Growing up in Cambridge, I remember being in the middle of a war, a religious war This was within my both extended families had wanted for me to be brought up as: Christian, or Jewish. Of course, battles within my family have hardly settled, as seen above, there is much contention between me and my parents whether if I reach the Age of Emancipation, I am allowed to make my own decisions without their interference.
Of course, it wasn’t like I didn’t work for a living, but if my parents were delinquent on their bills, I was told I had to shoulder the cost. Whether they were actually delinquent or not, has generally appeared very, very unlikely.
This never stopped their behavior towards me such as making demands, expressing poor attitudes, and, of course, homophobia. But none of this happens to consist of the religious war I am referring to.
These three pictures are all of me, all while had I lived in Cambridge. The first is of celebrating Channukah with my father, the second is celebrating Christmas with extended family in Sharon, and the third is celebrating Halloween in Cambridge. I experienced, due to my mother’s side being particularly Christian in faith and my father’s being Jewish, both of these cultures. So I was brought up as an interfaith child.
According to Beacon Broadside‘s article, “An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas” by Susan Katz Miller:
As interfaith parents in 21st century America, we have the freedom to choose the labels we bestow on our children. A Jewish and Christian couple may raise children as Jewish, or Christian, or Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or Buddhist, or secular humanist, or interfaith, or on two or more of these pathways simultaneously. No single choice is going to work for every interfaith family.
As an interfaith child who was raised Jewish, I have come to believe that interfaith children know they are interfaith children, no matter which formal religious label we provide for them. In part, this is because interfaith children inevitably experience formative interfaith moments, especially during the holiday season in December, with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And that’s a good thing.
For me, Hanukkah resonates deeply because I have Jewish family. And at the same time, Christmas resonates deeply because I have Christian family. In raising my children with both family religions, my intent was to give them permission to explore, and feel, and understand both religions, and this time of year, that means participating in both holidays. After experiencing both the “choose one” pathway as a child, and the “choose both” pathway as a parent, my contention is that there is no way to exclusively raise a child with one religion in an extended interfaith family. I agree that for some interfaith families, it makes sense to choose a singular religious label and formal religious education in just one religion. But family is family, and in the end, a claim that we are raising children exclusively in one religion means trying to exclude the emotional weight and sensory memories of the family traditions we experience together.
And so, an interfaith child may be raised with only a Jewish education, but she is still going to smell gingerbread in a grandmother’s kitchen, see the heirloom ornaments sparkling on a cousin’s tree, and feel a thrill when she hears cousins belt out the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah. An interfaith child may be raised with only a Christian education, but he is still going to crave Bubbe’s latkes with apple sauce, sense a connection during that one dreidel song at the school holiday concert, and feel a thrill when he hears cousins belt out “tyrants disappearing” while singing around the menorah. Children learn, and form identities, through these experiences as much as through their formal religious educations.
But, unfortunately, neither of my families tended to get along. Seldom on holidays did I ever see both my Jewish grandparents, and my Christian family, but there were reasons for this. Living in Cambridge, I remember one time where my grandmother, Judith (seen above in the first picture with the blue blouse) sat me on her lap in front of my Jewish grandparents (my Jewish grandmother can be seen in the second picture at the birth of my youngest brother Jacob) and had me sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I also remember distinctly how much injury this caused my Jewish grandparents, and rightly so. What had happened was that rather to have respect for the family they did not prefer (over religious/ethic grounds), I was essentially used my her to stick to them. In two ways, this is terribly the wrong thing to do, ever. One, using a child (I was at the time) as a means of a vehicle of hate displays such a distinctly lack of recognizing what is sacred. Are children OK to be brought into adult personal battles? Should children be used as our vehicles to achieve our ends? Children are often vulnerable, and legally do not have much of a say in what may happen to them. Secondly, in this instance, religion was used as a tool used to express hatred towards others whom would be considered family. As I began to understand what took place in this event, I felt both violated, sick, and angry that my own family members would used me to convey their disdain for other family members – it’s not right. And I also took it as a learning experience:
- Be cautious of joining something without a fully understanding of where you fit in. If you don’t fit in, that has always been OK, but that still means I don’t want to be present;
- Ask a lot of questions, never be afraid to ask them, and never refrain from doing so until you feel comfortable with the circumstances. In a lot of cases, when I feel I am not as informed as I would like, I purposefully am not present; and,
- Be vigilant and thoughtful about the responses you receive. Ask more questions if you don’t feel things add up correctly.
The reality from this is that I didn’t want to be used. Yet in this event, I had no consent on what context was expressed in front of others, what intent was displayed, and I didn’t feel I could necessarily trust my family.
Oddly, enough though, later in my years I would receive random phone calls from my grandmother (the one who used me) about “great” episodes of Touched by an Angel, and 7th Heaven. These phone calls never lasted long at all, because she always “had to go.” But the reality was also pretty clear based on these phone calls: She wanted me to be Christian. She “had to go” because bothering to understand me as a person was not that important to her, she just wanted me, as a young adult, to be the vehicle of her politics, of her religion. As a child, I was not sacred to her in her personal battle with my Jewish grandparents, and as a young adult, I was not important enough to have a conversation. These phone calls were not about my interests, not about my values, so I often felt ignored, isolated, and annoyed by them. Talking about my Jewish values that I hold so dearly. These include:
- Privacy, as according to My Jewish Learning‘s article, “The Right to Privacy in Judaism“:
Visual Privacy–Hezek R’iyah
First of all, the Torah itself clearly shows great respect for visual privacy. In Genesis 3:7, we are told that Adam and Eve “perceived that they were naked and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.”
Later on, in Genesis 9:20-27, we read the story of Noah who got drunk in his tent. Ham, father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers Shem and Yefet, who took a cloth and walked backwards, covering Noah’s nakedness without looking. When Noah woke up, he cursed Canaan and blessed Shem and Yefet. Thus the Torah clearly indicates the importance of visual privacy and condemns those who violate this basic right.
In the Mishnah, this right to visual privacy gave birth to the concept of “hezek r’iyah” or damage caused by looking. The Mishnah in Bava Batra 3:7 states: “In a common courtyard, a person should not open a door opposite a door and a window opposite a window.”
The Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) connects this principle to Balaam. When Balaam saw Israel dwelling according to tribes, he exclaimed: “how goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” (Numbers 24) The Talmud explains: “What did he see? He saw that their tent openings did not face each other. He said: these are worthy for God’s presence to rest upon them.”
The Rema adds in the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 154:7) that it is forbidden to stand at your window and look into your neighbor’s courtyard, “lest he harm him by looking.” The Shulhan Arukh further rules (ibid., 154:3) that if Reuven wants to open a window into a common courtyard, Shimon can prevent it, and if Reuven opens the window, Shimon can block it up.
Privacy from Intruders
A second type of privacy protected by Jewish law and lore is the privacy of one’s domicile from unwanted or unannounced intruders. This attitude is expressed in three aggadic, or non-legal, statements.
The first two state that one should not enter a house, even one’s own, without warning. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (second century c.e.) states in Leviticus Rabbah (21:8) that “God hates four things which I also dislike…and a person who enters his own home suddenly and–there is no need to add–his neighbor’s home.” The midrash then relates that Rabbi Yohanan used to clear his throat before entering Rabbi Hanina’s house, in order to make sure that he was not invading anyone’s privacy.
We learn in Pesahim 112a that “Rabbi Akiva commanded his son Yehoshua seven things: my son…do not enter your house suddenly, how much more so your friend’s house.”
The third source goes one step further. Midrash Lekah Tov (to Leviticus 1:1) states that one may not enter his friend’s house without permission–and it derives this principle from God Himself! In Exodus 40:35 we are told that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, whereas Leviticus 1:1 implies that God spoke to Moses in the Tent. The midrash teaches: “From this we learn that a person should not enter his friend’s house unless his friend [in Moses’ case, God] says ‘enter’.”
Protection from intruders also found legal expression. In Deuteronomy 24:10-11, the Torah forbids a creditor from entering the house of a debtor in order to take a pledge. Rather, when you make a loan of any sort to your fellow, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the person to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.
The rabbis added that even an officer of the court may not enter the debtor’s house in order to take a pledge (Sifrei Devarim, par. 276; Tosefta Bava Metzia 10:8; Bava Metzia 113a-b), and this was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Malveh V’loveh 2:2) and the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 97:6). Thus, even a person with a very good reason may not invade another person’s territorial privacy.
Finally, in addition to all of the above laws and legends intended to protect a person’s privacy, there are sources which prohibit the disclosure of secrets or confidential information, or require the permission of the person in question before that information may be revealed.
