Insights into Judaism

Blaming religion. Taking 3 steps backward.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, | updated: 11:54

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple


Q. Are people right to blame religion for the world’s problems?

A. Religion is not blameless. Its proponents need to identify the constructive elements in religious tradition and make them the agenda.

Not that governments will like it if religion says it has some solutions to offer: the politicians will tell religion to keep its nose out. Unfortunately the politicians have not done such a great job themselves and there are some who pretend to be pursuing just and lasting solutions when the main things they want are re-election and personal immortality.

We must however acknowledge that antagonism to religion working at the coalface is partly caused by the Western doctrine that religion is a private matter, an affair of the individual soul and its God.

Religion – certainly Judaism – needs to explain that its role was always public as well as private. Abraham, Moses and the prophets had something to say to the world, not just to the individual soul.

So in a world beset with problems that range from inter-group relations to shortage of resources, climate change, economic downturn, ageing populations and lack of opportunity, religion has to speak out and put forward its ideas.

This does not necessarily mean that every religion and every group within a religion will say the same things, nor that the public has to abdicate its judgment and do exactly what a particular religion or religious leader says.

The greatest contribution that religion can make is to explain its spiritual-ethical take on a given subject and work (rationally) to convince public figures and the public that it is right.


Q. At the end of the Amidah why do we take three steps backwards?

A. Four explanations are offered by “Rite and Reason” by Shmuel Pinchas Gelbard:

1. According to the Midrash, Moses passed through three levels when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah: darkness, clouds, and deep blackness. When he descended he went through the same levels. When completing our Amidah we too take three steps backwards.

2. When the Torah was given, the people retreated three measures of distance from the mountain, as the verse says, “And the people stood afar” (Ex. 20:21).

3. Where one prays becomes sacred space. Upon concluding the prayer the person concerned emerges from this sanctified realm and returns to mundane reality.

4. Prayer corresponds to the three daily offerings. When a kohen climbed the ramp up to the altar he ascended on the right and descended on the left. Between the top of the ramp and the altar were three steps on which the kohen stepped backwards when he left.

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