After Yom Kippur, a young man approached me to thank me for what he said was truly “an inspirational service.” “Rabbi,” he said, “this was my best High Holiday ever—you can count on me being here next year again.” “Next year?” I asked, “what about next week on Shabbat? If the service was so good, why do I have to wait a whole year to see you again? The young man gave me an honest answer. “Rabbi, I don’t come every week because I’m not religious, and I’m not religious because I don’t think you need to believe in God to be a good person.”
Is this true? Does one have to be religious to be considered “good”? Can’t one still be a decent person without believing in God, without following some kind of religious path?
This is a great question to ponder as we read the Torah portions of Lech Lecha and Vayera that introduce us to Abraham. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, is known for both promoting the belief in God and performing acts of kindness. Abraham is both the man of God and the man of goodness. Do you have to believe in one in order to be the other?
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, delivered a sermon in 1965 at The Jewish Center in Manhattan in which he said: “We cannot deny that there are good people who do not believe in God. However, Judaism maintains that such goodness cannot last forever. The moral instincts that prevail today are but the residue of a religious reservoir that is rapidly drying up. We are living off the ethical interest from the quickly dwindling religious capital of two generations ago.” (https://www.yu.edu/about/lamm-heritage/archives).
This he said in 1965. “For ethical living,” continued Rabbi Lamm,” is the branch of a tree of life, of which the roots are religion. When you cut off the root, the branch does not wither immediately, but eventually it must die.”
The point being: a person without God or religion can be good but it’s temporary. He or she is good now but there’s nothing to sustain it for the long run and nothing to inspire one to maintain that goodness when sacrifice is required in order to preserve it. A “Godless goodness,” said Rabbi Lamm, is simply not compelling enough when one is asked to risk something real for it. When honesty isn’t the best policy in a given situation, when it’s going to cost the person to be honest and no one else will know, there’s only one thing that will compel that person to do the right thing: because one believes there is Someone above us who notices, watches and cares about the decisions we make.
Another reason, said Rabbi Lamm, is that “only a Godly goodness can produce saintliness, which is the very culmination of goodness.” A Godless goodness can at best produce a very decent person but it will never give birth to a saint. It will never produce a holy man or woman, and holiness is one of the goals of being religious. Rabbi Lamm used the example of the Greek philosopher Plato whose teacher was the great Socrates. In Plato’s “Symposium” he praised his teacher, but the best thing he can say about Socrates’ character was that he wasn’t a sexual degenerate as so many other Greeks of that time were. Can you imagine someone saying that of a rabbinic figure? His greatest praise is that he wasn’t sexually perverted? That would be the biggest insult, because a religious person’s goodness “is expressed in the pinnacle of human development where goodness and Godliness merge [to produce]: saintliness.”
Finally, a Godless goodness is not reliable. It’s constantly changing as we see in Lech Lecha. Abraham and Sarah are forced to leave Israel because of a famine and they go down to Egypt to find some food. They know that Egypt is a place bereft of morality, and so Abraham is afraid that when they see how beautiful his beloved Sarah is, they will kill him and take her into Pharaoh’s harem. To avoid this, Abraham tells the Egyptians he is Sarah’s brother. The identical episode is repeated in next week’s Torah reading, in Vayera, this time involving another ruler named Avimelech, king of Grar. In that story, Abraham again tells the people Sarah is his sister. Upon discovering this deception, King Avimelech asks Abraham why he felt the need to lie: “What did you see that caused you to do this thing?” (Bereishit 20:10), to which Abraham famously answers, “Because I said there is no fear of God in this place” (Ibid 20:11).
The Malbim and Netziv explain that what King Avimelech was saying to Abraham, was, “I understand you felt the need to trick the Egyptians; they are, after all, an immoral people, but why did you feel it necessary to deceive us, the people of Grar? After all, we are an ethical and just people?” Abraham then answers, “It is true you are a good and moral people, but if there’s no piety, if there’s no fear of God, then how can I trust that your morality will remain, that you will always be decent? You may be decent now, but if there’s no religion, if there’s no faith in something above you, then what’s to stop you from making up your own laws to justify whatever behavior fits the situation?”
When there’s no fear of God, then what was considered morally wrong yesterday can be justified and become commonplace tomorrow.
We’re all aware of how dramatically our society has changed—how certain things that were considered morally questionable 30 or 40 years ago are now totally accepted. Rabbi Lamm gives the example of modesty, both in terms of dress and speech. Certain ways of dressing and speaking that we all take for granted today because they’re in style would have been considered completely inappropriate in our parents’ generation. If our goodness does not stem from a higher place, then essentially it becomes a matter of taste. But shouldn’t the way we dress and speak be based on something higher? Shouldn’t the way we present ourselves to others, the way we interact and speak to or about other people, emanate from a place of something greater than ourselves?