Proverbs 11:13 says that: “A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence.” The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 3:7) uses this verse to teach that judges are not permitted to reveal their deliberations after a verdict is reached. This ruling was codified by the Rif (Sanhedrin, fol. 9a) and by Maimonides (Sanhedrin 22:7).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 31a) adds a story about a student who revealed a secret from the House of Study twenty-two years after the fact. It is not clear what kind of secret was intended; Rashi (ad. loc.) says that it was some bit of slander or gossip. In any case, Rav Ami threw him out of the House of Study, saying: “This is a revealer of secrets!”
This source was followed by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Hayyim of Constantinople (1530-1610). He ruled in his responsa (Ra’anah, No. 111) that if one of the communal leaders revealed the secret deliberations of the City Council, he is disqualified from serving on the Council.
The last source we shall quote has the most direct bearing on our case. We read in the Talmud (Yoma 4b):
“How do we know that when a person tells something to his friend, the latter may not repeat it until the person says to him ‘go and say’? As it is written (Leviticus 1:1): ‘And God spoke to [Moses] from the Tent of Meeting to say?’”
This source–codified by Rabbi Moses of Coucy (France, ca. 1236, Semag, Negative Commandments, No. 9) and by Rabbi Abraham Gumbiner (Poland, 1637-1683, Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 156, middle of subparagraph 2)–indicates that one may not reveal a confidence without the express permission of the confider.
Thus, it is clear that Jewish law and tradition prohibit a business from revealing its clients’ particulars to other companies without the express permission of the person in question, both because of its general approach to privacy and because of the specific prohibition against disclosing secrets.
There is no question that it will be difficult to change society’s attitude towards privacy and confidentiality. But through our opposition to the so-called trivial practices described in the question, we can begin to arouse public consciousness to the problem and to slowly restore to all individuals the privacy and confidentiality which they deserve according to Jewish tradition.
- Modesty, as according to My Jewish Learning‘s article, “Modesty (Tz’ni’ut)“:
Modesty is the foundation of Jewish values and is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Jewish family. It is popularly thought to apply primarily to women, but it is a desirable quality in men as well. Although the term is generally used for relations between men and women, it is meant to apply to people in all situations.
Tz’ni’ut means modesty, simplicity, a touch of bashfulness, and reserve. But perhaps above these, it signifies privacy. It is the hallmark of Jewish marriage, and the rabbis refer to it as the specific quality to look for in the ideal mate.
The classical symbol of tz’ni’ut is the veil. It bespeaks privacy, a person apart; Isaiah (3:18) calls it tif’eret (“glory”). The Assyrians ruled that a harlot may not wear a veil, to imply that she is on public exhibit (Code of Hammurabi). The veil was instinctively donned by Rebecca as soon as she observed her future husband in the distance (Genesis 24:65). That is one reason why the ceremony immediately prior to the wedding celebration is the bedeken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom, who blesses the bride with the ancient words spoken to Rebecca.
The principle of tz’ni’ut rejects all nudity, not only in public, but also before family members at home. (Thus one must not pray or recite the Sh’ma prayer while one is naked or standing in the presence of a naked person.) The rejection of nudity recalls Adam and Eve who, after committing the first sin, realized they were naked and instinctively felt ashamed and hid (Genesis 2:25). The same attitude reappears when Noah curses Ham, who saw his father exposed (Genesis 9:21-27).
- Not proselytizing, preaching, or otherwise trying to ‘convert’ others to my beliefs, preferred way of living, or encourage unanimous agreement between me and others. This is because Jews simply do not proselytize, and it something I greatly appreciated seeing of my grandparents. According to My Jewish Learning‘s article, “Ask the Expert: Proselytism“:
Judaism doesn’t operate in the same way [as Christianity or Islam]. According to the Talmud, righteous gentiles have a place in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 105a). As a result, there’s less of an incentive for Jews to encourage conversion, and for non-Jews to join up. If someone who isn’t born a Jew is a good person, she’ll get to hang out in the Garden of Eden whether or not she ever gets a Hebrew name.
I think that’s really at the root of why Jews don’t proselytize, but there are a few other reasons that also figure in.
First of all, historically there’s been a significant connection between proselytizing and politics. New groups come to power and coerce the local people to join their religion. Among many other advantages, converting conquered lands to your religion makes them easier to govern. This accounts for much of the spread of Christianity and Islam.
Historically, Jews have not had this kind of power, though there is one known case in which Jews (as a ruling power) did in fact force gentiles to convert. This took place in the Maccabean era, around 168 BCE. A group called the Idumeans was forcibly converted by second generation Maccabees. However, in his book Galilee: History, Politics, People, Richard A. Horsley wrote that, “the Idumeans’ ‘conversion’ was not especially effective.” And it doesn’t appear that the policy of forced conversions was popular with other Jewish zealots of the time.
According to Rabbi Michael Myers, the Dean of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, during Roman times, before Christianity, there was “a tremendous interaction between Romans and Jews and it’s estimated that there were thousands of converts from Romans to Jews.” This was probably more as a result of Jews having a high profile at the time, and less because they were actively trying to recruit converts, but it’s certainly possible that some proselytism was taking place.
In any event, when Paul showed up and began preaching Christianity, many of those who had been attracted to Judaism joined him. This caused the rabbis at the time to worry about whether converts’ commitments could be trusted, and at that point they began actively discouraging proselytizing.
It is interesting, though, that in recent years the Reform movement has been reaching out to non-Jews, particularly non-Jews who are married to Jews, and encouraging them to convert. In 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made converting the spouses of Jews a topic of his address at the Reform movement’s biennial convention.
So no, you’re not likely to find Jews knocking on your door offering to give you a copy of the Tanakh and telling you about the joys of abstaining from eating shellfish. There are a lot of reasons Jews aren’t on a mission to save non-Jews. Now if we could just get the non-Jews to stop trying to save us…
In fact, as someone who make it clear conversion is not on the table (even to family that refuse to listen the first time), I largely view heavy attempts of Christian equally to oppression, as according to the Huffington Post article, “Christian Proselytizing as a Form of Oppression“:
Televangelist Pastor Mark Burns, a Donald Trump surrogate who often travels with his candidate around the campaign trail, warmed up the crowd at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina by calling on Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, to have a “come to Jesus” moment. Speaking in front of the audience before New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s on-stage question-and-answer session with Trump, Burns declared that Sanders needed to be “saved”:
“Bernie Sanders who doesn’t believe in God. How in the world are we going to let Bernie? I mean really? Listen, Bernie gotta get saved. He gotta meet Jesus. He gotta have a come to Jesus meeting.”
Earlier in the campaign, Sanders talked about his connection to his Judaism: “I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.” He related that his father’s family had been brutally murdered by Hitler during the Holocaust for being Jewish.
While on stage, Trump did not distance himself from Burns’s inflammatory and offensive remarks, but, instead, characterized his rallies as “love fests.”
Though I had thought by this time in the campaign season that Trump had come to the end of his list of individuals and entire social identity groups he would offend, but I was, in fact, sadly mistaken. He has now added Jews to his catalog of offended group, which previously included women, Muslims, Chinese, Mexicans, all people from Central and South America, Dreamers, members of the Black Lives Matter Movement, numerous world leaders, his current and past Republican Party rivals, John McCain, the Republican “establishment,” Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Progressives, all Democratic party leaders and supporters, and, ranking toward the top, President Obama. So where is this Republican Party “Big Tent” I keep hearing about?
By not standing up to Burns, Trump stands complicit in attacking not only Bernie’s faith, but the faith of the entire world Jewish community. We have, however, seen these anti-Jewish attacks before by leaders on the political and Christian theocratic Right.
On the day of his inauguration as Governor of Alabama in January 2011, talking at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church — where the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached – Governor Robert Bentley proclaimed:
“[I]f you’re a Christian and you’re saved … it makes you and me brother and sister….So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”
Interviewed by Jewish TV host Donny Deutsch on the CNBC show “The Big Idea” in 2007, columnist and conservative political pundit, Ann Coulter, said that everyone on earth should be Christian and that Jews needed to be “perfected….It is better if we were all Christians.”
While many Christians view proselytizing as offering the gift of Jesus to the “unbelievers,” many if not most individuals of other faiths and many non-believers consider this as not merely an imposition or as manipulation, but, in fact, consider this as a form of oppression. Christian proselytizing rests on a foundation of Christian privilege and a deep sense of entitlement in a U. S. context.
For the most part, Christian privilege involves the notion that one does not have to educate oneself — to become familiar – with the religious beliefs and customs of other religious communities. On the other hand, members of these other, often invisible, communities need to be familiar with Christian traditions and customs not only because of the massive promotion (hegemony) of Christian religious and cultural practices, but also as a necessary condition for emotional and often physical survival to negotiate between the dominant Christian culture and their own ethnic and religious cultures.
