Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Evil of Unpleasant Realities - Why "Liberal" Jews are Turning Against Israel

I recently came across an article by a Rabbi Brian Walt, titled "Affirming a Judaism and Jewish identity without Zionism." Rabbi Walt obviously comes from a fundamentally different religious and theological perspective than I. That being so, I usually wouldn't even bother writing about such an article. However, I believe that Rabbi Walt's article expresses views that are, amazingly enough, at conflict with my own at an even more basic level than theology (which shouldn't even be possible). The differences touch upon the most basic issues of all, the role of rationality in human life and arguably even the basic nature of reality. Moreover, I believe that the kind of thinking underlying Rabbi Walt's article is becoming increasingly common, even in (perhaps even especially in) those circles that ostensibly celebrate rationality.

The article is a near-perfect illustration of the superficial romanticism that underlies much of what goes by the name "liberalism" nowadays, and helps explain why "liberal" Jews are increasingly finding themselves feeling like they have to chose between their identity as "liberals" and their support for Israel. By "superficial romanticism", I am referring to a worldview in which one's "feelings" have absolute moral authority. I am not addressing the various political and ideological positions commonly associated with liberalism (of any stripe), nor am I addressing the the fact that our emotions inevitably color our moral judgments. I am addressing the increasing tendency to see  superficial feelings, i.e. one's immediate gut reaction to an idea, image, or story, as having sufficient moral authority to render any further thought irrelevant. While such thinking certainly exists in all circles, my observation has been that this kind of thinking is increasingly seen in ostensibly "liberal" circles as not only respectable but as "deep" and "profound", and that much of what passes for "liberalism" today is simply advocacy for and celebration of such a worldview.

Thus, in Rabbi Walt's world, the emotional impact of images and stories reigns absolutely supreme. That which is ugly or unpleasant is inherently immoral. Necessity and survival are ugly concepts and are completely ignored. Context is a distraction. In this world, I need only look at an isolated image - such as a child's toy lying in the ruins of a demolished home - and my gut emotional reaction tells me everything I need to make a moral judgement. Similarly, if an image or story evokes an unpleasant association in my mind, that evoked association is morally conclusive in of itself.

Thus,  Rabbi Walt describes seeing soldiers demolish a home while the owners stand by "wailing." This is an ugly and unpleasant scene, and that is all he needs to know. Why were the soldiers doing this? What events had led to this scene? Not important, not even relevant. Soldiers=bad. Bulldozers=bad. Wailing=bad. All bad. (Oh, and toys=good!)

The underlying idea here is that the fact that the state of Israel is doing something that is ugly and unpleasant inherently means that what they are doing is wrong. Not because it is unnecessary, not because it won't work, not for any rational basis, but simply because it is ugly and unpleasant. No necessity can justify that which evokes unpleasant emotions in my mind. There are no hard choices, there are no necessary evils, there are no justifications.

Similarly, Rabbi Walt describes how the separation between Arabs and Jews in Israel is "very evocative of scenes" of Apartheid from his childhood in South Africa. Apartheid is, of course, a very bad thing, and therefore, in  Rabbi Walt's mind, anything that superficially resembles Apartheid is equally bad. No further thought is necessary.

And so on...

Uprooted trees = evil.

Arabs being processed at a checkpoint (evoking ugly images: "processed like a group of animals") = evil.

It is a sad irony that of all the Israeli "violations" of human rights described by Rabbi Walt, almost none of them go much beyond property damage, inconvenience, and bureaucratic red-tape. Yet, he sees these "violations"  as a justification for supporting the side of those who regularly engage in violence and murder not only against random Israelis, but even against other Palestinians! The moral scales are completely skewed, mainly because of another negative emotion: guilt. While I'm sure (or I hope) that Rabbi Walt feels just as horrified about the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians due to Palestinian rocket attacks and terrorism as he does about the bulldozing of an Arab house, he only feels guilty about the actions done by Israel. When Israel does something ugly and unpleasant, i.e. inherently unjustifiable, Rabbi Walt feels "implicated" in the crime, and he can only free himself from that guilt by opposing what Israel does. When an Arab terrorist blows up a bus, or a Palestinian rocket kills an Israeli civilian, Rabbi Walt does not feel implicated and therefore his emotional reaction is less severe. In the logic of Rabbi Walt's world, the fact that Israeli actions create more unpleasant feelings in his mind than Palestinian actions automatically means that Israel is the bad guy. Arguing that this is a subjective and illogical judgement would be missing the point.

