School for Biblical, Judaic & Spiritual Studies
Where do Ethics & Morals Come From?
By Ariel B. Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.
Ethics and morals. Where do they come from? Are they man-made, or are they Divine?
Some atheists have a say in the matter, and in a way, their opinion is valid! Louise M. Antony, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote in The New York Times Opinionator blog (12/18/11), that “Moralistic atheists do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket. Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.”
This does not sound at all irrational, or for that matter, irreligious. What would the Sages of the Talmud say about such beliefs. Are morals humanly natural, or do we really need God to tell us right from wrong.
There exists a very
interesting teaching taught by the Sages of the Talmud. They made an
extraordinary claim. They claimed that the Biblical patriarch, Abraham
completely observed all the laws of the Torah centuries before they were given
on Mt. Sinai. More than this, the Rabbis claimed that the patriarchs even
observed all the Rabbinic traditions thousands of years before the need for them
came into existence. Here is the original midrashic text from BT, Yoma 28b.
“Rab said: Our father Abraham kept the whole Torah, as it is said: Because that Abraham hearkened to My voice [kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws]. R. Shimi b. Hiyya said to Rab: Say, perhaps, that this refers to the seven laws? — Surely there was also that of circumcision! Then say that it refers to the seven laws and circumcision [and not to the whole Torah]? — If that were so, why does Scripture say: ‘My commandments and My laws’? Raba or R. Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the ‘erub of the dishes,’ as it is said: ‘My Torahs’: one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah.”
Needless to say, any literal interpretation of this teaching, attempting to impose it historically, is a ridiculous, and an ignorant venture. Only one completely void of Torah learning, and Rabbinic understanding would ever attempt such a perversion of this religious parable. A literal interpretation is also a direct insult to the Sages who never intended their symbolic metaphors (midrash) to be understood literally (pshat). What the Sages actually meant was something very beautiful, and profound. In their traditional stylized metaphorical teaching model, they taught here a lesson about the fundamental nature of the Torah itself.
Abraham did not need the words of the Torah, or the dictums of the Sages to teach him how to behave, and how to act morally. Abraham was not only a righteous man, he was also a natural man. As such, he was able to intuit from nature itself what was the will and the way of nature's Creator. This is what made Abraham so special in God's Eye. He knew what it meant to be humane because he knew what it meant to be human. This is something that he was able to naturally ascertain, without need of the Word of God to instruct him. Essentially, the Talmud teaches that Abraham, four thousand years ago, realized the modern day atheistic view, as described above by Prof. Antony, but not due to the absence of God, but specifically because of His Presence. What does this say about atheism? What does this say about the true nature of Torah and real religion?
Torah, while being Divine, is also quite natural, this is what the Sages of the Talmud taught. The Torah can be learned from the Word, be it in print or be it oral. But the Torah itself is natural, it is inherent in nature itself. Torah can be learned from anything, anywhere. No book is required. Abraham is the proof.
The Sages of the Talmud subtly implied that while the rank and file “everyday people” might need to be coaxed by the Word of God to guide them to live morally, those who search nature can discover the secret code of our humanity, hidden therein by nature's Creator. This Talmudic lesson was repeated centuries later by Maimonides in his “Guide to the Perplexed.” The Work of God (the reality of creation), and the Word of God (proper understanding of religion) need to be grasped together, hand in hand in perfect harmony, in order for either to be understood properly in its fullness.
According to the Sages of the Talmud, Abraham was the proof that human beings can learn all of the moral, ethical, and spiritual lessons they need from life itself, with no external religion, or religious text required. The true path to God takes one towards understanding God's creation.
It is unfortunate, but true, that many in the religious camps see this approach to God as a threat and contradiction to their interpretations of religion. What does this say about their religions? What does this say about their pursuit of the truths of the Divine? It is amazing and terrible, both at the same time, how religion can serve such a dual purpose. Religion gives off the aura of bringing people closer to God, but in reality it often leads them in the opposite direction.
With regards to human morals, ethics, and character, we should not submit to the illogical argument that we need religious dogma and doctrine to define for us what is right, from what is wrong, and that without religion, all humanity would fall into animalistic depravity. In all due respect, even with religion preaching the highest moral and ethical values, members of all religious faiths have acted in some of the most depraved ways that any human being can possibly act. And to add insult to injury, the worst depraved behaviors are often perpetrated in the name of God, or for the sake of one's religion.
The facts are simple, and incontestable. Being religious does not make one a better human being. On the contrary, many times, being religious can make one an even worse human being. Granted, this is not the way things are supposed to be, but it very well is the way that things are! Reality is often a very bitter pill to swallow.
