Good God: Steinhardt no longer an atheist?

After following Michael Steinhardt closely for three years (for a yet-to-be-published lenthy profile examining his mischievous streak), I thought I had heard it all from him.

Until Tuesday night.

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Steinhardt — the hedge funder who famously retired from Wall Street to become a full-time Jewish community builder and counts the creation of Birthright among his successes — was at the 92nd Street Y to give the cultural center’s annual state of the Jews address.

Steinhardt. Asked to critique the Jewish communal world.

It’s certainly a recipe for entertainment.

And he did not disappoint — spending about 45 minutes, before several hundred Manhattan Jews, ripping into the Jewish communal world, lambasting Hebrew schools, Jewish federations, the secular Jewish world and the way Jewish organizations in general spend their money.

When asked by an audience member what advice he would give to new graduates of Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries, he replied, “Go to Wall Street.”

He tore into the decisions that many large organizations make when they take out full-page newspaper adds in support of Israel. Not only do they rarely change public opinion, but they are a waste of philanthropic resources.

“How much did that ad cost?” he asked. “By my reckoning, let’s figure around $50,000. Well, how many trees in a JNF forest does $50,000 plant? How many poor people in Bat Yam does $50,000 feed? Why are we spending money on advertising, rather than on doing what we say we’re supposed to be doing?”

And to that end, he repeated a public call that he made shortly after the Madoff scandal for the Jewish community to hire an official ombudsman who would look objectively at the finances and missions of all Jewish organizations to make sure that they were effective and not squandering communal cash.

Jewish unity and the notion of Jewish peoplehood upon which so many organizations have hinged their mission are dead, he said, calling such concepts "noble lies.”

So far, par for the course.

Then came the zinger.

For years Steinhardt has touted himself as an atheist, making his disbelief in God very much a part of his public persona and his identity as a Jewish philanthropist (another phrase he hates).

Yet in talking about how to boost Jewish education, he suggested that Jewish parents join their children in struggling honestly with the notion of God. That, he said, is the Jewish tradition, citing the open squabbles that Abraham, Moses and Job all had with God.

“A God with whom we struggle is a God I could accept and still look myself in the mirror the next morning. And I suspect it is also a God that the next generation of Jews can live with as well,” Steinhardt said. “Our kids will respect us if they feel we are talking to them about a kind of Deity that we, ourselves, struggle to comprehend. It will convince them that we, their parents, are for real; that we aren’t trying to push some pious sounding, but insincere, horse manure on them. In the end, we can only gain by speaking honestly about this. I think it will not lead our kids away from faith. It might even lead them towards it.”

An atheist certainly could not wrestle with something that he does not think exists. 

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