Many aspects of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians commonly evoke such irrational reactions. In the mind of many modern "liberals", when they set the state of Israel, with its "white men in suits", uniformed soldiers, military hardware, factories, technology and emphasis on law and order, against the ragtag, hooded, "Che Guevara-esque"  "freedom" fighters of the "indigenous people", it is simply self-evident who the bad guy is. Israel is obviously the "Western imperialist power" oppressing the innocent natives.

That is the established narrative (despite the fact that that narrative developed in a very different context and has little relevance to the actual situation in Israel) and in that narrative the "liberal" knows which side he is supposed to support. There is no need to look for alternative narratives, there is no middle ground, and there is no ambiguity. All of these would require setting aside one's subjective feelings and dispassionately studying reality, and in this worldview that would be missing the point.

As long as Zionism was nothing more than the utopian dream of  Rabbi Walt's youth, it was fine. Like him, many of the early Zionists had utopian hopes for the  Jewish state. But then Zionism ran into reality, and reality is messy and ugly and has little tolerance for utopian fantasies. The founders of Israel thought they would be able to found a country where Jews and Arabs lived side by side in peace. They were fools and the Arabs quickly showed them that they were fools. The Jews in Israel found themselves in a fight for survival which has continued, with ups and downs, to this day. And, yes, its not fair, not to anyone, and yes, many Palestinians have suffered as much as the Jews, and that's terrible and sad and irrelevant.

Should the state of Israel have been founded? Perhaps not. (I am not a Zionist myself.) But that is also irrelevant. Like it or not, Israel exists, and the millions of Jews in Israel are not leaving. If peace could be negotiated on those terms, then Israel would jump for it (it actually has already, more than once), but the Palestinians have never accepted the continued existence of the state of Israel as acceptable, and continue to preach an ideology of irreconcilable hatred for the Jews.

In many ways, the issue I am addressing here is much bigger than Israel (although, from the point of view of Israel, it may well be a matter of existential survival). This kind of thinking underlies almost of all of the major political issues of our time, which is one of the reasons why it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation about politics. It also has a major impact on people's religious thinking. It is closely related to the issue of so-called "simple faith" (i.e. believing in God because you want to believe in God) that I discussed recently as well as the phenomenon of the pseudo-Chareidim I discussed some time ago

On the opposite end of the spectrum (well, the perceived opposite end), the so-called "argument from evil", which is commonly viewed as one of the most powerful arguments against the existence of God, is almost entirely an exercise in this kind of thinking. The reason that the "argument from evil" is seen as such a knock-down argument in favor of atheism is not because there are no rational solutions to the problem (there are, in fact, lots of such solutions), but because the underlying basis for the argument does not allow for a rational response in the first place. The real issue in the argument from evil is not that we can't explain why God allows or causes bad things to happen, but that we don't want bad things to happen regardless of the explanation. A rational response to the argument from evil would be missing the point.

The long-term consequences of this kind of thinking are very frightening. As the founders of the state of Israel discovered, reality doesn't change to suit our feelings. In the real world trade-offs are always necessary, difficult choices must be made, and ugly realities will always exist. Attempting to ignore reality never ends well, and our civilization's current attempt to do so will only make things much worse for us down the road. And, as has often been the case, the Jews are the canary in the coal mine, and may well pay the price long before the rest of Western society.

Bamidbar - Everything Has Its Place

In Parshas Bamidbar we read of how God chose the tribe of Levi to be His, to a degree above and beyond the rest of the Jewish people. Originally, the Temple service was to have been performed by the first-born sons of the entire nation. When the people sinned with the golden calf, they lost this privilege and it was given to the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi was chosen because, at the time of the sin of the golden calf, they answered Moses' cry of "Whoever is for God, to me!" and took up their swords to punish the worshippers of the calf.