This privilege and sense of entitlement figuratively hit me in the face when I was serving as a tenured professor at Iowa State University just a few years ago. In my course, Multicultural Foundations in Schools and Society, a required course for undergraduate pre-service teachers, a number of students, in their writings, seemed to come virtually to the same conclusion.
On the final course paper over various semesters, some students from conservative Christian backgrounds wrote that though they enjoyed the course, that their professor had a great sense of humor, and that they gained some valuable information for their eventual classroom teaching careers, nonetheless, they informed me that “Dr. Blumenfeld will be going to Hell for being a practicing homosexual.” These students either stated explicitly or implied that homosexuality and transgender identities are sins in the same category as stealing and murder.
Other students went further by insisting that “even if Professor Blumenfeld had been heterosexual,” since I am Jewish and I do not accept Jesus as my “personal savior,” I will go to Hell regardless of my sexual identity and expression. Anyone who doubts this, said one student, “Only death will tell!” This student concluded by asserting that the real Christian privilege is “To suffer and die in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Another student writing on the final course paper entirely dismissed the notion of Christian privilege by asserting:
“[A]s a Christian I am called to not be tolerant. I am not called to be violent, but am called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). When I look through all of the information I have been given in my life…I come to the conclusion that America was founded as a Christian nation…Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state.”
This student’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment of our Constitution aligns with the majority of U.S.-Americans who believe that the United States was created as a Christian nation (First Amendment Center, 2010, 2007, 2013).
Let’s imagine similar scenarios as those I outlined, while taking out the words “Christian,” “Christianity,” and “Jesus,” and substituting “Islam,” “Muslim,” “Judaism,” “Jewish,” “Allah,” “YHWH,” or “HaShem.”
- Community service, involvement, civic engagement, and Tzedakah. Traditionally, I have noticed Protestant materialism, as seen by example in the xfinity commercial above. If you purchase xfinity, your grandchildren will really like you. It’s, of course, marketing, and has a specific purpose, but I doubt purchasing, owning, and hoarding a lot of stuff – even if it’s really neat, cool, and “just came out” – actually makes our lives better, or makes us even happier. I very strongly believe that engagement with community, giving one’s self to a cause, or spending time with others away from this makes our lives greater. According to Judaism 101‘s article, “Tzedakah: Charity“:
Once in a comedy message board, we were listing oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence” and “athletic scholarship.” Somebody posted “Jewish charity” on the list. Normally, I have a pretty good sense of humor when it comes to jokes about cheap Jews, but that one bothered me, because charity is a fundamental part of the Jewish way of life.
Traditional Jews give at least ten percent of their income to charity. Traditional Jewish homes commonly have a pushke, a box for collecting coins for the poor, and coins are routinely placed in the box. Jewish youths are continually going from door to door collecting for various worthy causes. A standard mourner’s prayer includes a statement that the mourner will make a donation to charity in memory of the deceased. In many ways, charitable donation has taken the place of animal sacrifice in Jewish life: giving to charity is an almost instinctive Jewish response to express thanks to G-d, to ask forgiveness from G-d, or to request a favor from G-d. According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual benefit of giving to the poor is so great that a beggar actually does the giver a favor by giving a person the opportunity to perform tzedakah.
Business Week’s 2006 list of The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists included at least 15 Jews. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the top 50 charitable donors in 2008 included sixteen Jews, according to a JTA article. In other words, Jews, who are only about 2% of the American population, are 30% of America’s most generous donors. Similarly, a 2003 study (reported in the Jewish Journal) found that 24.5% of all “mega-donors” (people who donate more than $10 million a year to charity) are Jewish. Nor is Jewish generosity limited to Jewish causes: while a few of the Jews in BW’s “Top 50” list Jewish causes among their primary charitable targets, most don’t. Indeed, the Jewish Journal article laments the fact that the overwhelming majority of those Jewish mega-donations aren’t going to specifically Jewish causes.
The Meaning of the Word “Tzedakah”
“Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call “charity” in English: giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word “charity” suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. The word “tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.
The Obligation of Tzedakah
Giving to the poor is an obligation in Judaism, a duty that cannot be forsaken even by those who are themselves in need. Some sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined, and that a person who does not perform tzedakah is equivalent to an idol worshipper. This is probably hyperbole, but it illustrates the importance of tzedakah in Jewish thought. Tzedakah is one of the three acts that gain us forgiveness from our sins. The High Holiday liturgy repeatedly states that G-d has inscribed a judgment against all who have sinned, but teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah can alleviate the decree. See Days of Awe.
According to Jewish law, we are required to give one-tenth of our income to the poor. This is generally interpreted as one-tenth of our net income after payment of taxes. Taxes themselves do not fulfill our obligation to give tzedakah, even though a significant portion of tax revenues in America and many other countries are used to provide for the poor and needy. Those who are dependent on public assistance or living on the edge of subsistence may give less, but must still give to the extent they are able; however, no person should give so much that he would become a public burden.
The obligation to perform tzedakah can be fulfilled by giving money to the poor, to health care institutions, to synagogues or to educational institutions. It can also be fulfilled by supporting your children beyond the age when you are legally required to, or supporting your parents in their old age. The obligation includes giving to both Jews and gentiles; contrary to popular belief, Jews do not just “take care of our own.” Quite the contrary, a study reported in the Jewish Journal indicated that Jewish “mega-donors” (who give more than $10 million a year to charity) found that only 6% of their mega-dollars went to specifically Jewish causes.
Judaism acknowledges that many people who ask for charity have no genuine need. In fact, the Talmud suggests that this is a good thing: if all people who asked for charity were in genuine need, we would be subject to punishment (from G-d) for refusing anyone who asked. The existence of frauds diminishes our liability for failing to give to all who ask, because we have some legitimate basis for doubting the beggar’s sincerity. It is permissible to investigate the legitimacy of a charity before donating to it.
- Shielding away from sensationalism, prying into the lives of others, and making a big fuss out of things, such as seen in the Huffington Post article, “Who Cares?” by
Officer Lawrence DePrimo has become a household name. On a cold November night, just a few weeks ago, the New York City police officer, on counterterrorism duty in Times Square, encountered an older, barefooted homeless man. Taking in the man’s plight, the officer disappeared for a few moments into a nearby Sketchers Store, then returned with a new pair of boots, and knelt to help the man put them on.
The moment was captured on camera by Jennifer Foster, a tourist visiting from Arizona. Her picture, posted on Facebook, went viral. With more than half a million ‘likes’ and several million views, the officer became a headline in the press and the topic of conversation on talk shows, including New York’s Mayor Bloomberg mentioning it on his own radio programme.
There is so much about this story that tells a story of its own. While the act was unquestionably magnanimous, what made this story particularly sensational? Was it the act per se, or the imagery — a police officer in uniform kneeling beside the homeless man? It is true that most of us would more likely ignore the poor man, if not drop a few coins in his cup. Giving him $100 is something few people would consider, and fewer still would dare dress his bare blistered feet. But I wonder, had it been an ordinary citizen doing the same, would any of us have paid the same attention? Indeed would Foster have still taken the picture? One woman claimed in the New York Times that she had bought the same man a pair of shoes a year earlier. Who knew? Who saw? Who cared?
So what is it that makes this picture generate a fuzzy feel-good factor in some and maybe a twinge of conscience prodding in others? I’m sure there are many people who no doubt give far more charity and maybe offer a lot more help than this one random act. But what speaks to us most about this picture is that it involves a man reaching beyond his comfort zone. Seeing a police officer, for whom this single act of kindness might be considered beyond his call of duty, makes us all consider whether we would go out of our way for the sake of someone we might otherwise believe beneath our dignity to help.
Will more of us who viewed this picture be moved to doing more in helping those less fortunate than ourselves, even where it might not come naturally to us? I certainly hope so. But in doing so, think about this as well: It’s not just about the stranger in the street or the orphan in a third world country. Sometimes it’s about someone a lot closer to home. What prompted my thinking about all this is the fact that I’ve had to walk with a rather ostentatious sling on my hand this past week following shoulder surgery. It tends to draw sympathy. Cars and busses will stop enabling me to cross the road. People politely sidestep, allowing me to pass. And there are always those who kindly inquire as to my well-being. But what of those who don’t wear the badge of their pain on their sleeve? There are many who may be hurting on the inside where one cannot readily recognise the depth of their wound. When we see someone acting out of character do we pause long enough to consider that perhaps they may be undergoing some emotional difficulty, whether pressure at work, at home, or suffering some other form of personal distress? Asking after someone else’s welfare may not always come natural. But it requires far less effort and costs far less money than putting a pair of boots on a homeless man’s feet. And it could often go just as far in bringing them some relief.
