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Morality Without Religion?

Friday, 27 July, 2018 - 1:00 pm

“Rabbi,” I’ve been told, “I know someone who is religious and is nasty to others, cheating them of their money.”

“Rabbi,” I’ve been told, “I’m not the religious type. But, I would never disrespect someone.”

So, can you be moral without being religious? Can you be religious without being moral?

*

First of all, I’d like to cast away the labels. The term ‘religious’ is virtually abhorrent to me. Some excel in one area, others in another area. I will let G-d decide who is better: the person of great character that does not have a good relationship with G-d or the pious person of prayer who is lacking in his relationship with humans. Judging others’ inner status is above the human pay grade.

So, let’s ask the question differently: Can I be moral without G-d? Can I have a relationship with G-d without being sensitive to my fellows?

***

Believe it or not, Nazi Germany had the strictest laws in Europe for the protection of animal rights. They even outlawed force-feeding fowl. All, while they were murdering millions of human beings.

Apparently, human beings are capable of distorting morality.

But, you say, the despots of the world and other depraved societies don’t represent the advanced, democratic societies of today. Is today really different?

***

This week’s parsha Va’etchanan features the Ten Commandments. In that grand event, revelation at Sinai, G-d finally communicated to the Jewish people. What was His message?

After traveling to Mount Sinai and preparing for several days, the great moment arrived. With thunder, lightning and trembling mountains G-d spoke.

This is what He said:

"I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
You shall not have the gods of others in My presence.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.
You shall not prostrate yourself before them, nor worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a zealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me.
And I perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations] of those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain.
Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days may you work, and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it may go well with you on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.
You shall not murder. And you shall not commit adultery. And you shall not steal. And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor shall you desire your neighbor's house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

If the modern-day media was involved they would herald it as a big nothingburger. More or less, pretty obvious stuff.

So, what is the big message in telling us not to kill or steal? Did we really need G-d for that? Can’t we figure it out on our own?

***

The answer is a resounding NO! Of course, most of humanity, most of the time will get it right. Of course, it’s possible to be a more-or-less ethical person without even believing in G-d, let alone keep Shabbat.

But, if you study the Ten commandments you will notice that the first commandments are all about the relationship between humans and G-d. The latter commandments are all about the relationship between fellow humans.

By beginning with G-d-related commandments and by including both types in the Ten Commandments the message is clear:

True morality must stem from G-d. And a true relationship with G-d must lead to moral behavior.

A moral system without G-d may work for most of the people most of the time. But, ultimately it will fail. Either for the society or for certain individuals.

Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute Divine "eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger."

In the twenty-first century we are still struggling for moral clarity, be it for end of life issues or my digital rights.

We might just be better off if we recognized a truth spoken over 3000 years ago.

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