In his commentary on Bamidbar, Rav Avigdor Miller notes a surprising irony in this. At the end of his life, Jacob admonished his sons Shimon and Levi for the violent manner in which they avenged the honor of their sister, Dinah. Yet now the descendants of Levi were being rewarded for engaging in a violent battle against their fellow Jews!

Rav Miller explains that this teaches us an important lesson:
...we learn that no natural emotion or character-trait is intrinsically evil: "God made the Man right" (Koheles 7:29), but good or evil depends on the manner in which these emotions and character-traits are exercised. Anger and even cruelty, jealousy and ambition, indulgence and temperance, indolence and alacrity: each has its proper place, and when employed in Hashem's service all of these motivations gain recompense in this life and everlasting reward in the Afterlife. The anger which endangered Jacob's family was cursed and was punished by landlessness, but when the anger was utilized to combat idolatry it was rewarded by an eternal covenant: "The Levites shall be Mine."
This is an important lesson as we come into Shavuos, the festival of Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). One of the most basic messages of the Torah is that every aspect of human life has the potential for holiness. Judaism teaches us not to reject our natural drives and desires, but to channel them into the service of God. This is one of the basic symbolic messages of circumcision, which the Jewish people had to undergo before they could receive the Torah, and which every male convert must undergo to enter into the Jewish covenant with God. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Collected Writings III, pp. 78-79 - emphasis added):
All the physical aspects of of our earthly existence, with all its impulses and forces, its riches and pleasures, must be brought under the firm control of the holy will of God. This sign [of circumcision] poses, as the first and indispensable condition for our covenant with God that we must circumcise the ערלה [uncontrolled nature (lit. "foreskin)] of the physical aspect of our body. It is not the consecration of the spirit but the consecration of the body that marks the entry into the covenant of Abraham. This covenant categorically rejects the erroneous concepts of both extremes. It does not condone a mortification of the flesh one earth for the purpose of gaining life in the world to come. But it also rejects the worship of physical appetites and the cult of "beautiful" sensualism.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What is the Torah?

On the festival of Shavuos we celebrate the event of Matan Torah - the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This was the foundational event of Judaism, from which all else follows. It was at Sinai that God made the Jewish people into His nation, and gave us His Torah.

But what, exactly, is the Torah? By this, I am not asking about the simple definition of the Torah - i.e. the five books of Moses - or even the broader definition of the complete corpus of the Written and Oral Law. I am asking, what kind of "book" is the Torah? Specifically, what kind of information did God intend to reveal to us through the Torah and what kinds of expectations can we reasonably have when studying it?

To clarify, in order to productively read a book, we need to have a reasonably good idea as to what the author is attempting to do. If our understanding of the author's intent is significantly flawed, then our ability to understand and use the book will be, at best, equally flawed. Our understanding of the author's intent causes us to have specific expectations from the book and it is the author's success in satisfying those expectations that we use in assessing the quality of the book. Thus, we have very different expectations from a history book than we have from a cookbook, or a book on car repair, or a medical textbook, or a dictionary.

The same is true for the Torah. In order for us to properly study the Torah, we first need to clarify what the Author of the Torah is trying to accomplish. What is the intended function of the Torah? Thankfully, the Torah itself is fairly clear on what its purpose is; the function of the Torah is to instruct, i.e. to tell us what to do with our lives. As the Torah (Exodus 24:12) says, "And Hashem said to Moses: 'Come up to Me, to the mountain, and stay there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment, which I have written to instruct them.'" One of the most basic themes throughout the Torah is the absolute importance of obeying God's commands, as given to us in the Torah.

Everything in the Torah is there for the purpose of instruction. This is true not only for the mitzvos, but even for the stories found in the Torah.  The stories in the Torah are intended to teach us lessons, and are presented in the manner that best serve God's educational purposes. They are not there for our entertainment, or even to teach us history, but, like the mitzvos, to teach us how to properly live our lives.

This is an important principle, because it tells us two critical concepts:
  • There is nothing extraneous in the Torah. Everything, down to the details of every story, is there to teach us something or it would not have been included.
  • The Torah does not include information that is unrelated to its purpose. While there is historical information in the Torah, it is usually vague at best. The Torah is not a history book, or a science book, or even a philosophical work. (It also isn't a cookbook or a book on how to manage your money. But you already knew that.) It is book of Divine instruction.