A manager working at the Skechers store told the press: “We were just kind of shocked. Most of us are New Yorkers and we just kind of pass by that kind of thing.” One act of random kindness has thrust Officer DePrimo into the limelight across the world. If more of us stopped passing that kind of thing — whether on the street or on the home-front — maybe we would be less shocked the next time we encounter it. And think how much more light we could generate across our world.
- Orthodox Jews are far better on the topic of homosexuality (though this may not include my family, and those involved with JONAH) compared to Evangelical Christians, as according to this article Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet:
First, it is important to note the Torah only prohibits homosexual acts, but does not in any way condemn a person for having homosexual feelings. On the contrary, most people are born with desires or inclinations for things which are prohibited to them. Are married people being unfaithful when they might desire to engage in extra-marital relationships? Certainly not, as long as they don’t act upon it. Of course, it means one has to take a long hard look at one’s own marriage to consider what might be wrong in that unhealthy feelings are being harboured.
Then again, it could be nothing more than base animalistic tendencies. Having an inclination to follow our passions is not inherently evil. On the contrary, God gave us an evil inclination to help us to reach our potential fully in this world. The challenge is to rise above it. Even if your friend were to act, it is also important for you to understand you have no right to judge anyone else and think you are better than someone who gives in to his or her desires whatever they may be. We need to be respectful and loving to all, even if they don’t practise religion the same way we do.
The phrase, “Who cares?” is quite common that it’s also addressed towards Ivanka Trump, whether American Jews are Democrat or Republican, or even Bernie Sanders. Is it necessary to make a big fuss about these things? I’m not particular towards sensationalism.
To conclude, certainly my family politics hasn’t been the best in regards to this issue, but I deeply appreciate the way I was brought up – with all my family, and both religions – rather than a strict adherence to one or the other. Even though my family may have behaved inappropriately, these sort of acts were more a reflection of them rather than their personal faith (ethical, rather than religious/racist, issue). I am rather aware, and used to receiving strong negativity over my personal background, because too often people may be uncertain about me, and may not be prepared to fit me into a neatly made box with a bow. I maintain that I do not have to fit into a box of someone else’s creation simply because they lack compassion, understanding, and empathy, because in some way I am different. It’s certainly possible that in some way, they are also different, too, and yet I would not be so quick to cast a righteous judgement. I’ve been on the other end of this, I know how to behave towards others, but sometimes, even those who call themselves (local) “leaders” may prefer a quick righteous judgement rather than be reminded that I am just as human as they are, functioning as an individual, not as a collective. According to The Jewish Daily Forward‘s article, “Interfaith Kids Are Still Being Raised Jewish […]“:
Twenty-five years after studies noted unprecedentedly high rates of interfaith marriage for American Jews, noted scholar Steven M. Cohen wrote an article asking how Jews were doing in protecting Jewish continuity in light of intermarriage. His answer, in short, was “Not well.” Dr. Cohen argues interfaith marriage is bad for Jews because it results in fewer Jews. I disagree that interfaith marriage results in fewer Jews—rather, it results in people who are very differently Jewish than those who came before them.
As a scholar of religion and American families, my research on interfaith families demonstrates that, rather than a decrease in Jewish children, two other things are happening in interfaith marriages: interfaith marriages are often the result of people who were not actively engaged in Jewish life anyway, and interfaith marriages result in children who interact with Jewishness differently than did their parents or grandparents.
First, the relationship between interfaith marriage and a failure to raise Jewish children may not be causal. Often, the Jews who marry members of other religions (and religious “nones,” those who identify with no religion in sociological studies) do so because Judaism, or at least the attending-synagogue kind of Judaism, was never that important to them. Therefore, they did not seek out a Jewish spouse and are not investing energy in raising Jewish children. In these cases, interfaith marriage and the failure to raise Jewish children is correlated, rather than causal. The Pew data lends some support to this idea when researchers note that “Jews of no religion” (i.e., “cultural Jews”) are much more likely to be in interfaith marriages than Jews by religion.
Second, and more importantly, Cohen has a very narrow definition of what it means to be Jewish. He references evidence that the majority of children in interfaith families are not raised Jewish, but the 2013 Pew study of American Jews notes that while only 20 percent of interfaith couples raise their children exclusively Jewish by religion, an additional 41 percent of interfaith couples are raising their children either “Jewish-not-by-religion or mixed” or “partially Jewish by religion.” Over 60 percent of children of interfaith marriage are, then, being raised Jewish. It is just that some of them are being raised Jewish very differently than the traditional (or Cohen’s) Jewish community imagines that they should be.
For instance, a substantial number of interfaith families are what sociologists and scholars of religion refer to as “religious nones.” There are, of course, families in which both parents grew up as Jews and became religious nones. They often identify as secular or cultural Jews. Whether or not these households are interfaith, these families are not affiliated with religious organizations—they either reject institutional religion or simply do not find it relevant to daily life. Therefore, they do not join synagogues or churches, seek religious education for their children, or send their children to Jewish summer camps. According to the Pew study, the majority of American Jews do not think these activities are essential to Jewish identity.
The households of religious nones often do celebrate holidays in their own homes or with extended families. The children are often aware of and proud of their Jewish heritage, which they tend to describe as ethnic or cultural and which they, like many of the Jews surveyed by Pew, see represented in their commitment to education, in their senses of humor, and in a sense of Jewish history. The primary difference between households of religious nones which are Jewish and those which are interfaith are whether the children grow up with a sense of secular pride in more than one tradition. They are also excited about secularized versions of other holiday celebrations and raised to feel a sense of pride in their Scandinavian, Korean, or Greek heritage as well. But does a seder with grandparents cease to matter if the child eats a Greek Easter dinner with their other grandparents? These children, I would argue, are Jewish and something else—a plurality. That does not make them not Jewish. It simply makes them more than just Jewish.
While many Americans are more comfortable with the idea of multiple cultures than they are with multiple religions—we often talk about someone who is Irish and Italian but rarely someone who is Protestant and Catholic—many interfaith families actively work to keep all of the family’s religious identities in play. Sometimes those families do so within Jewish communities, with touches of another tradition being maintained at home. Sometimes they are actively engaged in two religious communities, with their children receiving religious instruction in both places. Sometimes they join communities in the growing movement of intentional interfaith communities, most of which are designed to offer Jewish and Christian religious education to children, highlighting similarities and teaching children about to approach the differences.
Sometimes these children grow up to see themselves as interfaith. Sometimes they become religious nones themselves. Sometimes they join the religion of their non-Jewish parent, which, in the United States, is often but not always Christianity. Sometimes they join third tradition. All of these children are, however, receiving a form of Jewish education and an experience that is in part Jewish. Is it Jewish in the same way that the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah is Jewish? No, probably not. But then again, disagreement in how to be Jewish is not new. Nor is change in what being Jewish looks like.
Unless you intend to use me as your vehicle for espouse your own ends, who cares about my Jewishness? Who cares whether I celebrated Christmas? When does a person brought up with a beautiful understanding of the world somehow not be allowed to decide for himself what really works?
What Is Sacred?
Well, for a better idea, according to Professor Elizabeth Anderson’s “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?“:
At the Institute for Creation Research Museum in Santee, California, visitors begin their tour by viewing a plaque displaying the “tree of evolutionism,” which, it is said (following Matt. 7:18), “bears only corrupt fruits.” The “evil tree” of evolution is a stock metaphor among proponents of the literal truth of the biblical story of creation. In different versions, it represents evolutionary theory as leading to abortion, suicide, homosexuality, the drug culture, hard rock, alcohol, “dirty books,” sex education, alcoholism, crime, government regulation, inflation, racism, Nazism, communism, terrorism, socialism, moral relativism, secularism, feminism, and humanism, among other phenomena regarded as evil. The roots of the evil tree grow in the soil of “unbelief,” which “nourishes the tree with “sin.” The base of its trunk represents “no God”—that is, atheism.
The evil tree vividly displays two important ideas. First, the fundamental religious objection to the theory of evolution is not scientific but moral. Evolutionary theory must be opposed because it leads to rampant immorality, on both the personal and political scales. Second, the basic cause of this immorality is atheism. Evolutionary theory bears corrupt fruit because it is rooted in denial of the existence of God.
