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Someone asked me to teach a class entitled What Is The Motivation To Be Good In This World: Why Be Good If There Is No Heaven Or Hell? I agreed it would be a good topic for a class and so I pondered it for a few frustrating weeks. I found the appropriate sources from our historic Jewish literature. I reread some philosophy. And ultimately I ran into that preverbal brick wall. So I did the most logical thing: I decided not to teach it and set the class aside. But, the frustration remained. I don’t believe in an afterlife in which we are rewarded or punished for our actions in this world. I know that our place in this world as Jews is to work to perfect our world and our community. But that is too simple an answer.
Then I found the book: Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself by Rabbi Donniel Hartmann. Rabbi Hartmann’s book answers the question “Why have religious people in the past, and today, and probably into eternity, done such horrible things in the name of religion?” In answering that question he also answers the question: What is the motivation to be good in this world if there is no heaven or hell.
Rabbi Hartmann writes: “While there are multiple causes for the moral inadequacy that so often typifies human existence, a significant and largely unobserved challenge lies squarely within religion itself. We must acknowledge that many religious systems, while commanding their adherents to act morally, also cultivate perspectives and predispositions that undermine this very goal. This inner conflict between faith in God and the moral imperative to become people who are not indifferent is at the core of religion’s autoimmune disease.
He then enumerates the two “auto-immune diseases of religion; God Intoxication and God Manipulation. Tonight we will focus on God Manipulation.
“God Manipulation, aligns the identity and will of the One with the interests and agendas of those who lay claim to God’s special love…. Within this way of thinking, we may embrace the obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, while redefining neighbors to include not those among whom we live but rather the much smaller circle of those who share our particular set of religious beliefs. God Manipulation extends a blanket exemption from truly seeing anyone outside our religious community. (pp. 45 - 46. Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)
Without question our Torah and our Tanach contain some of the highest moral imperatives and ethical laws. From “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) to just a few verses later: “the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God” (Lev. 19:24)
On the other hand, our Torah and Tanach contain commands to restrict, oppress or kill those who are different. God commands that we commit genocide, treat women as less than men, kill our own children for drunkenness, and put people to death for traveling more than 4500 feet from their homes on Shabbat.
Fortunately, as early as the first Century B.C.E, our spiritual ancestors deemed these horrific laws unethical and thus inapplicable. Thus evolved our people’s propensity for interpretation. We live in a real world with real challenges. Judaism understands that with new situations, new technology and an ever increasing body of knowledge, people evolve and change. In the last sixty years our understanding of equal rights for all races, genders, and gender identities has grown and continues to grow. Without an evolving Judaism, grounded in moral principals and ethical actions, Judaism would have died with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans 1948 years ago.
An evolving Judaism seemingly stands at odds against those who believe in a perfect, infallible, eternal God, who gave the Torah to the Israelites through Moses, Would not Torah have to be perfect?
The answer is a resounding no. Logic dictates that if you believe God is perfect, and infallible, God could only give the Torah in a way that our ancestors could understand? Michele and I were once at a party and a coworker told us that her seventh grader was studying studying Immanuel Kant. Having studied Kant over the past 4 decades, regardless of how smart a seventh grader may be, she or he cannot understand Kant the way an adult, with years of life experience can understand Kant’s views on the world. In other words, if Moses did receive the Torah from God on Sinai, what he received was what he could comprehend.
As Rabbi Hartmann more eloquently writes: “But what if it were possible for a perfect God to give an imperfect scripture? What if, upon further consideration, imperfect scripture is the only scripture imaginable?
‘Sacred scripture, while purporting to provide for humankind a window into the will of God, at its core is an anthropocentric (human centered - my comment) endeavor. Its aim is theocentric (God centered - my comment), in the sense that it purports to serve as a foundation for the average believer to live with God… Scripture is thus inherently constituted as a compromise between divine will and human limitation.” (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 123). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)
As Americans we are familiar with this concept. We understand that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution wrote of the rights of all men, they really meant only white men who owned land. No non-Europeans. No renters. No women. Over time, especially the past 60 - 70 years, our understanding of what they wrote does include these forgotten groups. To revert to the founders understanding of “men” would be unthinkable today.
So too in Judaism. Torah and Rabbinic Literature teach that to be a witness in a trial, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. So then to be a rabbi who more often serves as a witness than anyone else, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. The first woman rabbi was a 17th Century Kurdish woman named Asneath Barzani. She gained the title of Tanait, the equivalent Kurdish term for Rabbi. In 2010, the next known Orthodox woman, Rachel Isaacs, was ordained. Today, women Rabbis occupy some of the most prestigious pulpits and, along with talented lay women, lead some of the major organizations in the Jewish world. Our definition of who can be a rabbi can never go back and exclude women. To do so would be unethical, regardless of any of God’s laws in the Torah.
Our heritage calls on us to continue on this same path. We are called to evolve our understanding of what it means to be good and the acts we need to perform even when it contradicts specific Divine laws in Torah.
Nonetheless, we must take great care to ensure that when we say we are putting the ethical above God, the ethics we promote increase good in the world and not just our own self interest. Ultimately we can only know in hindsight if we increased good in the world. This compels us to take care and at the same time not ignore the need to put the ethical above God.
So let us return to the original question: Why be good if you do not believe there is reward or punishment after death and to take it a step farther, you do not believe in God? Allow me to again quote Rabbi Hartmann: “Does one have to believe in God in order to be good ? Certainly not....The question then becomes, what forms of doing or believing, or both, constitute the standard of the ‘good Jew’"?(Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 144). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)
To answer the question Rabbi Hartmann cites the story of the person who comes to Hillel to convert to Judaism with the requirement that Hillel teaches him all he needs to know while the person stands on one foot. We all know the story. Hillel agrees and answers with what he knew to be the essence of Judaism: “What is hateful to you do not do to another.”
Hillel does not mention belief in God, an afterlife, or even prayer. For Hillel, to be a good Jew one has to be ethical and just.
Judaism indeed places doing good above believing in God. It is one of many things that make me proud to be a Jew.