Much to the disappointment of many a yeshiva student, God did not give us the Torah so that we wouldn't have to study history, or science, or math (or any other area of human study). The Torah is intended to answer questions that we can't really answer for ourselves: What are we here for? How do we fulfill our purpose?

Sometimes people ask why God didn't include scientific or medical information in the Torah, or why He didn't provide more precise historical information. Such questions are no more reasonable with regard to the Torah than they would be with regard to a cookbook (which is also a book of instruction). When we study the Torah, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what we are supposed to learn from a given story, or even a specific detail within the story. It is not legitimate to ask why God omitted the cure for cancer or the Grand Unified Theory for physics.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Explaining the Torah in Seventy "Languages"

Just finished studying with my Torah Mate. We recently began studying Chumash Devarim with Rashi and Gur Aryeh (the Maharal's super-commentary on Rashi) and we came to Deuteronomy 1:5, "On the other side of the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses began clarifying this Torah, saying:" On the words "clarifying the Torah" Rashi comments (based on Medrash Tanchuma), "בשבעים לשון פרשה להם" - "He explained it to them in seventy languages."

This comment obviously needs explanation. Is it plausible that Moses actually got up and orally presented the Torah to the Jewish people in seventy different languages? How many languages did the Jewish people speak? Did Moshe get up and "explain the Torah" to them in languages that none of them understood? For that matter, the word used by Rashi is "פרשה" - "explained" - not translate!

So we started looking around. My chavrusa reminded me of the discussion of languages in Genesis 10:5, which, in turn, led us to look at the story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11. One thing we noticed immediately is that, in the entire story of the confusion of the languages in Genesis 11, the Hebrew word "לשון"  (lit. "tongue") is never used (unlike in Genesis 10:5). Instead, the word used for language in Genesis 11 is "שפה" (lit. "lip"). Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Genesis 10:5, and again on 11:1, writes that the word "שפה" designates actual language, whereas "לשון" refers to dialect.

This was useful, in that it at least showed us that the "שבעים לשון" - "seventy languages" - mentioned by Rashi need not refer to seventy distinct languages. However, it didn't really make much sense to say that he explained it to them in seventy different dialects either.

At this point, both of us were already thinking that these "seventy languages" probably were not "languages" at all, but seventy different modes of interpretation, related to the famous concept of "שבעים פנים לתורה" - "there are seventy facets to the Torah." But we were hesitant to give such an explanation on our own, without some support. Baruch Hashem, we found exactly what we were looking for in the commentary HaKesav VeHaKabbala (by Rabbi Yakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, d.1865):
Rashi, from the Sages, says, "He explained it to them in seventy languages." They don't mean foreign languages, for what benefit would that be to the Jews? ... Rather, it is the way of the Sages to refer to the intent of a statement by the term לשון..., and so here, with the "seventy languages", it means "seventy intended meanings", similar to the statement of the Sages elsewhere, "שבעים פנים לתורה" - "there are seventy facets to the Torah" - which refers to the inner intended meanings of the Torah, asides from the initial, simple meaning.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Emuna Peshuta - The Misuse of "Faith"

I frequently encounter people who claim that their basis for belief in God is "faith" or, if they are religious Jews, "emuna peshuta" - "simple faith". You're most likely to hear this when a religious person is confronted with a challenge to his belief in God by modern atheists, who claim that modern science and philosophy have eliminated any basis for belief in God. (This is not true, but that is a topic for another time.) To this, the response of many religious people is that they believe out of simple "faith"

I recently received an example of this kind of reasoning in an e-mail, which presents a fictional dialogue between an atheist professor and his religious Christian student:
Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, you believe in GOD ?
Student : Absolutely, sir.
Professor : Is GOD good ?
Student : Sure.
Professor: Is GOD all powerful ?
Student : Yes.
Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?
(Student was silent.)
Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Is satan good ?
Student : No.
Professor: Where does satan come from ?
Student : From … GOD …
Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?
Student : Yes.
Professor: So who created evil ?
(Student did not answer.)
Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, who created them ?
(Student had no answer.)
Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD?
Student : No, sir.
Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard GOD?
Student : No , sir.
Professor: Have you ever felt GOD, tasted GOD, smelled GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter?
Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.
Professor: Yet, you still believe in Him?
Student : Yes.
Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?
Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.
Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.
Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?
Professor: Yes.
Student : And is there such a thing as cold?
Professor: Yes.
Student : No, sir. There isn’t.
(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.)
Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.
(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.)
Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?
Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness?
Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?
Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ?
Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.
Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how?
Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.
Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?
Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.
Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?
(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.)
Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?
(The class was in uproar.)
Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain?
(The class broke out into laughter. )
Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelled it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?
(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.)
Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.
Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.
This little "dialogue" is a good example of what is, in my opinion, a fundamentally erroneous approach to religious belief. While the "student" makes a one or two minor points that are valid (or at least defensible), his core argument is simply absurd.

