Sunday, September 16, 2012
"But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion" - Love and Fear in Judaism.
העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.
“One who worships out of love, is occupied with Torah and walks in the paths of knowledge, for no other reason in the world, neither for fear of bad consequences nor hoping for good outcomes, but acts the truth because it is true and eventually good will follow on the whole”. (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2)
This is one of the most important statements that we can find anywhere in the Jewish literature and it truly defines our religion as it really is – The Quest for Truth - the ultimate Truth. What triggered this post is a quote from Steven Weinberg (Nobel Prize Physicist), in Jim Holt’s excellent book – Why Does the World Exist? – which I am now reading. Weinberg reportedly stated, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. My reaction is that he is 100% right and that is because most people do not understand what real religion is all about. I don’t know enough about other religions but I know enough about our religion, Judaism to know that based on the way it is practiced nowadays and understood by the general Jewish religious community, Weinberg is correct. It is only by accepting Rambam’s definition of religion and understanding deeply what he is teaching that Judaism can become what it is supposed to be – to move humanity towards seeking Truth and not a tool for control and manipulation.
The general rather simplistic and popular concept of Judaism today is that it is good for you. God knows all and watches all human actions and sits in judgment; good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. As man does not know what is right or wrong, a set of laws has been given – the Torah and Mitzvot – and doing good means following the Mitzvot, bad is ignoring or flouting them. Punishment is when bad things happen and reward is when good things happen. How to define good things and bad things? If a person’s wishes are fulfilled it is good and if they are thwarted it is bad. As human life is short there is an additional bonus, Olam Haba, life after death where if one was good one will bask in perpetual bliss, an undefined concept but said to be something that one cannot grasp while alive. The evil person, the one who flouted the Mitzvot while alive will burn in hell, suffering untold pain eternally. Then there are full panoplies of intermediary systems where one gets reward in this world for the good deeds so that he can be punished eternally for the bad and vice versa. Interestingly some more “advanced thinkers” will suggest that there are “spiritual” benefits that result from following this path. If you try to delve deeper and ask what they mean by "spiritual" the answer is less anxiety, Bitachon, feeling good about yourself and other such “feel good” experiences. The common denominator is that the rewards are “good things” happening to the individual. All one has to do is pick up a contemporary Mussar sefer or “theological” sefer to get a picture of this simple and easy to grasp system of reward and punishment. The ultimate goal of this type of religion is to adhere strictly to the Mitzvot and to reap the rewards that God bestows on those that follow rituals strictly.
At first blush, the sources fit very nicely with this understanding of Judaism. However this approach cannot satisfy a thinking person. It is a narcissistic and selfish perspective on life where everything one does is to satisfy personal wishes and needs. It is no better than capitalism, socialism or any other “ism” out there. Egoism and selfishness eventually lead to evil and it is in the name of these “isms” that much of the evil witnessed by humankind has been perpetrated. If there is nothing more to religion, then religion is truly the cause of evil. If religion is there only to better our material life then it will inevitably lead to evil. That is the idea behind Avodah Zara – idolatry - which is the ultimate falsehood and is the underlying theme of all that the Torah teaches away from. So how do we explain the prevalence of this way of thinking in our community? Human beings are endowed with the urge for self-preservation. That urge is common to all living things and is there to perpetuate themselves and their kind or genus. That urge is narcissistic and selfish and is part of us just like appetite and all our other urges. This type of religious thinking caters to that urge and is attractive to the animalistic instinct, it “feels” good. It is also a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the sources, a distortion of what they teach us as we will see further.
In addition to the survival instinct human beings have another innate capability - consciousness. That capability allows us to see ourselves, ourselves in relation to the other and in relation to our environment and our universe. It gives us the ability to see beyond our natural urges and our immediate needs, to see the other and develop moral and ethical codes that take into account the other and our environment. Moral and ethical societies do not necessarily require religion to function and indeed many societies work well without religion. Thus the first part of Weinberg’s statement is correct, good people will do good and bad people evil without religion. Consciousness and the ability to think abstractly and self-awareness that comes with it bring with them an even more advanced and sophisticated urge; it triggers in us the need to understand our existence why we are here, what is the goal of us being here and all the existential questions that humanity has struggled with for millennia. Judaism is meant to help people address these questions. Rambam counts as the eighth positive commandment
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו:
"והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט).
