Light from the Sidra

Yitro (‘Jethro’). 30th January 2015. 20th Shevat 5776

Torah: Exodus 18:1–20:23. Haftarah: Isaiah. 6:1–7:6, 9:5–6(6–7)*

Can we be good without God?

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach is a righteous man. He says so. He's never cheated on his wife. He's never murdered anyone or fiddled his expenses. Stephen Fry is also a righteous man. In fact, he's more righteous than the God he doesn't believe in. He told us so last year on Irish TV and created a bit of a stir by sounding off about what he would say if, on shuffling off this mortal coil, he found himself face to face with his Creator. It's very sad to hear Jewish people attack the God of their fathers because if the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is the cruel, barbarous, uncaring, stupid deity Stephen Fry says he is, the people who created him must have been cruel, barbarous, uncaring and stupid.

Having demolished God to their own satisfaction, atheists find themselves in a universe which serves no purpose and which is meaningless. A consistent atheist has to acknowledge that in a meaningless universe, life has no meaning and morality is empty of any true content. In a meaningless cosmos, terms such as ';good' and ';evil,' ';love and hate;' ';cruelty' and ';kindness' have no true value.

The Stephen Frys of this world tell us we don't need God to be good. Each of us should follow our personal moral compass, even though each person's compass points in a different direction to the others. And when you make your compass point in the direction you want it to point, it's easy to be good.

Like a Harry Potter spell, the magic formula, ';Do-what-you-like-so-long-as-you-don't-hurt-anyone-else' miraculously turns any vice into a virtue. We don't believe in absolutes but we know it's absolutely wrong to hurt someone else. Unless, of course, it's a toss-up between your personal pleasure and the happiness of someone else. But that's where the rejection of God leads; moral confusion.

The fact is that God is real whether we like to recognise it or not. Whether we like to admit it or not, absolutes exist. The universe is reasonable, not meaningless, because an infinitely powerful, wise and good God has created us in his image and calls us to be like him. Time and again God tells Israel to be holy for the simple reason that he, Israel's God, is holy.

We don't expect animals to be moral but we expect humans to behave ethically. And though atheists follow their personal moral compass, each likes to think that their moral compass is the most moral. So when atheists argue about what is right and what is wrong, they can only do so by appealing to an absolute standard. The only absolutely accurate moral compass that points to true moral north is supplied in Exodus 20 by the Creator of the universe.

In Genesis, HASHEM created man and woman in his own image and provided them with all they needed to live perfectly happy, fulfilled lives. God also forbade them to eat from a particular tree. By obeying God's command they would express their love, trust and loyalty to the Creator. But disobedience to the divine command would demonstrate a breach of love and trust, making it impossible for God and man to live in harmony. Therefore, when the first humans rebelled against the authority of God, they were cast out of from God's presence into the wilderness. The relationship between God and man had been severed but HASHEM put in place a plan to restore his image – the holy image that had been disfigured and marred by sin – in man.

He called Abraham to be the father of a nation that would be the means of bringing the nations, which by that time were worshipping numerous gods they had made not only in their own image but also in the image of animals. Israel was given God's Torah and, if they lived according to the divine principles revealed in its precepts, the nations would be drawn to Israel and thus to their God.

Here is the only moral compass worth living by, founded on the reality of God and the fact that man is made in his image. The ethics of the Ten Commandments, therefore, are infinitely superior to the bland code of the European Enlightenment that says, do what you like as long as you don't hurt anyone else. That code sets ';Me' first, therefore it's an essentially self-centred code of ethics. The Ten Commandments puts God, in whose image we are made, first. We are to love him with our whole being and then to love others as we love ourselves.
The Ten Commandments know nothing of ';universal human rights;' the Torah is concerned with universal human values and duties to others. And, let's face it, a world in which everyone treated you in the way they wanted you to treat them would be infinitely preferable to a world in which everyone did their own thing while trying to do others no harm. Being proactively concerned for the good of others is far better than simply doing no harm.

But here's the rub. It's all very well to agree with, say, Rabbi Boteach that God's way is preferable to ours; it's another thing to live it out. Atheists fail to live down to their self-centred relativistic philosophy, while the best of us fail to live up to God's standard. In Psalm 14, David laments that ';HASHEM gazed down upon mankind, to see if there exists a reflective person who seeks out God. Everyone has gone astray, together they have become depraved; there is no doer of good, there is not even one.' What are we to do?

We must look in faith to Jesus, the Messiah, the only person who lived a perfect life and then gave up that life so we might be saved from the consequences of falling short of all God intends for us. Only then will we be free to live the righteous life HASHEM requires us to live.


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