Most forms of theism today are reconciled to the truth of evolutionary theory. But the idea of the evil tree still accurately depicts a core objection to atheism. Few people of religious faith object to atheism because they think the evidence for the existence of God is compelling to any rational inquirer. Most of the faithful haven’t considered the evidence for the existence of God in a spirit of rational inquiry—that is, with openness to the possibility that the evidence goes against their faith. Rather, I believe that people object to atheism because they think that without God, morality is impossible. In the famous words (mis)attributed to Dostoyevsky, “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Or, in the less-famous words of Senator Joe Lieberman, we must not suppose “that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Why think that religion is necessary for morality? It might be thought thatpeople wouldn’t know the difference between right and wrong if God did not reveal it to them. But that can’t be right. Every society whether or not it is founded on theism, has acknowledged the basic principles of morality, excluding religious observance which are laid down in the Ten Commandments. Every stable society punishes murder, theft, and bearing false witness; teaches children to honor their parents; and condemns envy of one’s neighbor’s possessions, at least when such envy leads one to treat one’s neighbors badly. People figured out these rules long before they were exposed to any of the major monotheistic religions. This fact suggests that moral knowledge springs not from revelation but from people’s experiences in living together, in which they have learned that they must adjust their own conduct in light of others’ claims.
Perhaps, then, the idea that religion is necessary for morality means that people wouldn’t care about the difference between right and wrong if God did not promise salvation for good behavior and threaten damnation for bad behavior. On this view, people must be goaded into behaving morally through divine sanction. But this can’t be right, either. People have many motives, such as love, a sense of honor, and respect for others, that motivate moral behavior. Pagan societies have not been noticeably more immoral than theistic ones. In any event, most theistic doctrines repudiate the divine sanction theory of the motive to be moral. Judaism places little emphasis on hell. Christianity today is dominated by two rival doctrines of salvation. One says that the belief that Jesus is one’s savior is the one thing necessary for salvation. The other says that salvation is a free gift from God that cannot be earned by anything a person may do or believe. Both doctrines are inconsistent with the use of heaven and hell as incentives to morality.
A better interpretation of the claim that religion is necessary for morality is that there wouldn’t be a difference between right and wrong if God did not make it so. Nothing would really be morally required or prohibited, so everything would be permitted. William Lane Craig, one of the leading popular defenders of Christianity, advances this view. Think of it in terms of the authority of moral rules. Suppose a person or group proposes a moral rule—say, against murder. What would give this rule authority over those who disagree with it? Craig argues that, in the absence of God, nothing would. Without God, moral disputes reduce to mere disputes over subjective preferences. There would be no right or wrong answer. Since no individual has any inherent authority over another, each would be free to act on his or her own preference. To get authoritative moral rules, we need an authoritative commander. Only God fills that role. So the moral rules get their authority, their capacity to obligate us, from the fact that God commands them.
Sophisticates will tell you that this moralistic reasoning against atheism is illogical. They say that whether God exists depends wholly on the factual evidence, not on the moral implications of God’s existence. Do not believe them. We know the basic moral rules—that it is wrong to engage in murder, plunder, rape, and torture, to brutally punish people for the wrongs of others or for blameless error, to enslave others, to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide—with greater confidence than we know any conclusions drawn from elaborate factual or logical reasoning. If you find a train of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that everything, or even just these things, is permitted, this is a good reason for you to reject it. Call this “the moralistic argument.” So, if it is true that atheism entails that everything is permitted, this is a strong reason to reject atheism.
While I accept the general form of the moralistic argument, I think it applies more forcefully to theism than to atheism. This objection is as old as philosophy. Plato, the first systematic philosopher, raised it against divine command theories of morality in the fifth century BCE. He asked divine-command moralists: are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right? If the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality. But if the former is true, then God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted.
This argument is not decisive against theism, considered as a purely philosophical idea. Theists reply that because God is necessarily good, He would never do anything morally reprehensible Himself, nor command us to perform heinous acts. The argument is better applied to the purported evidence for theism. I shall argue that if we take the evidence for theism with utmost seriousness, we will find ourselves committed to the proposition that the most heinous acts are permitted. Since we know that these acts are not morally permitted, we must therefore doubt the evidence for theism.
Now “theism” is a pretty big idea, and the lines of evidence taken to support one or another form of it are various. So I need to say more about theism and the evidence for it. By “theism” I mean belief in the God of Scripture. This is the God of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran—the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also the God of any other religion that accepts one or more of these texts as containing divine revelation, such as the Mormon Church, the Unification Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. God, as represented in Scripture, has plans for human beings and intervenes in history to realize those plans. God has a moral relationship to human beings and tells humans how to live. By focusing on theism in the Scriptural sense, I narrow my focus in two ways. First, my argument doesn’t immediately address polytheism or paganism, as is found, for example, in the religions of Zeus and Baal, Hinduism or Wicca. (I’ll argue later that, since the evidence for polytheism is on a par with the evidence for theism, any argument that undermines the latter undermines the former.) Second, my argument doesn’t immediately address deism, the philosophical idea of God as a first cause of the universe, who lays down the laws of nature and then lets them run like clockwork, indifferent to the fate of the people subject to them.
What, then, is the evidence for theism? It is Scripture, plus any historical or contemporary evidence of the same kind as presented in Scripture: testimonies of miracles, revelations in dreams, or what people take to be direct encounters with God: experiences of divine presence, and prophecies that have been subject to test. Call these things “extraordinary evidence,” for short. Other arguments for the existence of God offer cold comfort to theists. Purely theoretical arguments such as for the necessity of a first cause of the universe can at most support deism. They do nothing to show that the deity in question cares about human beings or has any moral significance. I would say the same about attempts to trace some intelligent design in the evolution of life. Let us suppose, contrary to the scientific evidence, that life is the product of design. Then theprevalence of gratuitous violence, pain and suffering, predation, parasitism, disease, and imperfect human organs strongly supports the view that the designer is indifferent to us.
The core evidence for theism, then, is Scripture. What if we accept Scripture as offering evidence of a God who has a moral character and plans for human beings, who intervenes in history and tells us how to live? What conclusions should we draw from Scripture about God’s moral character and about how we ought to behave? Let us begin with the position of the fundamentalist, of one who takes Scripture with utmost seriousness, as the inerrant source of knowledge about God and morality. It we accept biblical inerrancy, I’ll argue, we must conclude that much of what we take to be morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.
Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible. He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16-18). He regrets His creation and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the earth (Gen. 6:7). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will – the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world?) He kills all the firstborn sons, even of slave girls who had no part in oppressing the Israelites (Ex. 11:5). He punishes the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great great-grandchildren of those who worship any other god (Ex. 20:3-5). He sets a plague upon the Israelites, killing 24,000, because some of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Midianites (Num. 25:1-9). He lays a three-year famine on David’s people for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1). He orders David to take a census of his men, and then sends a plague on Israel, killing seventy thousand for David’s sin in taking the census (2 Sam. 24:10-15). He sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces, because they called the prophet Elisha a bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24). He condemns the Samarians, telling them that their children will be “dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). This is but a small sample of the evils celebrated in the Bible.
Can all this cruelty and injustice be excused on the ground that God may do what humans may not? Look, then, at what God commands humans to do. He commands us to put to death adulterers (Lev. 20:10), homosexuals (Lev. 20:13), and people who work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2). He commands us to cast into exile people who eat blood (Lev. 7:27), who have skin diseases (Lev. 13:46), and who have sex with their wives while they are menstruating (Lev. 20:18). Blasphemers must be stoned (Lev. 24:16), and prostitutes whose fathers are priests must be burned to death (Lev. 21:9). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. God repeatedly directs the Israelites to commit ethnic cleansing (Ex. 34:11-14, Lev. 26:7-9) and genocide against numerous cities and tribes: the city of Hormah (Num. 21:2-3), the land of Bashan (Num. 21:33-35), the land of Heshbon (Deut. 2:26-35), the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites (Josh. 1-12). He commands them to show their victims “no mercy” (Deut. 7:2), to “not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut. 20:16). In order to ensure their complete extermination, he thwarts the free will of the victims by hardening their hearts (Deut. 2:30, Josh. 11:20) so that they do not sue for peace. These genocides are, of course, instrumental to the wholesale theft of their land (Josh. 1:1-6) and the rest of their property (Deut. 20:14, Josh. 11:14). He tells eleven tribes of Israel to nearly exterminate the twelfth tribe, the Benjamites, because a few of them raped and killed a Levite’s concubine. The resulting bloodbath takes the lives of 40,000 Israelites and 25,100 Benjamites (Judg. 20:21,25,35). He helps Abijiah kill half a million Israelites (2 Chron. 13:15-20) and helps Asa kill a million Cushites, so his men can plunder all their property (2 Chron. 14:8-13).
