Did you ever ask yourself why God bothered to make Jews? Why did He take the trouble to create us as a people apart, with all the special rules the Torah mandates — eating only kosher food, observing the Sabbath and so on — with their obvious intention of keeping the Jewish people distinct from others?
The Bible gives an answer. It suggests that in relationship to the rest of the world, we have a teaching function. We are to be a “kingdom of priests,” says the book of Exodus (19:6), which, according to the classical commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, means “to instruct all of mankind to call in unison on the Name of the Lord and to serve Him with one accord.”
In other words, God made Jews different to give us a role in bringing other peoples closer to Him. Just as a teacher in a classroom, or a minister at his pulpit, is distinct from his students or congregation — he might stand at a desk or lectern facing out toward his audience, he probably wears distinct clothing — God set boundaries around us in the form of Jewish law to ensure that we, too, would remain distinct. This facilitates our role as the world’s “priests.”
Admittedly, we do a pretty lousy job of this. Among faithful, believing Jews, there have been a few happy exceptions. Sforno himself (1470-1550) was at ease in cosmopolitan Christian society in Rome and Bologna, serving as a Hebrew teacher to the German humanist scholar Johann Reuchlin.
Nowadays you might think of the trio of Jewish radio talk-show hosts — Michael Medved, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Daniel Lapin — who speak every day of Judaism and Jewish values to their overwhelmingly non-Jewish listeners. Medved’s average audience is 2 million.
There is something gratifying when it is possible to show concretely the effect of a Jewish teacher on a particular non-Jew, especially one who had been a notable hard case, an influential opponent of God. Such an opportunity presents itself in the case of physicist and theologian Gerald Schroeder and the impact he has had on celebrated British atheist philosopher Antony Flew.
Eighty-one years old, Flew has spent most of his life explaining to admiring audiences why it’s irrational to believe in God. But recently, after much reading, discussion and thought, he changed his mind.
An interview with Flew was recently published in Philosophia Christi, a philosophy of religion journal, and subsequently picked up by the media. He explains that what turned him to belief primarily were scientific arguments having to do with cosmology (how the universe was formed) and evolution, particularly the research of “Intelligent Design” theorists. An alternative scientific theory that seeks to explain how the complex features of living organisms arose, Intelligent Design holds that certain features of biological organisms — such as the miniature machines, complex circuitry and sophisticated information processing systems that biologists have been discovering in cells — are best explained as the result of an intelligent cause, not an undirected natural process.
But Intelligent Design brought Flew only as far as deism: the belief that a transcendent intelligence, a deity, designed aspects of the universe — which needn’t imply that this God is active in our daily lives, that He cares about us or that He reveals Himself through any religion. What Flew says opened him to the idea of revelation — about which he remains tentative — was Schroeder’s writing on Genesis 1.
Schroeder’s 1997 book, “The Science of God,” explains how it is possible to reconcile the first chapter of the Bible, which says the universe we know was created in six days, with science, and says the cosmos are nearly 16 billion years old.
Schroeder, an American-born Israeli Orthodox Jew with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses the theory of relativity, which demonstrates that time is relative to mass and velocity as you observe its passing. Basically, he makes clear how the expansion of the universe since the Big Bang means that from the relative perspective of an observer outside the universe, namely from God’s perspective, it has been exactly six days since the first moment in which matter was brought out of nothingness. Schroeder also shows how these cosmic “days” correspond to God’s acts of creation in Genesis.
Sounds crazy? Not to Antony Flew, who says, “That this biblical account might be scientifically accurate raises the possibility that it is revelation.” In the whole interview, he singles out Schroeder by name as as a scientist who influenced him.
Like the Berlin Wall, the old rationalistic justifications for atheism are falling. Besides contemplating the spiritual importance of this fact in our own lives, quite apart from its impact on non-Jews, the role of a Jew in this process is something we can all savor. I can’t think of a better example of what it means to be a Jewish priest.
David Klinghoffer is the author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).