and evil aberration of focusing thought on the divine essence—a preoccupation that leads to idolatry—a thoroughgoing atheism arises, in itself no better than the former but opposed to it in absolute terms . . .
The violence of atheism will cleanse away the dross that accumulated in the lower levels of religious faith, and thereby will the heavens be cleared and the shining light of the higher faith will become visible, which is the song of the world and the truth of the world. Whoever recognizes the essence of atheism from this perspective embraces the positive element in it and traces it back to its origin in holiness. He glimpses the awesome splendor in the ice-like formations upon the celestial horizon (Cf. Ezekiel 1:22).[i]
According to Hasidic tradition, R. Jacob Isaac of Pzhysha, known as the “Holy Jew” once taught his disciples that there is nothing on earth without its good aspect; there are “holy sparks” of divinity in everything waiting to be revealed. A clever student asks, “What good is there in atheism?” He answered, “When it comes to man’s social duties and obligations, he should behave as if he were an atheist, assuming God does not exist to help the poor and the needy, so that if he did not help them, they would remain impoverished. “Faith is a virtue when applied to one’s own life. It is wrong to have it on behalf of others, there is yet something of value in Atheism, for even the believer has to be a small doubter when called upon to alleviate human suffering.” [xviii]
For those who question or struggle with faith, Maimonides has long taught that we must first determine what God is not before we can know what God is. Modern theologians call this the via negativa, the path of negation. By emancipating ourselves of God’s childish perceptions that we have inherited. Atheism challenges believers to let go of their immature perceptions. In the words of Hamlet,
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
In the end, what matters is that people of all backgrounds and creeds work together—theists, agnostic, and atheists- can work toward the common good.
[i] A. I. Kook, B. Z. Bokser, (Trans.) Abraham Isaac Kook~: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 264-265.