The essential problem here is that the word "faith" is used to mean different things, and the essay improperly lumps them together. The primary definition of "faith" is trust, in that we take something "on faith" from a person or authority that we trust. (This is the definition of faith being used by the professor, towards the end of the dialogue, when he says that we should accept what he teaches in his lectures on faith, even if we have not (yet) confirmed them with our own senses.) Of course, such faith has to be earned, in that there must be a reason why we trust a given authority figure sufficiently to take his statements on faith. Assuming that we have good reason for trusting the authority, then such faith is perfectly rational.

However, there is another, deeply problematic, understanding of faith, which is to believe something without any rational basis. This is the definition being used by the student, when, in response to his professor's challenge that there is no rational basis for belief in God responds that he has no answer, "...I only have my faith." Fundamentally, what this means is that the "student" acknowledges that the argument against his belief in God is valid, yet he believes in God anyways, simply because he wants to (which actually means that he doesn't really believe in God at all, since, in principle, he acknowledges that he could just as easily choose not to believe in God). This kind of faith has become increasingly popular amongst religious people in the modern world, who see it as the only answer they can give to the arguments made against religion by atheist "professors", but the answer is self-defeating because it is essentially a concession to the intellectual superiority of atheism. By claiming that their belief in God is based on nothing but "faith", they have openly surrendered the intellectual battlefield to the atheists.

If you only believe in God because of
your "faith", then your God is nothing
more than a figment of your imagination.
This mentality may be understandable with Christians (such as the author of the dialogue printed above) because many core elements of Christianity are, in any case, fundamentally irrational. However, this is not an acceptable approach within Judaism. Our belief in God is not based upon an irrational "faith"; rather it is based upon the objective historical experiences of the Jewish people. When the Jewish people stood at Mt. Sinai, they didn't believe in God just because they had "faith", their belief was based upon direct, objective knowledge. While we, today, no longer have that degree of direct knowledge, we do have the historical tradition of that experience, which (among other things) provides a rational basis for our belief in God and the Divine origin of the Torah. With that basis, we can then have faith, of the rational kind, that even when we do not understand why God does something, there must be a good reason for it.

It is only in this context that the concept of emuna peshuta - simple faith - comes into play. We trust God because we have simple faith in Him. But before we can trust him, we must first know that He exists. That initial knowledge cannot be based upon "simple faith."

This distinction is not always made clear in many seforim (classical Torah works) when they discuss emuna (belief), and in some cases, as when one comes across sources that are critical of philosophy (of which there are many), one might come away with the impression that the author is arguing in favor of an irrational faith. However (while there may be some exceptions), in almost all cases, these sources are only talking about using philosophy as a means to reinforce one's belief, and are not addressing the core basis for belief in God (a distinction which I discussed in the previous post). To my knowledge, almost all of these sources would acknowledge that, when it comes to one's basic belief in  the existence of God, this must be based upon an actual rational conviction that God exists, and not simply on an irrational "faith."

Mitzva #1 – Belief in God

Maimonides and most other authorities consider the obligation to believe in God to be one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos, and understand this to be the obligation expressed in the opening sentence of the Aseres HaDibros – Ten “Commandments” – (Exodus 20:2), “I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” There are, however, some authorities, such as the Halachos Gedolos (circa the 8th century), who do not include this obligation in their catalog of the 613 commandments.

It should be clear at the the outset that all opinions, whether or not they include it in their formal catalog of the mitzvos, consider belief in God to be absolutely obligatory and foundational to Judaism. Belief in God is axiomatic to Judaism and failure to believe in God puts one completely outside the bounds of Judaism. 