When it comes to teaching and practicing human morals, ethics, and values, while religion has a lot to say, it often does not offer a lot of good role models. Indeed, many religious teachings are full of bigotry, racism, elitism, and all kinds of prejudices. These may make the religious feel inflated about themselves, but it makes everyone else very uncomfortable with both the religion, and the religious who embrace it. And to which religion am I referring? Come now! You should know, and the simplest amount of research can confirm, what I am saying applies to all religions; yes, including my own.
I reject all forms of the bigotry, racism, elitism, and prejudice found in my religion. Yet, I find myself frightfully alone in that most other religionists fail to recognize these problems in their own faiths. Most religionists are acutely aware of these problems within others, but seem to be consistently oblivious to these problems within themselves. Indeed, it is this blindness to the faults within one's own religion that have led scores of the religious faithful to perpetrate some of humanities most horrible abuses.
So, if religion is not making one a better human being, then what is the purpose of being religious? The faithful might respond, and say that they are doing what God wants of them. But by not acting humanely, and morally, they are doing no such thing! God wants us human beings to act humanely towards one another. When we fail to do this, we fail in being religious, and thus essentially we fail to please God.
Acting humanely one towards another (and this includes everybody, regardless of any or all differences), seems to be fundamental common sense. Treating each other with human dignity, and respect is not just a religious teaching. Indeed, treating each other with respect is the most logical thing. We do not need God, or religion to tell us this.
From our religious point of view, we do need God for many different things, but we do not need God to teach us how to act humanely towards one another as human beings should. This teaching is innate, natural, and subject to the easiest verification using even the least amount of common sense.
We do not need God to tell us how to be moral because, from our religious point of view, He has already programmed into our genetic nature all that we need to know about being moral. Being moral is a natural condition for the human species. Although no one is perfect, each of us still has the innate ability to strive for perfection.
Although we share many features with members of the animal kingdom, still, we stand at the top of that kingdom, and our minds separate us from all other animals, and enable us to act in ways different from them, and natural to us. Essentially, good morals, ethics, and character are natural acquisitions of human nature, with or without the active presence of either God or religion.
With or without God or religion, every human being should have the common sense to recognize the rights and liberties of one another. It is more so religion that limits these human rights, or outright denies them to others. If human beings were to simply act as natural animals they would most likely not descend into destructive anarchy. We find no such thing happening with societies of primates (monkeys). Whales and dolphins also seem to get along just fine. Apparently, the higher mammalians in the animal kingdom, for the most part seem to get along just fine, without self destructive anarchy, and none of these other species have religion.
If the animals can get it right, at the animal level, why is it that we, supposedly superior intelligent human beings, cannot seem to act as humanely as do the supposedly lesser intelligent animals? We might have to reevaluate the entire concept of intelligence. We create religions to instruct us to be moral, and we fail miserably to listen. Animals create no such thing, and they seem to get along just fine. What does this teach us about the true definition of animal nature? Then again what does this teach us about the true definition of human nature? We may indeed have to take pause to reevaluate our definitions.
Human beings, and thus
human nature, are part and parcel of the natural world. Just like each species
lives in accordance to its parameters, norms and ways, so too must the human
race. No other species on Earth (to the best of our knowledge) has a book of
religion, or lives by any religiously based code. Nevertheless, each species
manages to live, prosper, and get along, with each other, and with other
species. It seems that it may be that it is the human being alone who is
confused about his/her natural identity, and seeks to act in every other way
except as being the intelligent, thinking species that human beings are
naturally supposed to be.
Maybe we need religion to help remind us of what it is to be human. The founders of religious thought all seemed to embrace this concept. Why is it then that while many of us embrace religion, at the same time we reject the foundational message upon which all religions are based?
Religion must be based upon brotherly love, and respect for human dignity. Anything less is not true religion. Anything less is not truly human. Being that we are beings created in the Divine image, and reflect Divinity here on Earth, anything that does not promote our better humanity, certainly is not promoting Divinity. Revealing Heaven (God) on Earth is the ultimate purpose of religion. This is only achieved when we reveal, and live by, our highest human potentials for humane, ethical ideals.
When religion become the opposite of serving God, then its time to revamp the religion, or to discard it totally. Being that the faithful believe that religion comes from God, and to abandon it is sacrilege, then it behooves the religious to fix their broken-down, crumbling religions, and to remove out of it all its broken parts, and replace them with the true, and original parts which best serve our collective humanity. This, more than anything else, is what God expects from us, especially from those who claim to call upon Him, and/or seek to act in His Name.
The Bible states that the world is full of God's glory. Nature itself reflects to the human mind how human beings are supposed to act. We can learn from nature. We do not learn from primates how to act as primates. Primates act like primates because that is what they are. Primates do not act human. Humans are supposed to act as humans because that is who we are. Humans should, therefore, not act like animals. Nature tells us this, not the Book.
Abraham understood this message of natural Torah, this is why he is exemplified as the father of true faith, and true religion. If we truly wish to be considered his spiritual descendant, then we have to embrace his wisdom, and live by his righteous, and moral example.
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