The great Rav Velvele Brisker noted the incredible hypocrisy with which Abraham was forced to deal. Abraham is afraid that the Egyptians and Gerarians would murder him, but he’s completely unafraid that they would commit adultery by abducting Sarah as a married woman. He knew they wouldn’t leave him alive and take Sarah because they had a sense of morality when it came to adultery, but they had no problem with murder. That’s what Avraham meant when he said “there’s no fear of God in this place.” Because when goodness is divorced from God, the resulting morality, said Rabbi Lamm, is “spotty and inconsistent” and can produce a society in which one may kill a man in order to take his wife but will never take his wife as long as the husband is alive. There’s respect for marriage but not for human life. That was in ancient times.
Today the situation is just the opposite. In our society today, murder is thankfully viewed as reprehensible but adultery is now more acceptable. Morality without God can mean one thing in one time and something else in another. The only way both murder and adultery are always wrong is if a higher authority like God says so.
This is probably the most pressing philosophical issue of our day and age. Is there an objective morality or is everything subjective and simply a matter of opinion? Are there some activities we can all agree are absolutely wrong in every time and in every place?
Judaism, of course, believes in objective morality, but only because it’s premised on the belief in God. Otherwise, as Lawrence Keleman in his book “Permission to Believe” argues, even something as fundamental as murder may or may not be seen as wrong. Because without a belief in God, one could certainly argue that murder is prohibited by society because it’s the most reasonable way to ensure everyone’s survival. But we know that for some, survival is not the highest value. We’ve seen this in our own generation, where some would prefer to blow themselves up rather than survive. And even those who would consider their survival the highest value, one could still conclude that murdering others, if you can get away with it, is, from a purely rational perspective, advisable and even profitable at times. There is no inherent relationship between logic and morality—something can be very logical but absolutely immoral—so pure reason can’t be the reason why murder is always wrong. And if, as Rabbi Keleman suggests, murder is wrong because the majority of mankind says so, was it OK to murder before that person or society deemed it immoral, and what happens after that person or society dies out? Every time someone is born or dies humanity changes. And so, which civilization, which group of people in which generation, has the right to establish the ethical standards for all people in all time? The bottom line is the only way to affirm an eternal universal ethic like murder is wrong is if one subscribes to a supernatural being Who has the ultimate and exclusive right to be the moral arbiter for all humanity, at all times. If there is no such being, then saying murder is wrong is just someone’s point of view.
That’s also what Abraham meant when he told Avimelech “There’s no fear of God in this place.” Your society may consider adultery immoral, and that is, of course, admirable, but because it doesn’t flow from a belief in a higher being that has true authority, it’s just your opinion. Someone else may have a different point of view and one day come along, make an argument why adultery should be more acceptable, and tomorrow it will be commonplace.
Do we consider certain things right or wrong? And if we do, where is that value system coming from? Is it rooted in God’s will as expressed in our Torah, or does it flow from the culture and society in which we now happen to live? Just remember that we, the Jewish people, have lived in so many different cultures and societies, Greek, Persian, Roman, each with their own culture and value system. Societies change, God doesn’t. We have remained as a people as long as we have because we have adhered to a code of ethics that goes beyond any culture in which we have lived. Western or American culture is no different. We can participate in and learn from the culture of the wonderful country in which we are privileged to live, but we cannot allow our moral code, which is thousands of years older and that comes from a higher place, to be replaced by the values of whatever country we happen to reside.
One example of this is the tremendous investment so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters in America have made for their children’s secular education while allowing their child’s Jewish education to be relegated to a few afternoons a week, and from which their child is graduated by the time they reach the age of 12 or 13. The result has been an incredibly successful Jewish community in terms of career advancement and affluence, but a pitiful one in terms of Jewish knowledge and commitment. This lack of seriousness in our children’s Jewish education is certainly not a Jewish value. The Torah tells us “and you will teach your children” (Devarim 6:7), but that value has been effectively replaced with the American dream to go beyond one’s parents and be more successful than they were. That American value has replaced the Jewish value of a serious Jewish education, which is just as important for true success in this world. But we follow a different value system. It’s not a bad one, but it’s not ours and we’re losing ourselves.
How do we evaluate the way we speak to other people or about other people? How do we enjoy the food we eat? Spend our free time? Engage in our most personal and intimate relationships? Is the way we approach these activities guided by Judaism’s moral system, or have we adopted a different value system—a morality that may be good at times, but since it’s Godless is not reliable and is not consistent? It may be good but it’s not good enough.
The next time we make an important decision, let’s take a moment to ponder the moral and value system that is directing us. Let’s ask ourselves: Is it a morality emerging from our culture or is it one rooted in our Torah? Is it a morality from man or a morality from God?
A Godless goodness will never last. It won’t compel us to do the right thing when it’s hard to do the right thing, and it will never enable us to become a holy people. Rabbi Lamm says if you subtract the three letters G-O-D from the word “good,” you’re left with the letter “O,” or what looks like a zero. “Take the Godliness out of goodness and nothing is left.”
Let’s take pride in the moral path of our Torah, and in doing so merit to do what is truly good in the eyes of God.
Rabbi Mark Wildes is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, a Jewish Outreach Organization in New York City.