“DO YOU believe,” the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?”
“I do,” replied the rabbi.
“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”
The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ 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.”
Did this story actually happen or is it a parable to illustrate a point? If it did happen, who was the Rabbi? Is the story recorded anywhere?
On Chabad.org, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman tells a Baal Shem Tov story. The story has a similar punchline but a different setup:
They asked the Baal Shem Tov, “The Talmud (Chulin 109B) tells us that for everything G‑d forbade, He provided us something permissible of the same sort. If so, what did He permit that corresponds to the sin of heresy?”
The Baal Shem Tov replied, “Acts of kindness.”
Because when you see a person suffering, you don’t say, “G‑d runs the universe. G‑d will take care. G‑d knows what is best.” You do everything in your power to relieve that suffering as though there is no G‑d. You become a heretic in G‑d’s name.
Is this the same story that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote? It's not uncommon for stories to morph like that.
Does anyone have a source for the Baal Shem Tov story as well?
I love the story of the devoted followers of the Hassidic master – for those who don’t know that is a kind of guru in Jewish mysticism – and they were getting somewhat profound, as you do by the third Sabbath meal after three meals, lots of chicken soup and, being Hassidim, a lot of vodka and they dared to ask the guru, a question. Does he believe that God created everything for a purpose? He said that of course he believed that God created everything for a purpose. They said in that case, why did God create atheists? And he replied “Because those who have faith sometimes make their peace with the injustices of this world by claiming that they are the will of God. Therefore God created atheists to protest and fight every injustice”.