Just a Thought: Why be moral?

"Judaism, a religion of deed, not creed;" religion provides the tools, rules for the fundamentals of "goodness."

By AHARON E. WEXLER
March 15, 2013 21:47
Man praying with Torah at Kotel.

torah 311. (photo credit: Israel Weiss http://artframe.co.il)

Rabbi A.J. Heschel once asked, “May I upset you? Or may I offend you?” I, too, ask these questions before I begin. What is good? Many people are quick to answer that a good person is one who does not hurt anyone else. I would disagree. I would say that the most you can say about someone who does no harm to others is simply that they are not bad people.

To be good, one must not merely abstain from bad; one must actively pursue a good life. The Torah teaches us, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). One who does not act while his neighbor is being harmed is in fact a bad person, having facilitated something bad by his inaction. As political thinker Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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This is why Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. It is not enough simply to believe in its ideals; one must act on them. We are commanded to loan money, give charity, stand up before the aged, and visit the sick. Secular laws contain no such positive commands; they mostly tell us what not to do, rather than directing us to do good.

Judaism teaches that there is a God in this world and that He revealed His will to man, and this is the source of ethics and morals. Without God, we are all just meaningless atoms and cells; one can no more say that a cell is good than one can call an action by a group of cells – a body – good. It has been said that without a universal God, there is no universal morality; there is only popular opinion. With out a universal God, all opinions are subjective. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, an atheist, “the most we can say about wanton cruelty is that I simply don’t like it.” The absence of a universal God reduces my opinion on cruelty to no more important than my opinion of my favorite color.

HERE IS the part where I perhaps upset or offend.

Think long and hard and come up with a reason not to kill newborn babies that are so diseased or so crippled that they will only grow to be a burden on society, contributing nothing of value to the rest of us. To those who jump to the visceral conclusion that “killing is wrong,” I must ask what makes it wrong. If we go by Russell, the best you can say is that killing diseased babies disgusts you. But what is really the difference between one’s disgust at killing babies and one’s disgust at drinking sour milk? The only answers I can provide for not killing sick babies are either that God said it was wrong, or that a human being is by definition a part of God and therefore his value must be judged not on his contribution to society, but on his very existence. Both of these answers include God. An atheist has no recourse to these answers.

Judaism agrees with the old adage, “If religion is anything, it is everything.” And therefore Judaism covers every aspect of our lives. Judaism dictates that in order to be good at anything, one must practice, and God gives us a myriad of daily ways to practice being ethical people.

Some 2,500 years ago, Plato and his colleagues asked whether the gods loved good because it was good, or whether it was their love of it that made it good. In Judaism, it is God’s command that makes something “good.” Without the Divine command, the most we can say about “good” acts are that they please human beings. This is why the Bible, whenever a character sins, states that he “did what was evil in the eyes of God.” While the Bible recognizes that what a person did might have made sense in his own eyes – such as Saul’s sparing the Amalekite cattle – what makes it wrong is that it was evil in God’s eyes (I Samuel 15:19).

PART OF the problem Judaism has in the Western world is that we are victims of our own success. We have difficulty articulating what Jewish ethics are and what makes them specifically Jewish, because they have already permeated the Western weltanschauung for the last 2,000 years of our exile. Through our daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, we have taught the world some of the most important Divine truths. Most of them are “givens” that we take for granted, but if not for the Jewish people, who knows if it would have taken another million years of human evolution to arrive at them.

We have taught the world that the foundation of any society is the family, with heterosexual monogamy as the ideal. We have taught it that adultery, incest and bestiality are sins not just to our fellow man or animal, but to God. We have taught the world the value of tzedaka as an ethical imperative, and not just charity. The pursuit of justice and the avoidance of slander and gossip are Jewish. We do not oppress the stranger because we remember that we were once strangers, and we are commanded by divine decree not to oppress the widow or orphan and to stand in the presence of the aged.

Yet the modern Western world still has much to learn from us. I think I agree with Primo Levi, who believed that the Holocaust was the ultimate proof of the failure of the Age of Reason and of Godless ethics.

Jewish ethics deal with the minutiae of this world, because we believe that God is in the details, making Judaism a covenantal-ethical technology for making us better people and informing us that we are not a cosmic fluke.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and seminaries.


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