Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ethical Monotheism


The Torah portion that directly follows the reading of the Ten Commandments is Mishpatim, which deals primarily with civil and tort law. This juxtaposition of divine revelation with ethics is very significant. While some people regard religion as merely a matter of faith and ritual, the Torah tells us otherwise. In Judaism, ethical behavior is not some sort of extracurricular activity - it is an essential element of who we are (the other element being faith in the one God who decides right and wrong). Respecting another's person, property and reputation are more than just nice things to do - they are central to living a Godly life. In other words, Judaism is not just about monotheism - it is about ethical monotheism.

This idea is best articulated by Hillel in a famous Talmudic passage. Responding to a potential convert, Hillel declares: "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." (Shabbat 31a). Not only does Hillel mention a basic ethical principle as a summary of the whole Torah, he goes further to state that the rest is merely a commentary on how to lead a Jewish life. This doesn't mean that spiritual matters aren't significant; it simply means that everything starts with basic ethics. Belief in God is important, but equally important is understanding that God's main concern is good interpersonal conduct.

A little further down the same page of the Talmud, there is another interesting piece of information. The Sages articulate the questions asked by the Heavenly Court after someone dies. Not coincidentally, the first question is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" Once again, God's most desired aspect of human activity is revealed: ethical behavior. Confining God to spiritual matters does both He and religion a great disservice. In fact, one rabbinic source puts it this way: "One who deals honestly in business, and whose fellow men are pleased with his conduct, is considered as if he fulfilled the entire Torah" (Mechilta on Exodus 15:26).

The Prophets echo the same line of thought. Isaiah states that "Zion will be redeemed through justice" (Isaiah 1:27) - not through faith or ritual or any other quality generally associated with God. Doing what is right, especially with regard to interpersonal matters, is what will eventually lead us to the Final Redemption and peace on earth. The rebuke of the Prophets is almost exclusively limited to ethical offenses. From Amos to Jeremiah to Micah, the common theme is that God is most concerned with how His children treat each other.

If we take this focus on God-based ethics to heart, Jewish unity will become more realistic. It's no wonder that when we start drifting away from God's primary demand of interpersonal decency, we also start drifting away from each other. After all, each individual will start deciding for themselves what is most important in life, and the answers will all be different. For some, it may be faith or ritual observance; for others, it may be politics or the arts. However, if we simply hearken back to our roots, there is a foundation upon which we can rely to fix our national problems. It dates all the way back to Abraham and can be summed up in just two words: ethical monotheism.