It’s worth reading Sacks’ short piece in its entirety, but let me just highlight one aspect. He begins his comments with the following story.
â€œDO YOU believe,â€? the disciple asked the rabbi, â€œthat God created everything for a purpose?â€?
â€œI do,â€? replied the rabbi.
â€œWell,â€? asked the disciple, â€œwhy did God create atheists?â€?
The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. â€œSometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: â€˜This is the will of God.â€™ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.â€?
Sacks’ words here reflect a fundamental tenet of his theology: Difference is not a problem, it is a necessity. People have different inclinations and talents and that’s a good thing, because it keeps all of us honest. Though Rabbi Sacks has been criticized for his views on non-Orthodox Jews, in an interview I conducted with him last year, he seemed to extend this appreciation for difference to Jews, as well.
If Hashem only wanted hasidim he would have sent us a Satmar Rebbe, not a Moshe Rabeinu. And some people give by their learning and some by their davening [prayer] and some by their hospitality and some by their philanthropy. We can only approach Hakadosh Barukh Hu [God] as a total community.
And that includes atheists.