Ben Avuyah

Welcome to the Pardess.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The good, the bad, and the ugly...

After two frustrating days of arguing morality over at the old mill (XGH) I feel the need to vent on my own turf.

The subject….Religious Morality.

Now, my own opinion is simple: There is no evidence of supernatural beings who are interested in which candy bars we eat. No evidence equals no belief. Hence I do not believe that our morality is supplied by a supernatural being who watches us to see if we follow his moral rules.

But that is not enough for me.

After being shackled by orthodoxy for most of my life I desire to break it with it's own rules, to choke it with each lugubrious loop of it's own lazy, half thought out theology, and drown each apologetic for it's crimes against human critical thought in the goo from whence it came .

I desire to highlight each internal inconsistency, to wave lit flares in the air warning of every pothole and tar pit of rabbinic claptrap, to kindle blazing neon signs at every transgression of logic and reason.

What is my motivation ?? Is it hate for the believers? assistance for the fledging doubter? or pure malicious vitriol with no reason whatsoever ?? Who knows ?

Will I convince any believer with my observations of a broken mesorah?

It is unlikely, as there is no level of unreason that is too low when it comes to justifying tradition. (see Mabul for examples).

My Thesis is simple.

My Gripe: No orthodox Jew should speak of "Godly morality". There is no such thing. Only obedience.


Come take a look through my eyes.

Our Traditions. They speak of a God so grand he is outside our frame of reference for anything, to describe him by any verb or analogy is an essential blasphemy. We can not know his mind. We cannot know his intent, his purpose, his method, his goals. Indeed our favorite midrash pictures a God sorrowfully shaking his head, as he informs Mosses that the ability to understand the mechanism by which God delivers reward and punishment cannot be shared with a human. Unknowable.



The Medrish and indeed the traditions of orthodoxy are insistent that we don't have simple answers to this question (although you will occasionally hear attempts if you listen to the right people). The conundrum of Theodicy in mainstream orthodox belief remains quarantined through the use of the statement, "God works in mysterious ways".

To me, the natural extension of this logical loophole is: we don't know the method God uses to make judgments regarding reward and punishment. We don't know what his criteria are. We don't know his motivation or plan. All of these are beyond our knowledge.

Shouldn't we hope though, that his criteria and motivations are similar to our own natural feelings of right and wrong? Don't we feel the pain of an innocent wronged, don't we wish justice upon the evil and cruel. Don't we wish to have faith in a God who's final plan for justice smacks of something rehashed from Solomonic wisdom where we all simply nod our heads at the fairness of it all.

Should we ??

Strangely, it appears not. Not through the lens from which orthodoxy insist we gaze at the world. In fact, the use of our innate moral sense often leads people to disagree with precepts from God's bible. Honest people applying basic criteria of empathy often feel the Torah is incorrect. Honest orthodox people. Thus orthodoxy has bolstered the mythos of the unknowable God. Not only do we not know God's wisdom but we don't dare to wish it mirrors our own. Indeed, any time someone calculates pain, cruelty, and benefit and comes up with numbers different than orthodoxy prescribes it is a symptom of the divide between human morality, and the "divine morality".

I tell you nothing new here. Anyone brought up orthodox knows this…..


So what is Innate human morality ?? Isn't it so slippery it can't be quite defined ??

Well difficult to firmly pin down, yes. And many people may disagree on a moral outcome based on the same data, hence it's subjective nature. But I think we can postulate the ingredients that go into making a moral decision. We can agree that pain and suffering are an important consideration. We can concede that equity is a goal though we might argue about the exact method by which to calibrate our machinery for such a sum. We can say that benefits and losses of affected parties and society as a whole are under consideration, and in short we can agree on some very basic areas that will need to be scrutinized in order for humans to make a decision that is considered a moral one.

