A.N. Wilson chronicles the decline in the belief in God that characterized the great writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in his book entitled God’s Funeral. Atheism of a pragmatic type already existed among the pygmy tribes of Africa in the sixth or fifth century BCE, according to Will Durant in his Story of Civilization. These pygmy tribes had no totems, idols, or religious ceremonies. And philosophical atheism can be traced back to Xenophanes (d. 475 BCE) and Theodoros of Cyrene (ca. 300 BCE). But it was in the nineteenth century that intellectual atheism flourished, particularly after the publication of Darwin’s theory.
It is primarily to this generation that Rabbi Yissachar Leib Weinberg of Slonim (1873-1928) directs his remarks. Moses’ whereabouts were unknown. It is true that Moses ascended Mount Sinai but his situation was unclear. In a panic, the people turned to Aaron and demanded that he fashion them a god, which was to take the form of the Golden Calf. The people evidenced their commitment to the project by removing their gold rings and presenting them to Aaron as raw material (Exodus 32:1-3). Reflecting on this act of devotion Rabbi Weinberg notes that the malfeasants back then were of superior status to the atheists of today. The worshippers of the Golden Calf were more than prepared and willing to give up their wealth to make a god whereas atheists of late are more than prepared and willing to give up their God for the making of wealth.
To be sure, not every atheist is the materialist Rabbi Weinberg imagines. Nevertheless, there is something important in his generalization. A person’s character is best determined by what he or she pursues as the highest value. While the generation of the wilderness that lived at the time of Moses might be criticized for its violation of the law against idolatry, it might also be praised for how it held spiritual values of supreme importance. So essential was their need for God in their lives, they pressed Aaron to provide for it. In contrast, there are those today who lack any spiritual values leaving them empty and vulnerable to the lure of materialism.
Part of Hasidic attitudes towards Jews is to see the good even the bad. That is well accomplished by Rabbi Weinberg. But he also provides fodder for thinking about what is optimal in life.