Scott Shay is a banker, not a rabbi or professor. He’s a founder and chairman of Signature Bank, a New York lender catering to local middle-market businesses and one of the financial success stories of the past decade. He dedicates a large part of his time to Jewish community work—the Chai Mitzvah movement, the local Jewish Federation, his Modern Orthodox synagogue Kehilath Jeshurun—and in 2006 published a well-received book about Jewish outreach and engagement through community initiatives.
A few years ago, Shay noticed that Jewish kids with a high degree of Jewish literacy, including day-school students, drew a blank on the central premise of Judaism, or any religion: that there is a God who wants something from us. He noted the cultural impact of the New Atheists, a small but influential group of writers—including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris—who claim that gene science and brain biology demolish the notion of a personal God. He couldn’t find a book that took on the New Atheists, so he wrote it himself: In Good Faith: Questioning Atheism and Religion.
Shay wants his readers to think hard about the implications of belief or non-belief, and to take responsibility for the implications of what they believe. He writes in his new book: “The existence of God is a matter of belief in the plausible rationality of the biblical description of God and our contemporary personal experiences of God. So yes, today one must believe in God; no one can be certain that He does or does not exist.”
The New Atheists want to dethrone God—whom Dawkins mocked as “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak”—but they worship something else in the place of God, Shay told me. “I think it’s a matter of belief either to acknowledge that there is a God, or to claim that there is no God,” he said. “I think both require a leap of faith.” For Dawkins and his atheist fellows, that means worshiping man, says Shay—but that’s also an expression of faith, with dire consequences.
The presence of God is a very personal, not-so-simple issue for Shay. “My late father was a Holocaust survivor,” he told me. “And he had been observant until he was forced into to slave labor and then into concentration camps. I tell part of his story in the book about how I think my father was certain that his path to survival, getting out as a 60-pound prisoner probably a week from death, was so unlikely and took so many twists and turns, that he was pretty certain there was a God.”
“He was pretty angry, understandably and rightfully so,” Shay added. “He had watched his father being murdered in front of him.”
What brought Shay together with God was the Bible, specifically the Chumash that he studied at Hebrew University at the legendary seminar of Nechama Leibowitz, whom many think the greatest Bible teacher of her generation. Engagement with God doesn’t come naturally, Shay argues. On the contrary, what he calls “the default mode of human thinking” is worshiping ourselves—or what the Bible calls idolatry.
“The way I define idolatry,” Shay told me, “is to ascribe supernatural powers and authority to finite beings. Most people would think that we licked idolatry 3,000 years ago with the god-king Pharaoh. But we had Stalinism. We’ve had Pol Pot. We’ve had Maoism and we still have the present Kim dynasty. We had Nazism. We have had so many different people and ideologies to whom people have ascribed supernatural powers.”
That’s the point of monotheism, he added: There is one God, the God of the Bible, which means that no one else can pretend to be God or claim God-like authority. And that’s the ultimate source of freedom and dignity. “The Bible tells us that we each have to have that moral authority to challenge these people that claim to have supernatural authority,” he said. “The Bible says that there is only one God. That God says, don’t do unto others as you wouldn’t want done to you. That says that we share a humanity with everyone on Earth. My view as a believer is that we’re all endowed with a spark of godliness and therefore we ought to treat everyone fairly.”
If you want to know about God, Shay says, start with the Bible. Find a teacher, or join a study group. “If people are willing to dive into the Bible and view it with seriousness, they will find so much there,” he said. “And I think whether or not you leave as a believer or not, by engaging with the Bible you’ll know the seriousness of the ideas of what the Bible came to do, which was to overthrow idolatry.”
In Good Faith is a Jewish book drawing on Jewish sources, but it is also an engagement with Christianity and Islam about faith in a common God. Shay’s conversation partners include the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York; Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, the president of the Auburn Seminary; the Muslim scholar Imam Shamsi Ali; and the Greek Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Karloutsos. Their voices reappear throughout Shay’s narrative to elaborate on ideas drawn from the Bible and to emphasize the universality of religious experience.
In Good Faith is one of the best beginner’s guides to the Hebrew Bible in print, taking on thorny issues of text and interpretation in a disarmingly conversational style. Shay doesn’t browbeat the reader but lets the Bible do its own talking, with support from ancient and modern commentators. Readers who are reluctant to confront the concept of a personal God but simply want to know what the Bible says will find Shay’s presentation helpful.
Chaim Steinmetz, senior rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, Shay’s home synagogue, appreciates the layman’s perspective of Shay’s book. In Good Faith “is the work of an amateur in the original and best sense of the word: a person who pursues a subject he loves, and does so with a great deal of serious learning,” he told me. “If Maimonides were alive today, he would be tackling directly the very issues Shay is taking on.”
Other pulpit rabbis also found Shay’s effort is helpful. “Scott Shay’s new book meets people where they are and sparks conversations about God and the power of becoming involved in one’s religious community. I appreciate how the author includes classical and modern scholarship, to address serious questions about why we should still call the Good Book a very good book,” Rabbi Scott Bolton of the Upper East Side Conservative synagogue Or Zarua wrote in an email. And Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the chief rabbi at Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, told me, “Scott combines the entrepreneurial spirit and insight that has served him so well in the business world with an insatiable interest in Jewish ideas and the nature of faith.”
To believe in God means to accept that life has a sanctity that no human agency has a right to impair, Shay believes. This is a Jewish message, but not only a Jewish message. It’s the foundational idea of what he calls the three Abrahamic faiths. The biblical God beckons us away from worship of mere humanity with all its terrible consequences. Far from being a stumbling block to science, the biblical God is its supporter and ally. But there is a dimension to our humanity that transcends science, which the New Atheists place on a pedestal. Nothing in evolutionary biology constrains us not to be cruel. And that dimension of the biblical God is the one that Shay most urgently wants to show his readers.
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David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.