Consider also what the Bible permits. Slavery is allowed (Lev. 25:44-46, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Fathers may sell their daughters into slavery (Ex. 21:7). Slaves may be beaten, as long as they survive for two days after (Ex. 21:20—21, Luke 12:45-48). Female captives from a foreign war may be raped or seized as wives (Deut. 21:10-14). Disobedient children should be beaten with rods (Prov. 13:24, 23:13). In the Old Testament, men may take as many wives and concubines as they like because adultery for men consists only in having sex with a woman who is married (Lev. 18:20) or engaged to someone else (Deut. 22:23). Prisoners of war may be tossed off a cliff (2 Chron. 24:12). Children may be sacrificed to God in return for His aid in battle (2 Kings 3:26-27, Judg. n), or to persuade Him to end a famine (2 Sam. 21).
Christian apologists would observe that most of these transgressions occur in the Old Testament. Isn’t the Old Testament God a stern and angry God, while Jesus of the New Testament is all-loving? We should examine, then, the quality of the love that Jesus promises to bring to humans. It is not only Jehovah who is jealous. Jesus tells us his mission is to make family members hate one another, so that they shall love him more than their kin (Matt. 10:35-37). He promises salvation to those who abandon their wives and children for him (Matt. 19:29, Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30). Disciples must hate their parents, siblings, wives, and children (Luke 14:26). The rod is not enough for children who curse their parents; they must be killed (Matt. 15:4-7, Mark 7:9-10, following Lev. 20:9). These are Jesus’ “family values.” Peter and Paul add to these family values the despotic rule of husbands over their silenced wives, who must obey their husbands as gods (1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34-5; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:11-12; 1 Pet. 3:1).
To be sure, genocide, God-sent plagues, and torture do not occur in the times chronicled by the New Testament. But they are prophesied there, as they are repeatedly in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and Zepheniah). At the second coming, any city that does not accept Jesus will be destroyed, and the people will suffer even more than they did when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:14-15, Luke 10:12). God will flood the Earth as in Noah’s time (Matt. 24:37). Or perhaps He will set the Earth on fire instead, to destroy the unbelievers (2 Pet. 3:7, 10) – but not before God sends Death and Hell to kill one quarter of the Earth “by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts” (Rev. 6:8). Apparently, it is not enough to kill people once; they have to be killed more than once to satisfy the genocidal mathematics of the New Testament. For we are also told that an angel will burn up one third of the Earth (8:7), another will poison a third of its water (8:10-11), four angels will kill another third of humanity by plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur (9:13, 17-18), two of God’s witnesses will visit plagues on the Earth as much as they like (11:6), and there will be assorted deaths by earthquakes (11:13, 16:18-19) and hailstones (16:21). Death is not bad enough for unbelievers, however; they must be tortured first. Locusts will sting them like scorpions until they want to die, but they will be denied the relief of death (9:3-6). Seven angels will pour seven bowls of God’s wrath, delivering plagues of painful sores, seas and rivers of blood, burns from solar flares, darkness and tongue-biting (16:2-10).
That’s just what’s in store for people while they inhabit the Earth. Eternal damnation awaits most people upon their deaths (Matt. 7:13-14). They will be cast into a fiery furnace (Matt. 13:42, 25:41), an unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17). But, for what reason? The New Testament is not consistent on this point. Paul preaches the doctrine of predestination, according to which salvation is granted as an arbitrary gift from God, wholly unaffected by any choice humans may make (Eph. 1: 4-9). This implies that the rest are cast into the eternal torments of hell on God’s whim. Sometimes salvation is promised to those who abandon their families to follow Christ (Matt. 19:27-30, Mark 10:28-30, Luke 9:59-62). This conditions salvation on a shocking indifference to family members. More often, the Synoptic Gospels promise salvation on the basis of good works, especially righteousness and helping the poor (for example, Matt. 16:27, 19:16-17; Mark 10:17-25; Luke 18:18-22, 19:8-9). This at least has the form of justice, since it is based on considerations of desert. But it metes out rewards and punishments grossly disproportional to the deeds people commit in their lifetimes. Finite sins cannot justify eternal punishment. Since the Reformation, Christian thought has tended to favor either predestination or justification by faith. In the latter view, the saved are all and only those who believe that Jesus is their savior. Everyone else is damned. This is the view of the Gospel of John (John 3:15-16, 18, 36; 6:47; 11:25-26). It follows that infants and anyone who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ are damned, through no fault of their own. Moreover, it is not clear that even those who hear about Christ have a fair chance to assess the merits of the tales about him. God not only thwarts our free will so as to visit harsher punishments upon us than we would have received had we been free to choose. He also messes with our heads. He sends people “powerful delusions” so they will not believe what is needed for salvation, to make sure that they are condemned (2 Thess. 2:11-12). Faith itself may be a gift of God rather than a product of rational assessment under our control and for which we could be held responsible. If so, then justification by faith reduces to God’s arbitrary whim, as Paul held (Eph. 2:8-9). This at least has the merit of acknowledging that the evidence offered in favor of Christianity is far from sufficient to rationally justify belief in it. Granting this fact, those who do not believe are blameless and cannot be justly punished, even if Jesus really did die for our sins.
And what are we to make of the thought that Jesus died for our sins (Rom. 5:8-9, 15-18; 1 John 2:2; Rev. 1:5)? This core religious teaching of Christianity takes Jesus to be a scapegoat for humanity. The practice of scapegoating contradicts the whole moral principle of personal responsibility. It also contradicts any moral idea of God. If God is merciful and loving, why doesn’t He forgive humanity for its sins straightaway, rather than demanding His 150 pounds of flesh, in the form of His own son? How could any loving father do that to his son?
I find it hard to resist the conclusion that the God of the Bible is cruel and unjust and commands and permits us to be cruel and unjust to others. Here are religious doctrines that on their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, plunder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong. So we should reject the doctrines that represent them as right.
Of course, thoughtful Christians and Jews have struggled with this difficulty for centuries. Nothing I have said would come as a surprise to any reflective person of faith. Nor are theists without options for dealing with these moral embarrassments. Let us consider them.
One option is to bite the bullet. This is the only option open to hard-core fundamentalists, who accept the inerrancy of the Bible. In this view, the fact that God performed, commanded, or permitted these actions demonstrates that they are morally right. This view concedes my objection to theism, that it promotes terrible acts of genocide, slavery, and so forth. But it denies the moral force of this objection. We know where this option has led: to holy war, the systematic extirpation of heretics, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, witch-hunts, the cultural genocide of Mayan civilization, the brutal conquest of the Aztecs and the Inca, religious support for genocidal ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, slavery of Africans in the Americas, colonialist tyranny across the globe, confinement of the Jews to ghettos, and periodic pogroms against them, ultimately preparing the way for the Holocaust. In other words, it has led to centuries steeped in bloodshed, cruelty, and hatred without limit across continents.
Since this is clearly reprehensible, one might try a stopgap measure. One could deny that the dangerous principles in the Bible have any application after biblical times. For example, one might hold that, while it is in principle perfectly all right to slaughter whoever God tells us to, in fact, God has stopped speaking to us. This argument runs into the difficulty that many people even today claim that God has spoken to them. It is hard to identify any reason to be comprehensively skeptical about current claims to have heard divine revelation that does not apply equally to the past. But to apply such skepticism to the past is to toss out revelation and hence the core evidence for God.
Another option is to try to soften the moral implications of embarrassing biblical episodes by filling in unmentioned details that make them seem less bad. There is a tradition of thinking about “hard sayings” that tries to do this. It imagines some elaborate context in which, for instance, it would be all right for God to command Abraham to sacrifice his son, or for God to inflict unspeakable suffering on His blameless servant Job, and then insists that that was the context in which God actually acted. I have found such excuses for God’s depravity to be invariably lame. To take a typical example, it is said of David’s seemingly innocent census of his army that he sinned by counting what was not his, but God’s. Even if we were to grant this, it still does not excuse God for slaughtering seventy thousand of David’s men, rather than focusing His wrath on David alone. I also find such casuistic exercises to be morally dangerous. To devote one’s moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.
I conclude that there is no way to cabin off or soft-pedal the reprehensible moral implications of these biblical passages. They must be categorically rejected as false and depraved moral teachings. Morally decent theists have always done so in practice. Nevertheless, they insist that there is much worthy moral teaching that can be salvaged from the Bible. They would complain that the sample of biblical moral lessons I cited above is biased. I hasten to agree. There are many admirable moral teachings in the Bible, even beyond the obvious moral rules—against murder, stealing, lying, and the like—that are acknowledged by all societies. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, James 2:8) concisely encapsulates the moral point of view. The Bible courageously extends this teaching to the downtrodden, demanding not just decency and charity to the poor and disabled (Ex. 23:6, 23:11; Lev. 19:10,23:22; Deut. 15:7-8,24:14-15; Prov. 22:22; Eph. 4:28; James 2:15-16), but provisions in the structure of property rights to liberate people from landlessness and oppressive debts (Deut. 15, Lev. 25:10-28). Although the details of these provisions make little economic sense (for instance, canceling debts every seven years prevents people from taking out loans for a longer term), their general idea, that property rights should be structured so as to enable everyone to avoid oppression, is sound. Such teachings were not only morally advanced for their day but would dramatically improve the world if practiced today.