Nevertheless, despite its importance, there is good reason to omit the obligation to believe in God from a formal catalog of the mitzvos. The entire concept of a commandment presupposes the existence of an authority that issues commands. A commandment to believe in the existence of the authority that issued the commandment is logically impossible. So how, then, can a person be commanded to believe in God? Either he already believes, in which case the commandment is unnecessary, or he doesn't believe, in which case the commandment can have no meaningful authority or content.

It follows that the basic obligation to believe in God must exist independently of, and logically prior to, the mitzvos. This "meta-obligation", if you will, is one that is morally inherent in one's existence as a human being who is capable of recognizing the existence of His Creator and Benefactor. Being that God has created us and is the sole source of everything that we value in existence, to deny His reality is inherently immoral and no command is necessary. Being that God does exist, failure to believe in Him can mean only that one is in error, and to the degree that one is capable of correcting that error, he is morally obligated to do so. (This concept of a moral obligation existing independently of a Divine command also touches upon other important issues, such as the very nature of morality itself, but that is a topic for another time.)

This point is so basic that it raises the question of how to understand the position of those, like Maimonides, who do include the obligation to believe in God in their catalog of the commandments.

There are several answers to this question, all of which basically distinguish between the basic recognition of God's existence, which, in fact, cannot be commanded, and the mitzvah of emunah (belief) or yedias Hashem (knowing God), which can begin only after that first basic recognition has been achieved.

Essentially, the mitzvah of emunah requires us to internalize our basic recognition of God's existence into our personality. There is a great distance between intellectually recognizing a truth and making that truth an integral part of how you think and feel. The “meta-obligation” of belief in God is satisfied once we come to the intellectual recognition that God exists. This recognition must have a rational basis (not so-called “faith”, for reasons we will discuss in the next post). For the Jewish people at Sinai the knowledge of God was the result of direct experience. For us today, who have not directly experienced such an open revelation, our recognition of God must be rooted primarily in the historical traditions and experiences of the Jewish people and in our recognition of God’s hand in history and in nature. (See also my previous post, "Jewish Arguments for the Existence of God".)

It is only after we have achieved this basic recognition that the actual mitzvah of emunah comes into play. This mitzvah obligates us to take steps to reinforce and internalize our recognition of God, so that it becomes a basic part of our personality. Many sources see this as the intent of the famous verse in Deuteronomy (4:39), "And you shall know today, and take it to your heart, that Hashem is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else." There are two stages, first you must "know" that Hashem is God, and then you must "take it to your heart."

There are a wide range of methods that can be used for this purpose. In fact, the bulk of Jewish practice is intended to help us work towards this goal. Thus, the observance of the Sabbath is intended to reinforce our belief in Creation, the various holidays reinforce our belief in God's supervision over the events of the world, prayer reinforces our belief in God's supervision over every aspect of our lives, and so on through almost everything we do as Jews. Moreover, the very act of living a life in obedience to God's will helps us internalize our belief in Him. When we refrain from a forbidden act, whether it be eating a forbidden food or speaking lashon hara, we reinforce in our minds the reality of God's existence.

However, there are also a number of methods that are uniquely suited towards reinforcing our belief in God. Many sources emphasize the importance of deeply studying the various philosophical proofs for God's existence. Others, however, see the engagement in philosophical study as potentially doing more harm than good (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this essay), and instead emphasize other techniques, such as studying the wisdom and kindness evident in the natural world, and the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through thousands of years of exile and upheaval. (Also see my previous posts, "The Role of Philosophy in Judaism" and "Why Study Jewish History? Part 3 - Strengthening Our Emunah".)

R' Elchonon Wasserman
A somewhat different, more mussar oriented, approach is given in a famous essay by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (d.1941) printed in Kovetz Maamarim. R' Wasserman writes that, in truth, God's existence is so self-evident that it should be clear to any rational person. Why then do so many intelligent people fail to recognize this truth? R' Wasserman answers that human beings have an extraordinary talent for self-deception, i.e. intelligence does not necessarily equate to rationality, and when we don't want to accept a truth, we are very capable of fooling ourselves into denying even the most self-evident of truths and of using our intelligence to provide apparently rational arguments for our self-serving desires.