I would like to suggest, that no such corollary exists in "Godly morality". We have suggested in our traditions that not only do we not know the Godly mechanism of deciding right and wrong, but that they are unknowable to us…we cannot even comprehend them. Furthermore we have suggested that whatever intuitions we have with regard to the subject are as likely to be wrong as right.

It seems reasonable therefore to say, that God makes his decisions regarding reward and punishment, equity and prejudice, by a means other than any means we are familiar with. Something beyond us. We have no more reason to believe he takes the pain of human consciousness than some other variable. In fact, we have less reason to believe he uses any modality we can understand.

Whereas our innate sense of right and wrong derives from a sense of equity, empathy, and fairness, we have no idea what essential ingredients fuel God's judgments and in an approach to honest language usage should not apply terms outside of their meaning.

To the human mind there is no understanding of why God acts as he does, nor is there the ability for us to, according to our traditions. There is no knowledge of underlying principles that would allow us to weigh the equity of his decisions, nor is there the slightest confidence in our own faculties to do so.. Hence we should call our observance what it is. For there are words that more closely fit this phenomenon…..orders. We have no understanding of why he chooses right from wrong but we follow orders because we have come to believe that God has ultimate POWER. We believe the reality we see to have occurred because of his actions, and his actions indicate his power. It is because of his power that we do what he says. We admit we have no knowledge of his motive, his fairness, or the method by which he punishes, and…. get this……it doesn't matter to us !!!


Even those who wish to soothe this open sore by saying, "but we trust he is ultimately doing good…"

But what is good ??? meaningless. In our tradition we mistrust our own sense of it and cannot fathom God's. Indeed any moral terminology is equally devoid of coherence. One would be just as correct to say that we trust that God is good but "good" will in the end only be defined by God, as one would be to say that we trust that god is bad and that "bad" will be defined by God. Meaningless. All moral terminology is without meaning for they are all empty variables we cannot fill.

Orders. You follow orders. They are inexplicable orders to you, and you like it that way. It hurts less when you have to explain the pain of the world. You prefer to shroud God in mystery even if it means you are just following orders from the greatest power you can find. Why?? Did he promise you treasure, everlasting life, and meaning?? You know he did. At least, this is what you believe.

So let's stop slobbering endlessly about ultimate Goodness and morality. Orthodoxy made it's choice and dodges the bullet of Theodicy by hiding under the bed and insisting that God wants to tell us how it's all OK, but we cannot conceive it. Very well. Then let us accept then that we can't understand, and that we follow orders transmitted from power, and never more bandy about terms regarding how "moral" this is.

51 Comments:

At 1:01 PM, Blogger XGH said...

I hate to argue with you but...

There's another way of looking at this. God is the essence of all good. We don't know what that means exactly, and you also have euthypro's dilemma to contend with, but what the heck, the world is pretty absurd anyway so I'm not going to lose to much sleep on that one. God desires us to be good. We should make good decisions and behave well. What is good? I think we can figure it out somewhat. Possibly the Torah provides some helpful guidelines, possibly (probably?) not. Either way, we're all smart enough to try and figure out as best we can. What more can God expect from us anyway?

Of course, if God doesn't actually exist, then who cares, do what you want. But if He does, then the above description makes sense. Kinda. The biggest question to me is whether God exists or not, and whether we actually have any responsibility to be doing anything, and whether we will get rewarded or punished. Frankly, if we aren't getting rewarded (or punished), I'm just not that motivated. Are you motivated without God? If so, you're a bigger tzadik then I am. But the question remains, does some kind of 'God' exists, that wants us to be the best we can be, or not? And nobody actually seems to know the answer to that question, though people seem quite sure of themselves anyways.

 
At 2:12 PM, Anonymous SYL said...

the part that is speaking to me right now is that as subjective as our morality may be, it becomes infitely so when you compare it to previous generations and time periods.

So to believe that the world has an ultimate, built-in morality might make sense, but for that innate morality to change with each era rubs me the wrong way.

