Light from the Sidra

Ekev ('Because') 16 August 2014. 20 Av 5774.

Torah: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25.Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Beyond Mere Morality

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 written by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. Nevertheless, the book is deeply flawed.

Jewish atheism seems to me to be a remarkable phenomenon inasmuch as the origin and history of the Jewish nation is inextricably linked to God. For many Jewish intellectuals, atheism appears to be the default position to hold. And after all, Jews must not be seen as superstitious yokels.

For ancient Israel, the worship of foreign gods was a constant temptation but for Jews today the sophisticated but no-less-imaginary gods of secularism, scientism, rationalism and intellectual superiority appear to be irresistible.

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 but intellectually superior Cass shoot them down with ease.

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 biblical morality is based on love not fear. And biblical morality is more than being moral for morality’s sake. That principle of morality based on love is at the heart of the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel: HASHEM is our God, HASHEM is the one and only. You shall love HASHEM, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-6)

The way we are to treat our fellow man is also founded on the principle of love: ‘You shall love your fellow as yourself — I am HASHEM.’ (Leviticus 19:18).

True morality, according to the Torah, begins with our relationship to God. If we love him with our whole being, we will love others as we love ourselves. This week’s Parasha is part of the longest section of Deuteronomy, a section which stipulates how Israelites, as partners in covenant with the Creator of the universe, should behave. Morality for morality’s sake is a form of idolatry. Morality that stems from love for God is the only system of ethics that counts or that works.

We might disagree with that notion of ethics but, then, so did ancient Israel. There were consequences for disobedience, and Israel suffered those consequences at the hands of the hostile nations HASHEM raised up to chastise them. But the Haftarah offers hope to Israel in exile. Zion would say: ‘HASHEM has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me’ (Isaiah 49:14). But the message of Isaiah is that Israel is neither forgotten nor forsaken. The Jewish people were unfaithful to God’s covenant (indeed, most Jews today are unfaithful to his covenant), but, says Isaiah 49:16, HASHEM has engraved Zion on the palms of his hands with a sharp instrument (the Hebrew word chaqaq means to ‘hack’ or ‘carve’). HASHEM’s suffering would bring an end to Israel’s time of hard service; his pain would ‘pay off’ his people’s guilt. That was how Jerusalem would receive of Yahweh’s hand ‘double for all her sins’, as we saw last week.

But can God suffer physical pain? Is the language of Isaiah 49:16 mere hyperbole? The prophet Zechariah answers that in chapter 12:10 of his prophecy in which HASHEM declares: ‘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 Zechariah, therefore, it looks as though God can be ‘pierced’ but in order to do that he would have to become one of us. Could HASHEM do that? Could HASHEM become a man if he chose to? If he couldn’t then he’s obviously not almighty. But if he could become flesh and if he did so in order to be pierced to save his people from their sins then not only is his power without limit, so also is his love.

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