The existential question of how and why we exist and the search for the answer has a practical side to it – to find God so that we can emulate Him. The problem is that to know God, to know how to emulate Him is not easy. God is the Truth but also the Great Mystery and the search to discover Him and interpret His actions correctly is a lifelong task that takes over all aspects of a human being’s day. The greatest challenge is to overcome subjectivity, self-serving bias so that we can see things objectively. It is here that Torah and Mitzvot, the practical side of Judaism come into play. They are the tool that perfects our minds and our emotions so that we think objectively and thus know how to act constructively. Torah and Mitzvot are not the goal and end all of religious life but the most important gift we received from HKBH as tools to perfect us and help us reach our ultimate goal which is finding God and His ways and emulating Him. When religion is focused to help us realize these goals it is a very personal experience and does not lead to control and manipulation that is the source of evil. On the contrary it imbues us with respect to fellow seekers and compels us to enlist others into this quest through example and promotes love for our fellow human beings.
Returning to the question we asked earlier, why is our community so invested in the idea of following the Law for the sake of physical reward and to avoid punishment? The question is even sharper when we read the strong admonishments and warnings in the last few Parshyot – Ki Tavo and Nitzavim. They all seem to focus on the physical good and bad. As I said earlier it is an attractive approach to the undeveloped person and therefore entices him to grab on to this misinterpretation of the sources. In Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 9 Rambam addresses these sources and explains how they are meant to be read. As this is a quite lengthy discussion I will leave it for another post. Here is a summary of how Rambam understands this –
ו נמצא פירוש כל אותן הברכות והקללות, על דרך זו: כלומר אם עבדתם את ה' בשמחה, ושמרתם דרכו--משפיע לכם הברכות האלו ומרחיק הקללות, עד שתהיו פנויים להתחכם בתורה ולעסוק בה, כדי שתזכו לחיי העולם הבא, וייטב לך לעולם שכולו טוב ותאריך ימים לעולם שכולו ארוך. ונמצאתם זוכין לשני העולמות, לחיים טובים בעולם הזה המביאין לחיי העולם הבא: שאם לא יקנה הנה חכמה ומעשים טובים--אין לו במה יזכה, שנאמר "כי אין מעשה וחשבון, ודעת וחכמה, בשאול . . ." (קוהלת ט,י).
ז ואם עזבתם את ה' ושגיתם במאכל ומשקה וזנות ודומה להם--מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות, עד שייכלו ימיכם בבהלה ופחד, ולא יהיה לכם לב פנוי ולא גוף שלם לעשות המצוות, כדי שתאבדו מחיי העולם הבא. ונמצא שאיבדתם שני עולמות: שבזמן שאדם טרוד בעולם הזה בחולי ובמלחמה ורעבון, אינו מתעסק לא בחכמה ולא במצוה שבהן זוכין לחיי העולם הבא.
It should be noted that at the end of all the admonishments and warnings where the Torah describes all the physical destruction and punishment that will result from our transgressions, the Torah describes what will happen at the end when we realize our mistake. It promises improvements in our physical wellbeing but ultimately the goal is – (Devarim 30:6)
ו וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ: לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ--לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.
6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
The ultimate goal is to worship God out of love and not out of fear. Love comes with knowledge. We love someone we know; we do not love strangers. It is the search for the answers to our existential questions that leads us to the transcendental God, the mysterious and unknown Entity that we can only know through negating any physical attribute to, that we only perceive the results of His will and which we try to emulate. The understanding that this is the goal of Mitzvot and not just physical wellbeing will go a long way to keep us from falling into the trap Professor Weinberg so eloquently describes – “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.
In another post I would like to expand more on this last fundamental issue – what exactly to we mean when we talk about God? When we say we are searching for God, what exactly are we looking for? Because the answer to that sharpens further why Professor Weinstein’s comment and indeed many of the anti-religion arguments of other atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens do not talk to me when I think about real Judaism, the one Rambam teaches.
As this post was inspired by Steven Weinberg, who claims to be an atheist, I would like to share another statement of his regarding the boycotting of Israel by some humanistic/religious groups -
"Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism."
Spoken like a Jew!
I wish all a Ketiva Vechatima Tova and a Shana Tova. Chag Sameach.
 “On the whole” indicates the possibility of a rocky road with a good outcome. The immediate result of “acting the Truth” may not be necessarily rosy but in the larger context it will lead to good. This falls into Rambam’s discussion of providence – Hashgacha.