If different humans have different experiences leading to different "senses of equity, empathy, and fairness" then there is no such thing as morality, and what makes the morality of today anymore "right" than the morality of yesteryear?

And if morality continously evolves, and each evolution brings it closer to a more perfect morality, then whose the ultimate decider of when morality has reached that point, and what underlying principles are taking it there.

That last thought/paragraph might be babble I'm not sure.
Again, I apologize if my thoughts aren't 100% clear I'm just speaking this out for the first time, and I honestly mean no offense.

 
At 7:39 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Interesting take Godol... I think you can assign whatever value of morality you want to God. My point was within the mainstream orthodox view that insists that God's "moral" apparatus is unknowable, depricates our own moral intuitions as having little or no value, and then claims that God is "good". My point is this word no longer means anything given the above assumptions. At least nothing we can define.

AS far as motivation, I am no tzadik, but I can honestly tell you that I feel more of an urge to accomplish my goals in life now that I am free from a delusion of a God concerned about what candy bars I eat. Before life was an...an examination...a test that I was getting a B+ in. Now I feel much more open to the possibilites of what I can accomplish....

Maybe thats all moonshine, but it works for me....:-)

 
At 7:49 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Good points syl, you may be right, there may not be an ultimate morality. We may infact be destined to waffle back and forth in a murky puddle of grey, where every decision is hopelessly stained by personality differences and intrentched opinions.

On the other hand morality may at this time be ill defined, but may not remain so...

There was a time when people laughed at the idea of measuring the wieight or substance of air. It is not unheard of for elusive properties to eventualy be tacked down. Of course morality, not being a physical entity is not truly comparable in the above analogy, and yet it derives from emotion and thought, both chemical entities....study begins...

Niether possibility upsets me. The only thing that upsets me is make beleive certainty in the absence of data. It is a religious game, and a favorite one, and I think it is an infantile indulgence for those people so in need of this reality that they are willing to pull it from thin air.

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger Chana said...

If I understand correctly, all you're doing here is suggesting that Ockham's theory of ethics as a form of divine will (that is, that if God commands you to commit adultery, this becomes good, because ethics are divinely based) figures or perhaps is all that exists in Orthodox Judaism.

I'm certain that is one approach (that everything is divinely mandated), but we sometimes have clear examples where people stand up to God and war with him. The most classic is by Moses, praying for the Jews. God says "Leave me alone," and even accepting the Rashi that states this is a suggested "pitron peh" for Moshe, Moses wars with God and offers Him various reasons to refrain from slaying the Jews. God even listens.

The same is clear in Gemara, most especially by the case of the oven, where God laughs and says, "My children have won over me."

And even in places where people lose against God, we still see that they rebel. Jonah runs away. He is forced to return to Ninveh, yes, but he ran. Jeremiah complains bitterly about his sufferings and the men who harass him, even throws rather angry, bitter words at God about how God has deserted him, and God still listens (depending on which commentaries you go by.)

My point is, surely you find places where this idea of Divine Will or Divine Ethics apply, but you also find places where people seem to disagree (and even conquer!) or act differently, and this is a very interesting theme throughout.

I've often wondered what would have occurred had Abraham refused to sacrifice Isaac. Would this automatically have been seen as his failing a test? Perhaps not. Because don't we see that the only reason Moses was forbidden to look upon God was because INITIALLY, when he had the opportunity to look at God by the burning bush, he hid his face? To some extent, we appear to create our own consequences. What if Moses HAD looked at God? What if Abraham HAD refused? The entire story would not have been broken. It would merely have continued in a different path.

 
At 5:08 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Very interesting thoughts, Chana, and all entirely possible. As I mentioned to a commentor on XGH's blog, if we still belonged to a religion where human morality could challenge divine morality it would look very different than it does today.

My only gripe here is to point out the bizarre mindset that occurs from the combination of three well intrenched orthodox ideals.