Based on this, Rav Wasserman argues that the commandment to believe is actually a commandment to work on ourselves to subdue and rectify those natural inclinations and character flaws that cause us to deny that which should be obvious. Once we do so, belief in God's existence will come naturally as a self-evident truth.

While, to my knowledge, R' Wasserman is the first to clearly formulate this approach, it is firmly based upon earlier sources. The idea that the denial of God's existence is actually rooted in deeper character flaws is found, either explicitly or implicitly, in many earlier sources. For example, Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:51) writes:
...all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition.... I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.
Maimonides believed that only a fundamentally irrational person could deny this most basic of self-evident truths - the existence of God. The reason why so many of us struggle with belief in God is because, as in many other areas of life, what we are really struggling with is our natural inclination towards self-serving irrational behavior.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Emor - Kiddush Hashem - The Mitzvah of Martyrdom

In Parshas Emor, we read (Leviticus 22:32), “You shall not desecrate My holy name, and I shall be sanctified within the children of Israel.” This is the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, which requires a Jew, under certain circumstances, to refrain from violating the laws of the Torah even at the cost of his own life. While the normal rule (which we learn from Leviticus 18:5, “You shall keep My statutes and My laws, which a man shall do and live through them”) is that the Torah does not usually require us to sacrifice our lives for the sake of the mitzvos, there are several significant exceptions. The poskim (halachic authorities) define three basic circumstances in which we are obligated to choose death over violating Torah law:
  1. There are three categories of sin which a Jew may never violate, under any circumstances, even if it costs him his life: Murder, sexual immorality, and avoda zara. (Avoda zara, usually, and misleadingly, translated as idolatry, refers specifically to the worship of anything other than God Himself, and, more broadly, to any fundamentally erroneous belief about God.) Thus, not only must a person accept martyrdom rather than violate one of these laws, but he must even accept death from illness or starvation if the only way to save himself would be by committing one of these sins.

  2. If a Jew is being forced, at the pain of death, to publicly violate any Jewish law for the purpose of making him violate the law, then the Jew is required to refuse to violate the law, even if it costs him his life. If however, the event is not public, or if the motivation is not to force him to violate Torah law, then he should not – and may not – sacrifice his life. (He is, however, required to sacrifice all of his material possessions, if necessary, to avoid such a violation.)

  3. In a time of shmad, i.e. a government campaign against Judaism (such as what happened under the Greeks in the period before the Maccabean revolt), a Jew is required to uphold all Torah law without exception, even if he will be killed for this. This applies even in private and even for non-Biblical laws, including even Jewish customs.
There are many important lessons we can learn from this mitzvah (which we hope we will never have to put into practice). The most basic lesson of all is that as Jews we must recognize that, ultimately, what gives our lives meaning and purpose is our adherence to God’s Torah, and that we must therefore be ready and willing to sacrifice our lives in His service. This lesson is brought out by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb 615):

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
You shall hallow by your example the Name of God among your brethren, you shall show by your example and bear witness by your deeds that the true son and true daughter of Israel hold nothing higher than God and the fulfillment of His Divine will. And you shall, if it be necessary, willingly seal this testimony with your life, in that, if it must be, you offer it up in order to preserve your loyalty towards God and to inspire such loyalty in your brethren.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lag BaOmer - What exactly are we celebrating?

The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples, all of whom passed away during the period from Pesach to Atzeres (i.e.Shavuos):
ר"ע אומר: למד תורה בילדותו, ילמוד תורה בזקנותו. היו לו תלמידים בילדותו, יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו. שנא', "בבקר זרע את זרעך וגו'."
אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה, והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.
תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא, ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה. מאי היא? א"ר נחמן: אסכרה.
Rabbi Akiva said: If a man studied Torah in his youth, he should also study it in his old age. If he had disciples in his youth, he should also have disciples in his old age. As it says (Ecclesiastes 11:6), "In the morning plant your seed [and and in the evening do not rest your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they shall both be alike good.]"

It was said: Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbath to Antipatris, and they all died at the same time because they did not show proper respect towards each other, and the world was desolate until R. Akiba came to our Rabbis in the south and taught the Torah to them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua; and it was they who upheld the Torah at that time.

