In a 2006 article (original link no longer available), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the following story:

“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?

Here a transcript of Rabbi Sacks telling another version of the story. The lecture took place on 25th November 2003:

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”.

6 Answers 6


See the sefer Pardes Yosef on parshat Teruma chapter 25 sub ubb"b d"y [= ubibava batra daf yod] where it is described how the Besh"t was asked about a Talmudic source which says that every Torah prohibition has a permitted aspect to it, so where is heresy permitted? His answer was that in performing the mitzvah of charity, one should help the poor man as if there does not exist any Divine source that will help him. That way the giver must take on all the responsibility for helping the indigent. No shirking based on the excuse that God will help.

In a somewhat similar vein see the Tzemach Tzedek's Derech Mitzvotecha mitzvat Milah in the middle of siman 5 concerning how one should view the necessity of working during the 6 chol days.

  • Thank you very much. I've been looking for a source for this story for a while.
    – Menachem
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 22:10
  • I accepted this as the answer because I believe that the other stories in the question are versions of this one.
    – Menachem
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 0:46

This story, sounds like an adaptation of the writings of Rav Kook.

Rav Kook wrote extensively on the spiritual good that came from many of the "troubles" of his time. The rise of Atheism was one of those topics.

He writes in many places that Atheism helps cleanse religion of Man's false beliefs, and Heresy helps shine light on the darkness of falsehood.

After the writings of Rav Kook became popular, it is very possible that this story happened to many rabbis.

His exact statement was:

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.” (Orot 126)

Another quote is :

"Rav Kook, however, argues that a positive spark does emanate from the depths of the non-believer’s arguments. The non-believer challenges the religious man’s concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess his perceptions. Not only does this strengthen the religious community by demanding a re-evaluation, it is also necessary for the community’s continued development. Since God is a priori undefinable, the religious community’s perceptions of the Divine, and their consequent behavior, must constantly be revised. Hence heresy, “kefira,” is the only dark force capable of contributing to world perfection" (This was quoted here)

His view is also summarized in Wikipedia as:

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,1 first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Palestine, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of God, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism. Atheists generally do not accept this point of view.

I have found no other sources for this idea.


I heard similar stories about the disciple asking the Rabbi about kindness and epikoros was by the Chofetz Chaim!

That said, just because it's in a book of collected things people said he said, doesn't mean he really said it. A Rabbi from that same area in Eastern Europe once said a little bit of everything under the sun was attributed to the Choftez Chaim, and not all of it so.

If some of the same stories are attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, maybe it's not authentic (pick a famous person, any famous person). This attributing of parables to famous people may just be a way a person adds weight to their words, of worming unorthodox ideas into the mainstream, or doesn't take 100% responsibility for what unorthodox thing was just said (it was some famous Rabbi, not me :).

It's an interesting question. Based on other things Baal Shem Tov, Chofetz Chaim, wrote, equating epikoros with non-observance, I'm not sure any of those Rabbis would say Atheists were created by G-d to be Atheists. One technique would be to look at other writings and see if the ideas "hang together" logically.

The first story permits heresy as a way of 'out-Orthodoxing the Orthodox". The second story also speaks to this as not relying on G-d to do everything, to engage in Tikkun. I don't know if the Baal Shem Tov would really say that because the idea of Tikkun isn't something heretics or atheists own.

Since no one can find a clear source, just parables that may be attributed to both Chofetz Chaim, and the B'sht, the first story about "a famous Rabbi" could very well be a literary device through which Rabbi Sacks himself is speaking, and an idea with which he himself agrees.

  • Whaddaya mean "Tikkun"?
    – msh210
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 6:44
  • 1
    It means 'repair'. The idea that is spoken of in the Aleynu that we do mitzvot and acts of kindness to serve G-d, which repairs the world "Tikkun Olam" in Hebrew. This prayer looks forward to the time when idolatry will be abolished, and the world is repaired. The aleynu is attributed to Joshua (who was not a heretic). Here is an article on tikkun from Aish: aish.com/atr/a/?category=Tikkun+Olam
    – Chana
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:20
  • Do you know where in the book the story is brought? I tried to search for in in google books, but couldn't find it. I'm probably not searching for the right keyword. Here's the link to the book on google books: books.google.com/…
    – Menachem
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 14:39
  • @Menachem I couldn't find that exact story either when I searched in that link. The point I was trying to make was there are 100s of stories attributed to him that he didn't write directly. Sorry if that lead you on about finding that exact story. I know I heard of it, and many other prophecies and miracles as well. That book was a bad example of 'famous Rabbi says something unconventional' because the stories in that link matched his writings, so I took it out.
    – Chana
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 0:44
  • I didn't understand this sentence: "I don't know if the Baal Shem Tov would really say that because the idea of Tikkun isn't something heretics or atheists own." Could you clarify that please? :)
    – HodofHod
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 0:51

Rabbi Kenneth Brander from the CJF (at YU) once delivered a shiur regarding the positive values of atheism. Here is a link to some of the mekorot presented, which source Rav Kook among other key rabbinic figures.


Offhand, these stories sound like parables.

I've heard a similar point put forth by a local Chassidish rabbi (I don't recall in whose name) as a derasha on Tehillim 41:2: אַשְׁרֵי, מַשְׂכִּיל אֶל-דָּל; בְּיוֹם רָעָה, יְמַלְּטֵהוּ ה

How can we say אַשְׁרֵי מַשְׂכִּיל, that praiseworthy is the maskil?!

The answer is that everything is good in its place, and it is good to be a maskil towards a אֶל-דָּל, a pauper. A pauper pours out his woe. A "frum" response might be to reassure the man that Hashem will help. But the proper religious response here is to be a "maskil", and say that Hashem won't help, so it is up to me to help.

  • It sounds pretty similar to the Ba'al Shem Tov quoted in this answer.
    – b a
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 5:37
  • @ba, indeed, he probably was citing the Besht for the fundamental. I don't know whether the derasha is separate though; he predates maskilim, perhaps. come to think of it, yes, he also cited that gemara in Chullin. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 6:00
  • judaism.stackexchange.com/a/26149/759
    – Double AA
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 4:45

In the Talmud, the appearance of apostates of all colors was often a tool to teach a point; the story of Rabbi Meir traveling with his former teacher and then agnostic Acher (R. Elisha ben Avuyah), Hagiga 15a, being one of the classics.

I like the story at Kesubos 112a. It tells of how Rabbi Zeira had left Babylonia, where he was already a top scholar, and decided to move to Eretz Israel to re-learn Torah (because he thought that Israel was the best place to learn Torah). He came to the Jordan and found he had missed the ferry that crossed the river. He cut a tall tree and used it to bridge the river, hanging on to the ferry's guide rope. On the other side he is confronted by a Min (censored versions say a Sadduccee, but they were long gone by then; here we're talking either about an apostate or an atheist). He said to Rabbi Zeira, "you Jews are an impetuous people who put its mouth before its ear. Still you continue in your rash behavior [i.e. you didn't wait for the ferry to return]." According to Rashi, the Min was saying, "From your beginnings at Mt. Sinai, you were always hasty because you said, 'we will do and we do [first] and [then] we will listen.' You are still rash, like in the beginning, to hurry a thing that's not in its time." Rabbi Zeira said to him: "this place that Moses and Aaron did not merit to enter [in their lifetimes], who will say I merit it later [if I don't take this opportunity to enter the Land]?"

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