One: God's method for determining reward and punishment is unknowable.

Two:Human morality is lesser, and in fact flawed compared to divine "morality" (talk to any OJ Rabbi for five minutes about homosezuality and you will arrive at this sermon)

Three: Ultimately we can know nothing of gods "essence" his motivation, his dreams, his passions, his goals etc.....

I know not everyone accepts these axioms but they were present in abundance when I was educated. I feel strongly that the result of believing in these theological nuggets is that one is a follower of orders, delivered from Power, with an unrecognizable intent.

 
At 5:29 AM, Blogger jewish philosopher said...

"There is no evidence of supernatural beings who are interested in which candy bars we eat."

I would have to beg to differ on that.

 
At 8:33 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Thank you JP. We do differ.

 
At 6:39 AM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

By all rights I should hate your guts but I like your sincerity so much that I don't. I still owe you my masterpiece on XGH's site. My time has hardly been my own for essays this week. Lots of luck to you Benavuya.

 
At 8:38 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Thanks RG, awaiting your masterpiece !

 
At 12:26 PM, Blogger NYAPIKORES said...

enjoyed your clear and eloquent piece very much. yes: why were 1000 jews (including many hyperfrum) murdered and thousands more left maimed terribly and suffering forever during this past suicide intifada? well, god has his reasons. and why were six million good jews (including babies impaled on bayonets) murdered? you'll never understand god's mysterious ways. and why were our ancestors tortured, raped slaughtered through 2000 years of diapora? its none of your business. its god's business.
what good 'moral' reasons can god come up with for letting these things happen? and why would i worship a god with such a morality, a god that thinks these things were just?
on the other hand, some chick tells me a cockamamie story about her husband who had a leg pain, a suspicious MRI. a mekubal told him to pour shabbes wine on the source of pain. and guess what! presto chango, abra cadabra, it was gone, and the MRI was perfect!
god (dont) help us.
nyapikores.blogspot.com

i remain slightly amazed that debates over the existence of god still occur in our era. amazing that the whole edifice of yahadut is based on a thin thin thread called emuna.

 
At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

You are very welcome Ben Avuya. Thanks.

 
At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

The question is why shouldn't He allow things to happen. It doesn't mean though He approves. He also causes people to die after a ripe old age that doesn't mean we should.

 
At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

That last was a comment on Nyapikores comment.

 
At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

Ben Avuyah
I've been banned by XGH so I will unless he unbans me post my masterpiece here.

 
At 3:33 AM, Blogger BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I've written about morality lately. The big thing is that the definition of morality is subjective. Everyone seems to define it differently. So before discussing morality, it is a good idea for each individual to define morality.
My definition focuses on what is immoral:
"an immoral act is an act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly or unlawfully that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.

Oh and the guilt can't be caused by failure of motor skills (a dropped ball in a football game) or the guilt caused by failing to do a job properly when the intent was to be successful and not to screw up."

I agree that one's sense of morality can be a product of nurture(religious and parental teachings) which is very cultural as well, but most of the laws we use to define what is moral are just based on common sense which has evolved in us to keep our species going.

So I also agree that morality in a religious sense is based on obedience and fear. The same with morality in a legal sense (many laws of the land have religious roots from culture to culture).

All in all though, if we, as a species innately saw someone and wanted to murder, rape or steal from them, we would not be here today. That would have been an evolutionary dead end. So our laws, be it religious or secular, are all just a way to state the obvious with varying degrees depending on the culture and/or religion.

 
At 5:02 AM, Anonymous Rabban Gamliel said...

"I agree that one's sense of morality can be a product of nurture(religious and parental teachings) which is very cultural as well, but most of the laws we use to define what is moral are just based on common sense which has evolved in us to keep our species going."

Man is a social animal...Ok I think Aristotle said that one before me.