So, the Bible contains both good and evil teachings. This fact bears upon the standing of Scripture, both as a source of evidence for moral claims, and as a source of evidence for theism. Consider first the use of Scripture as a source of evidence for moral claims. We have seen that the Bible is morally inconsistent. If we try to draw moral lessons from a contradictory source, we must pick and choose which ones to accept. This requires that we use our own independent moral judgment, founded on some source other than revelation or the supposed authority of God, to decide which biblical passages to accept. In fact, once we recognize the moral inconsistencies in the Bible, it’s clear that the hardcore fundamentalists who today preach hatred toward gay people and the subordination of women, and who at other times and places have, with biblical support, claimed God’s authority for slavery, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, have been picking and choosing all along. What distinguishes them from other believers is precisely their attraction to the cruel and despotic passages in the Bible. Far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct, the Bible is more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.
Moral considerations, then, should draw theists inexorably away from fundamentalism and toward liberal theology—that is, toward forms of theism that deny the literal truth of the Bible and that attribute much of its content to ancient confusion, credulity, and cruelty. Only by moving toward liberal theology can theists avoid refutation at the hands of the moralistic argument that is thought to undermine atheism. Only in this way can theists affirm that the heinous acts supposedly committed or commanded by God and reported in the Bible are just plain morally wrong.
The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant took this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion for morality. He considered the case of an inquisitor who claims divine authority for executing unbelievers. That the Bible commends such acts is undeniable (see Ex. 22:20, 2 Chron. 15:13, Luke 19:27, Acts 3:23). But how do we know that the Bible accurately records God’s revealed word? Kant said:
That it is wrong to deprive a man of his life because of his religious faith is certain, unless … a Divine Will, made known in extraordinary fashion, has ordered it otherwise. But that God has ever ordered this terrible injunction can be asserted only on the basis of historical documents and is never apodictically certain. After all, the revelation has reached the inquisitor only through men and has been interpreted by men, and even did it appear to have come from God Himself (like the command delivered to Abraham to slaughter his own son like a sheep) it is at least possible that in this instance a mistake has prevailed. But if this is so, the inquisitor would risk the danger of doing what would be wrong in the highest degree; and in this very act he is behaving un-conscientiously.
Kant advances a moral criterion for judging the authenticity of any supposed revelation. If you hear a voice or some testimony purportedly revealing God’s word and it tells you to do something you know is wrong, don’t believe that it’s really God telling you to do these things.
I believe that Kant correctly identified the maximum permissible moral limits of belief in extraordinary evidence concerning God. These limits require that we reject the literal truth of the Bible. My colleague Jamie Tappenden argues that such a liberal approach to faith is theologically incoherent. Perhaps it is. Still, given a choice between grave moral error and theological muddle, I recommend theological muddle every time.
But these are not our only alternatives. We must further ask whether we should accept any part of the Bible as offering evidence about the existence and nature of God. Once we have mustered enough doubt in the Bible to reject its inerrancy, is there any stable position short of rejecting altogether its claims to extraordinary evidence about God? And once we reject its claims, would this not undermine all the extra-biblical extraordinary evidence for God that is of the same kind alleged by believers in the Bible? Here we have a body of purported evidence for theism, consisting of what seem to be experiences of divine presence, revelation, and miracles, testimonies of the same, and prophecies. We have seen that such experiences, testimonies, and prophecies are at least as likely to assert grave moral errors as they are to assert moral truths. This shows that these sources of extraordinary evidence are deeply unreliable. They can’t be trusted. So not only should we think that they offer no independent support for moral claims, but we should not think they offer independent support for theological claims.
Against this, defenders of liberal theology need to argue that the claims derived from these extraordinary sources fall into two radically distinct groups. In one group, there are the purported revelations that assert moral error, which should not be accepted as having come from God and offer no independent support for any claim about God. In the other group there are the genuine revelations that assert moral truths or some morally neutral proposition (for example, claims about historical events and prophecies of the future), as well as testimonies of miracles and experiences of divine presence, which should be accepted as having come from God and do provide evidence for the existence and nature of God.
I think this fallback position should be rejected for two reasons. First, it does not explain why these extraordinary types of evidence should be thought to fall into two radically distinct groups. Why should they ever have generated grave moral errors? Second, it does not explain why all religions, whether monotheistic, polytheistic or non-theistic, appear to have access to the same sources of evidence. Believers in any one religion can offer no independent criteria for accepting their own revelations, miracles, and religious experiences while rejecting the revelations, miracles, and religious experiences that appear to support contradictory religious claims. I believe that the best explanation for both of these phenomena—that the extraordinary sources of evidence generate grave moral error as well as moral truth and that they offer equal support for contradictory religious claims—undermines the credibility of these extraordinary sources of evidence altogether.
So first, why were the ancient biblical peoples as ready to ascribe evil as good deeds to God? Why did they think God was so angry that He chronically unleashed tides of brutal destruction on humanity? The answer is that they took it for granted that all events bearing on human well-being are willed by some agent for the purpose of affecting humans for good or ill. If no human was observed to have caused the event, or if the event was of a kind (e.g., a plague, drought, or good weather) that no human would have the power to cause, then they assumed that some unseen, more-powerful agent had to have willed it, precisely for its good or bad effects on humans. So, if the event was good for people, they assumed that God willed it out of love for them; if it was bad, they assumed that God willed it out of anger at them. This mode of explanation is universally observed among people who lack scientific understanding of natural events. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive dissonance and bias of humans to reject the thought of meaningless suffering. If we are suffering, someone must be responsible for it!
Why did these representations of God as cruel and unjust not make God repugnant to the authors of Scripture and their followers? They were too busy trembling in their sandals to question what they took to be God’s will. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed that people honor rawpower irrespective of its moral justification:
Nor does it alter the case of honour, whether an action (so it be great and difficult, and consequently a sign of much power) be just or unjust: for honour consisteth only in the opinion of power. Therefore the ancient heathen did not think they dishonoured, but greatly honoured the Gods, when they introduced them in their poems, committing rapes, thefts, and other great, but unjust, or unclean acts: insomuch as nothing is so much celebrated in Jupiter, as his adulteries; nor in Mercury, as his frauds, and thefts: of whose praises, in a hymn of Homer, the greatest is this, that being born in the morning, he had invented music at noon, and before night, stolen away the cattle of Apollo, from his herdsmen.
Hobbes’s psychological explanation applies even more emphatically to theauthors Scripture, the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians, whose God commits deeds several orders of magnitude more terrible than anything the Greek gods did.
Ancient social conditions also made God’s injustice less obvious to the early Jews and Christians. Norms of honor and revenge deeply structure the social order of tribal societies. These norms treat whole clans and tribes, rather than individuals, as the basic units of responsibility. A wrong committed by a member of a tribe could therefore be avenged by an injury inflicted on any other member of that tribe, including descendents of the wrongdoer. Given that people in these societies habitually visited the iniquities of the fathers on the sons, it did not strike the early Hebrews and Christians as strange that God would do so as well, although on a far grander scale.
So the tendency, in the absence of scientific knowledge, to ascribe events having good and bad consequences for human beings to corresponding benevolent and malevolent intentions of unseen spirits, whether these be gods, angels, ancestors, demons, or human beings who deploy magical powers borrowed from some spirit world, explains the belief in a divine spirit as well as its (im)moral character. This explanatory tendency is pan-cultural. The spiritual world everywhere reflects the hopes and fears, loves and hatreds, aspirations and depravities of those who believe in it. This is just as we would expect if beliefs in the supernatural are, like Rorschach tests, projections of the mental states of believers, rather than based on independent evidence. The same cognitive bias that leads pagans to believe in witches and multiple gods leads theists to believe in God. Indeed, once the explanatory principle—to ascribe worldly events that bear on human well-being to the intentions and powers of unseen spirits, when no actual person is observed to have caused them—is admitted, it is hard to deny that the evidence for polytheism and spiritualism of all heretical varieties is exactly on a par with the evidence for theism. Every year in my town, Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is a summer art fair. Not just artists, but political and religious groups, set up booths to promote their wares, be these artworks or ideas. Along one street one finds booths of Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, Christian Orthodox, other denominational and nondenominational Christians of all sons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’i, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews for Jesus, Wiccans, Scientologists, New Age believers—representatives of nearly every religion that has a significant presence in the United States. The believers in each booth offer evidence of exactly the same kind to advance their religion. Every faith points to its own holy texts and oral traditions, its spiritual experiences, miracles and prophets, its testimonies of wayward lives turned around by conversion, rebirth of faith, or return to the church.
