NEW YORK (JTA) — Belief in God is at the core of my very being. But that belief is sometimes challenged by the scores of innocents killed over the millennia in God’s name, from biblical times to the present day.
Last month, dozens were killed at a shopping mall in Kenya by terrorists demanding to know if those they were confronting were Muslim. If Muslim, they were spared; if not, they were murdered. One man who claimed to be Muslim was asked to name Muhammad’s mother. When he could not, he was summarily shot in the head.
The day after the mall attack began, dozens of Christians were murdered at a prayer service in Pakistan.
And yes, though they are aberrations, it must be said there have been Jews who have murdered in the name of God, like the perpetrator of the Hebron massacre 20 years ago.
The late writer Christopher Hitchens cited horrors like these to argue that we are better off without God. It is an understandable reaction. But ethics derived completely from human civilization also have their weaknesses.
If ethics comes solely from the human being, from the human mind, from human reason — it is relative. As Freud is purported to have said, when it comes to self-deception, human beings are geniuses. If Hitler were asked whether the murder of 6 million Jews was ethical, he would say it was. The same is true of the godless communist regimes that murdered millions during the course of the 20th century.
But even if ethics without God has its flaws, Hitchens’ challenge still must be addressed. Ethics with God often doesn’t seem much better.
There are, I believe, some necessary ingredients for a belief in an ethical God, a God whose ethics are critical to a just and better world, a God whose presence I always feel.
The first ingredient is that a true God must make room for believers in other gods. This is the position of Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Ha-Me’iri, who believed that all human beings demand equal protection, regardless of their faith, as long as they are “members of a society based on laws and morality.” In contemporary terms, Me’iri is saying that we are obligated to treat every person, whatever the person’s belief or non-belief, as we would a fellow Jew.
The second criterion is that God must welcome, and even demand, to be challenged. God’s covenantal relationship with human beings means that there are times when we are encouraged to question and even protest God’s mandates.
This goes back to the time of Abraham, who challenged God’s decision to destroy the city of Sodom. The Midrash teaches that God rewarded Abraham with direct revelation of prophecy because of his commitment to fight for the rights of the righteous.
Another example is Moses, who is commanded to go to war against Sihon, but attempts to first make peace. God, the Midrash tells us, accedes to Moses’ initiative. As my son, Dov Weiss, observed in his doctoral dissertation on man’s challenges to God, “God’s response to Moses is striking as God concedes to Moses’s ethical sensibilities and ratifies this less militant approach into law.”
Given this relationship between humans and God, it is important not to overstep — that is, it is important to confront God with reverence and humility. But it is equally important not to silence our inner ethical voices. Such give and take is not an expression of defiance but of mutual love.
As the Midrash says, “Any love that does not include challenging each other is not true love.” While this Midrash deals with interpersonal relationships, it can be extended to apply to our relationship with God.
In simple terms this would mean, if God commands us to kill an innocent, we have the responsibility to question, to challenge, to confront God. This is the dynamic of our covenantal relationship. This is what God wants from us. Indeed, the God I believe in categorically rejects the targeted killing of innocents.
From this perspective, the Jewish doctrine of belief is a hybrid. It is not the ethics of the human being alone, nor is it derived from God alone. It is an interfacing of the two, with each demanding proper behavior from the other.
This is the synthesis of the Written Law, which comes from God, and the Oral Law, centered on human input which — with divine mandate — explicates the written one.
From this synthesis — from the Talmud, the commentaries, the codes of law, the rabbinic responsa — emerges an unequivocal and absolute conclusion: Murder in the name of God is obscene, a desecration of God’s name.
A story is told about Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, two prominent 20th century philosophers. After eight years of writing to each other Rosenzweig, who was a bit younger, wrote a poem in which he asked Buber if he could address him using the word du, the German intimate expression of friendship. Buber agreed.
Rosenzweig then said: Thank you. I’ll always say du, but in my heart I will continue to say sie — the more formal German term for the other — reflective of my deep respect for you.
Rosenzweig’s concept is an accurate reflection of our relationship with an ethical God. Questioning with respect. Challenging with reverence. Confronting with humility. And holding each other mutually accountable.
(Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. His new book, “Holistic Prayer,” will soon be published by Maggid Press.)