Without being a part of a society as happened in at least one case with a child raised by no one, there is stunted mental growth. That jungle boy was never able to speak perfectly when he returned to society. It seems like we are morally always in a box of some kind to begin with. Be kind to boxes too Bacon Eating Atheist Jew as they were made with such care especially when they come with nice wrapping paper and ribbons.

 
At 7:03 AM, Anonymous SYL said...

here's my question about subjective morality:

Is incest immoral?
Maybe two siblings or a parent/child have developed a relationship so close that they feel it can't be fully expressed otherwise.

Objectively it doesn't negate our own "senses of equity, empathy, and fairness." It doesn't harm anybody else, nor society as a whole. What right doess anyone have to deny the love between 2 siblings.

It certainly doesn't fit in to Bacon Jew's definition of an immoral act:

"an immoral act is an act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly or unlawfully that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being"

And people get really offended when I suggest this.

 
At 12:26 PM, Blogger littlefoxling said...

Chana,

The most classic is by Moses, praying for the Jews. God says "Leave me alone," and even accepting the Rashi that states this is a suggested "pitron peh" for Moshe, Moses wars with God and offers Him various reasons to refrain from slaying the Jews. God even listens.

The same is clear in Gemara, most especially by the case of the oven, where God laughs and says, "My children have won over me."

And even in places where people lose against God, we still see that they rebel. Jonah runs away. He is forced to return to Ninveh, yes, but he ran. Jeremiah complains bitterly about his sufferings and the men who harass him, even throws rather angry, bitter words at God about how God has deserted him, and God still listens (depending on which commentaries you go by.)


Yes, but these are not examples of anyone disputing divine morality. They are disputing the Divine command, but not for moral reasons but for self interest ones. For example, Yonah has a personal concern about not looking bad after God fails to make good on his threat because the people of Ninvei due to teshuva.

syl,

Is it possible we only view that as immoral since we were raised with the Judeo-Christian mindset?

Ben Avuyah,

I am new here. this is was a great post. I hope all of your posts are like this one.

 
At 6:12 PM, Blogger BaconEating AtheistJew said...

If incest is deemed unlawful by the societal laws, then it is immoral.
I also doubt if there was no guilt or shame caused by the act by anyone who knows better.

 
At 7:30 PM, Anonymous SYL said...

"Is it possible we only view that as immoral since we were raised with the Judeo-Christian mindset?"
- Little Foxling

I would agree that if one wanted to suggest that all morality is subjective then incest, as well as beastiality (unclear whether PETA would be for or against such actions), is not immoral at all, and we only live in this box where we believe it's just wrong.

And Greenberg-Eggs-&-Ham, just to be clear if something "is deemed unlawful by the societal laws then it is immoral" - that's a pretty big statement.
Anyone who smokes marijuana is being immoral. About a century ago it was unlawful to give blacks in America as well as women, equal rights as white men, so in that time would it have been immoral to do so?

In Germany it was perfectly moral to slaughter Jews simply for being Jews. Maybe we should have a different set of standards than "societal laws."

 
At 2:42 PM, Blogger yingerman said...

And pray tell who defines what morality means?
You?
Me?
The prez?
The pope?

Who was the first to get up on the soap box and announce the rules and standards of morality?
Think for a moment, I fully believe you know the answer to that.

I'm not saying we practice what we preach.
We should and could, but usually fall short.
But then, the Producer created this, our, reality show.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Thank you all for commenting,

Bacon, I think I should of taken your advice. A good definition of morality is sorely lacking. I would lean torwards defining morality in a way that doesn't prejudice the outcome but only defines the ingredients.

Syl, I think Bacon addressed your Questions.

Yingerman let me reply here..

>>>And pray tell who defines what morality means?
You?
Me?
The prez?
The pope?


Good questions...morality is certainly a fuzzy topic, but it seems many social species have ideas of right and wrong behavior, such as certain monkeys and gorillas. There are many evolutionalry inquiries into the origin of morality, and although we have no answer yet, I am not sure you want to invoke the "God of the Gaps" for morality as this philosophy has a way of shrinking God as more knowledge is attained.