Each religion takes these experiences and reports them as conclusive evidence for its peculiar set of beliefs. Here we have purported sources of evidence for higher, unseen spirits or divinity, which systematically point to contradictory beliefs. Is there one God, or many? Was Jesus God, the son of God, God’s prophet, or just a man? Was the last prophet Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon?
Consider how this scene looks to someone like me, who was raised outside of any faith. My father is nominally a Lutheran and in practice religiously indifferent. My mother is culturally Jewish but not practicing. Having been rejected by both the local Lutheran minister and the local rabbi (in both cases, for being in a mixed marriage), but thinking that some kind of religious education would be good for their children, my parents helped found the local Unitarian church in the town where I grew up. Unitarianism is a church without a creed; there are no doctrinal requirements of membership. (Although Bertrand Russell once quipped that Unitarianism stands for the proposition that there is at most one God and these days pagans are as welcome as all others.) It was a pretty good fit for us, until New Age spiritualists started to take over the church. That was too loopy for my father’s rationalistic outlook, so we left. Thus, religious doctrines never had a chance to insinuate themselves into my head as a child. So I have none by default or habit.
Surveying the religious booths every year at the Ann Arbor art fair, I am always struck by the fact that they are staffed by people who are convinced of their own revelations and miracles, while most so readily disparage the revelations and miracles of other faiths. To a mainstream Christian, Jew, or Muslim, nothing is more obvious than that founders and prophets of other religions, such as Joseph Smith, the Rev. Moon, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard, are either frauds or delusional, their purported miracles or cures are tricks played upon a credulous audience (or worse, exercises of black magic), their prophecies false, their metaphysics absurd. To me, nothing is more obvious than that the evidence cited on behalf of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is of exactly the same type and qualify as that cited on behalf of such despised religions. Indeed, it is on a par with the evidence for Zeus, Baal, Thor, and other long-abandoned gods, who are now considered ridiculous by nearly everyone.
The perfect symmetry of evidence for all faiths persuades me that the types of extraordinary evidence to which they appeal are not credible. The sources of evidence for theism—revelations, miracles, religious experiences, and prophecies, nearly all known only by testimony transmitted through uncertain chains of long-lost original sources—systematically generate contradictory beliefs, many of which are known to be morally abhorrent or otherwise false. Of course, ordinary sources of evidence, such as eyewitness testimony of ordinary events, also often lead to conflicting beliefs. But in the latter case, we have independent ways to test the credibility of the evidence—for instance, by looking for corroborating physical evidence. In the former cases, the tests advanced by believers tend to be circular: don’t believe that other religion’s testimonies of miracles or revelations, since they come from those who teach a false religion (Deut. 13:1-5). It is equally useless to appeal to the certainty in one’s heart of some experience of divine presence. For exactly the same certainty has been felt by those who think they’ve seen ghosts, spoken to dead relatives, been kidnapped by aliens, or been possessed by Dionysus or Apollo. Furthermore, where independent tests exist, they either disconfirm or fail to confirm the extraordinary evidence. There is no geological evidence of a worldwide flood, no archaeological evidence that Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea after Moses parted it to enable the Israelites to escape. Jesus’ central prophecy, that oppressive regimes would be destroyed in an apocalypse, and the Kingdom of God established on Earth, within the lifetime of those witnessing his preaching (Mark 8:38-9:1, 13:24-27, 30), did not come to pass. If any instance of these extraordinary sources of evidence is what it purports to be, it is like the proverbial needle in the haystack—except that there is no way to tell the difference between it and the hay. I conclude that none of the evidence for theism—that is, for the God of Scripture—is credible. Since exactly the same types of evidence are the basis for belief in pagan Gods, I reject pagan religions too.
It follows that we cannot appeal to God to underwrite the authority of morality. How, then, can I answer the moralistic challenge to atheism, that without God moral rules lack any authority? I say: the authority of moral rules lies not with God, but with each of us. We each have moral authority with respect to one another. This authority is, of course, not absolute. No one has the authority to order anyone else to blind obedience. Rather, each of us has the authority to make claims on others, to call upon people to heed our interests and concerns. Whenever we lodge a complaint, or otherwise lay a claim on others’ attention and conduct, we presuppose our own authority to give others reasons for action that are not dependent on appealing to the desires and preferences they already have. But whatever grounds we have for assuming our own authority to make claims is equally well possessed by anyone who we expect to heed our own claims. For, in addressing others as people to whom our claims are justified, we acknowledge them as judges of claims, and hence as moral authorities. Moral rules spring from our practices of reciprocal claim making, in which we work out together the kinds of considerations that count as reasons that all of us must heed, and thereby devise rules for living together peacefully and cooperatively, on a basis of mutual accountability.
What of someone who refuses to accept such accountability? Doesn’t this possibility vindicate Craig’s worry, that without some kind of higher authority external to humans, moral claims amount to nothing more than assertions of personal preference, backed up by power? No. We deal with people who refuse accountability by restraining and deterring their objectionable behavior. Such people have no proper complaint against this treatment. For, in the very act of lodging a complaint, they address others as judges of their claims, and thereby step into the very system of moral adjudication that demands their accountability.
I am arguing that morality, understood as a system of reciprocal claim making, in which everyone is accountable to everyone else, does not need its authority underwritten by some higher, external authority. It is underwritten by the authority we all have to make claims on one another. Far from bolstering the authority of morality, appeals to divine authority can undermine it. For divine command theories of morality may make believers feel entitled to look only to their idea of God to determine what they are justified in doing. It is all too easy under such a system to ignore the complaints of those injured by one’s actions, since they are not acknowledged as moral authorities in their own right. But to ignore the complaints of others is to deprive oneself of the main source of information one needs to improve one’s conduct. Appealing to God, rather than those affected by one’s actions, amounts to an attempt to escape accountability to one’s fellow human beings.
This is not an indictment of the conduct of theists in general. Theistic moralities, like secular ones, have historically inspired both highly moral and highly immoral action. For every bloodthirsty holy warrior we can find an equally violent communist or fascist, enthusiastically butchering and enslaving others in the name of some dogmatically held ideal. Such observations are irrelevant to my argument. For my argument has not been about the causal consequences of belief for action. It has been about the logical implications of accepting or rejecting the core evidence for theism.
I have argued that if we take with utmost seriousness the core evidence for theism, which is the testimonies of revelations, miracles, religious experiences, and prophecies found in Scripture then we are committed to the view that the most heinous acts are morally right, because Scripture tells us that God performs or commands them. Since we know that such acts are morally wrong, we cannot take at face value the extraordinary evidence for theism recorded in Scripture. We must at least reject that part of the evidence that supports morally repugnant actions. Once we have stepped this far toward liberal theological approaches to the evidence for God, however, we open ourselves up to two further challenges to this evidence. First, the best explanation of extraordinary evidence—the only explanation that accounts for its tendency to commend heinous acts as well as good acts—shows it to reflect either our own hopes and feelings, whether these be loving or hateful, just or merciless, or else the stubborn and systematically erroneous cognitive bias of representing all events of consequence to our welfare as intended by some agent who cares about us, for good or for ill. Extraordinary evidence, in other words, is a projection of our own wishes, fears, and fantasies onto an imaginary deity. Second, all religions claim the same sorts of extraordinary evidence on their behalf. The perfect symmetry of this type of evidence for completely contradictory theological systems, and the absence of any independent ordinary evidence that corroborates one system more than another, strongly supports the view that such types of evidence are not credible at all. And once we reject such evidence altogether, there is nothing left that supports theism (or polytheism, either). The moralistic argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.
To be short, it was permissible for my grandmother to use me as a tool against my other grandmother, because she decided to do so. Although her act does not indicate the opinions, and actions, of all who identify as Christian, it definitely was a lesson learned
So, what does this really mean? It means I view myself as sacred, as a living, breathing person worthy of many things of accomplishment. It also means that rather than fundamentally chose one, or the other, completely, which would detrimental to overcome, I in a way have chosen both, yet neither. I am not seeking to prove I must be either one, but rather only learn much more towards my Jewish identity, and not having a Christian one to speak of (I do not adhere to Christian doctrine). I am rather open to others who are different from me, seeing as others would have to do the same in order to not exhibit oppressive behavior towards me. Whatever my relationship with my family members happens to be, it’s not like my upbringing should be erased because I do not believe. I am this upbringing, I am Jewish, and I do not prefer this topic thrown at me by certain Christians wanting to use me as their vehicle.