Light from the Sidra


Deuteronomy 7:12-11.25.Haftarah:Isaiah 49:14-51:3

36 Arguments For the Existence of God; A Work of Fiction is a very clever novel. The author Rebecca Goldstein is both a philosopher and a gifted novelist. She is also an atheist and I have to admit that I found her book a more urbane, eloquent and challenging case for atheism than anything by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Jewish atheism is a remarkable phenomenon because the origin and history of the Jewish nation is inextricably linked to God. It seems that for Jewish intellectuals, that atheism is the only respectable position to hold. After all, Jews must not be seen to be superstitious yokels.

For ancient Israel, the worship of the gods of the nations was highly attractive but for Jews today, the temptation is to bow down to the sophisticated but no less imaginary gods of secularism, scientism, rationalism and intellectual superiority.

Goldstein’s book culminates in a debate about the existence of God between “atheist with a soul” Cass Seltzer (Get it? Alka Seltzer…) and his supercilious nemesis Felix Fidley. Fidley sets out some classic arguments for the existence of God, which philosopher Goldstein details with scrupulous fairness, only to have the self-effacing Cass shoot them down with his superior intellect.

When it comes to the case for morality without God, Cass argues it is more moral to be moral for morality’s sake than to be good out of fear of burning forever in hell. Cass’s prime principle for moral behaviour is what has been dubbed the “Golden Rule” but what he neglects to say and what Fidley fails to point out is that “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” is the second foundational principle of the Torah.

In the wake of the mayhem in England’s major cities in the last week, there has been a great deal of talk about the rioters not knowing the difference between right and wrong. But what is “right” and what is “wrong” and who decides which is which? The politicians? The police? The victims? The villains? God?

Three teenage girls were interviewed on the radio while drinking wine they had looted from a local shop. They were, they said calmly, “showin’ da police an’ da rich people dat we can do what we want.”

Why should we not burn down businesses if we want to? Why should we not smash shop windows and steal plasma screen TVs or expensive trainers if the opportunity presents itself? And, if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, why not create one by starting a riot? Why should we not turn vehicles into weapons to kill people we don’t like? Because it’s wrong? Who says?

Atheism can never explain why the chance products of an explosion at the beginning of time have any real value. That is why every atheist regime – Soviet Russia, Albania, Communist China, North Korea, to name the most prominent – have had appalling human rights records. It should also be pointed out that regimes that worship gods other than the God who reveals himself in the Bible also have less than enviable records of the way they treat their own citizens and unbelievers.

True morality, according to the Torah, begins with our relationship to God. If we love him with our entire beings, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves will follow. This week’s Parasha is part of the longest section of Deuteronomy, the section that lays down stipulations for Israel’s behaviour as partners in covenant with the Creator of the universe. There are rewards for obedience to God and consequences for bad behaviour, as Adam discovered in Gan Eden. If Israel was to enjoy the land God had given them, there were stipulations to be observed.

Morality for morality’s sake is actually a form of idolatry. Morality that stems from love for God is the only system of ethics that counts. We might not like that, but neither did Israel. There were consequences for disobedience, and Israel suffered them when she went into exile. But the Haftarah offers hope to Israel in exile. Zion would say: “The LORD hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14, Jewish Publication Society translation ).

The message of Isaiah is that Israel is neither forgotten nor forsaken. The Jewish people were unfaithful to God’s covenant, and most Jews still are unfaithful to his covenant, but Yahweh had graven Zion on the palms of his hands not with a felt-tipped marker but with a sharp instrument (the Hebrew word chaqaq means to “hack” or “carve”). Yahweh’s suffering would bring an end to Israel’s time of hard service; his pain would “pay off” his people’s guilt “paid off”. That was how Jerusalem would receive of Yahweh’s hand “double for all her sins”.

Can God suffer physical pain? The prophet Zachariah gives an answer in chapter 12:10: “They shall look on Me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they shall be bitter over Him, like the bitterness over the first-born” (Young’s Literal Translation).

According to Zachariah, it looks as though God can be “pierced” but in order to do that he would have to become one of us.

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