>>Who was the first to get up on the soap box and announce the rules and standards of morality?
Think for a moment, I fully believe you know the answer to that.

Yes...Hammurabi.

>>>I'm not saying we practice what we preach.
We should and could, but usually fall short.
But then, the Producer created this, our, reality show.

Maybe...maybe not...

 
At 10:13 AM, Blogger littlefoxling said...

I would agree that if one wanted to suggest that all morality is subjective then incest, as well as beastiality (unclear whether PETA would be for or against such actions), is not immoral at all, and we only live in this box where we believe it's just wrong.

I’m not saying that. I’m saying things are immoral when they hurt someone. Incest does not hurt anyone. Though, from a purely objective standpoint, one could ask what does morality mean and can we really even explain what the problem is with hurting someone. In a recent comment, (http://www.haloscan.com/comments/baalhabos/8713927090544995379/#4013) mikeskeptic notes that Egyptians did not have a taboo against incest.

 
At 7:23 PM, Blogger EPA said...

Ben,

Henceforth, perhaps you should stick to your great "Yeshiva Misfit" stories. This blog entry was way too long, boring and didactic for anyone with a life to read.

 
At 5:05 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

You read it :-)

 
At 5:08 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Actually Epa, your right, I wrote it during lunch break and it is a little long and rambling with a touch of noncoherence.

Don't worry the yeshiva misfit will return, I just need to poke a few more holes in Orthodoxy first....

 
At 7:42 AM, Anonymous SYL said...

hi Ben,

Just giving this some more thought and I'm looking for some guidance.

I saw this argument in regards to deciphering archaelogical digs and was wondering how it would apply to discussion of existence, or lack thereof of G-d.

Now, as demonstrated here, it's impossible to prove G-d's existence, it is equally impossible to disprove G-d's existence, so the argument becomes is it plausible that a G-d can exist. . .

So maybe, outside of a lack of physical proof (which there wouldn't be any of), what makes it any more likely that there is no G-d, then there would be?

 
At 11:06 AM, Anonymous joel said...

Hello

I, too, have grappled with these for most for most my life. Perched at the age of 60 I have occupied this stance for a longer period than most the good people reading this. I know that I am not very far from the end of my life even though I feel and look good ( remember what Fernando said ) Anyway I have settled on the realization that (my) orthodoxy is merely a lifestyle based upon the the mores & folkways of my parents & exteneded family. Italians play bocce and put sauce on everything and I go to shul on shabbat and wolf down matjes herring with 8Mcallen 18. It's a good lifestyle with alot of social support. Frum Jews don't realize they don't have a monopoly on community, friends, happiness and family who love them. Just a warning to you young turks. DON'T LET YOUR KIDS GET FRUMKMER THAN YOU

 
At 7:20 PM, Blogger EPA said...

Ben,

You've had this blog for a while. How many people do you think you've won over? By and large, you are already "preaching to the choir," ie, those who already agree with you. So, enough hole poking, and let's get another chapter of "Misfit." BTW - how's the baby? Can't wait to hear what day school you'll put him in when he's older...

 
At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good definition of morality is sorely lacking.

I don't think you'll be the first to undertake this project. A lot of Kant's efforts went in this direction. I think a good thing to look at might be Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism because he was essentially a Kantian thinker. I have not been able to get through it myself yet, though! Oy.

 
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At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben Avuyah,

Very interesting post. I happen to be working on a conference presentation on this exact issue. I would be interested in any sources you rely on from Talmud or chassidus to support this view.

Yehudah Aryeh

 
At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben Avuyah,

Very interesting post. I happen to be working on a conference presentation on this exact issue. I would be interested in any sources you rely on from Talmud or chassidus to support this view.

Yehudah Aryeh

 
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