It was taught: All of them died from Pesach and until Atzeres. Rav Chama bar Abba, or, it might be said, Rav Chiya bar Abin said: All of them died a bad death. What was it? — Rav Nachman said: Askera (a choking disease).
It is in memory of this loss that we engage in a period of mourning during this time. According to tradition, the deaths actually ended on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer), fifteen days before Shavuos, and for this reason the mourning ends at this time. (ספר המנהיג, הל' פסח סי' ק"ו; מאירי יבמות ס"ב)

However, while this would explain why the mourning ends on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer), it does not explain how the 33rd day of the Omer has come to be a minor holiday on which, as the Rema states (O"C 493:2), “מרבים בו קצת שמחה” – “we engage in a small amount of rejoicing.” Why are we rejoicing? That the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying? The students of Rabbi Akiva did not experience a miraculous salvation on this day. The students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying because there weren't any left! They were all dead. How does this become a celebration?

Perhaps the most basic explanation for what we are celebrating on Lag BaOmer is found in the Pri Chadash, a major commentary written on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Chizkia di Silva (d.1698), who begins by asking the very same question we have just raised:
......יש לדקדק בשמחה זו למה. ואי משום שפסקו מלמות, מה בכך? הרי לא נשאר אחד מהם, וכולם מתו! ומה סיבה של שמחה זו? ואפשר שהשמחה היא על אותם תלמידים שהוסיף אח"כ ר"ע, שלא מתו כאלו.

We need to clarify the purpose of this rejoicing [on Lag BaOmer]. If it is because they stopped dying, what [reason for rejoicing] is there in that? Not one of them remained, they had all died! So what is the reason for this rejoicing? Possibly, the answer is that the rejoicing is over those disciples that Rabbi Akiva added on afterwards, who did not die as these did.
The Pri Chadash tells us that the reason for our celebration is because Rabbi Akiva went on to teach new students, who did not fall prey to the errors of their predecessors, thereby rebuilding the Torah world.

Based upon this Pri Chadash, we can see that there are, fundamentally, three basic themes that underlie the celebration of Lag BaOmer:
  1. We celebrate the greatness of Rabbi Akiva that, even after suffering such an incredible blow, he never gave up hope. This is the main lesson taught in the Talmudic passage quoted above. Even after he lost all of his students, Rabbi Akiva did not give up but went on to teach new students.
    Rav Gedalia Schorr expands upon this theme ('אור גדליהו – מועדים, ל"ג בעומר ו):
    בל"ג בעומר הוא זמן להתחזק בתורה, שאף אם לא למד והיה לו זמנים של נפילה, בל"ג בעומר הוא זמן לחזק את עצמו. ויש לו ליקח לימוד מרע"ק, שמתו לו כ"ד אלף תלמידים, ואח"כ העמיד חמשה תלמידים, וביניהם רשב"י, שעל ידיהם היה התפשטות התורה בישראל, ולא נתייאש מזה שמתו לו כ"ד אלף תלמידים. כן כל אדם, אף שעברו לו הסתירות שונים ונפילות, יחזק עצמו בלימוד התורה.

    Lag BaOmer is a time for us to strengthen ourselves in Torah study. Even if one has not learned, and has had periods of downfall, Lag BaOmer is a time to strengthen oneself. One should learn from the example of Rabbi Akiva, whose twenty-four thousand disciples died, and afterwards he raised up five students (one of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) through whom the Torah was spread through Israel. The death of his 24,000 students did not cause him to give up. Similarly for every person, even if one endures various obstacles and downfalls, one should strengthen himself in Torah study.
  2. We celebrate that the later students of Rabbi Akiva recognized the lesson in what had happened to their predecessors and took that lesson to heart. It is certain that, however we are to understand the sin of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students – that “they did not show proper respect towards each other” – their sin was not an obvious one. The students of Rabbi Akiva were great men, and their death left the world “desolate” of Torah. Nevertheless, the later students of Rabbi Akiva recognized that such a major catastrophe could only come about through some significant underlying moral error, and through this recognition they were able to avoid repeating that error.

  3. Finally, our mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, and our celebration of Rabbi Akiva’s new students, points to our recognition of the absolute centrality of a living mesorah – Torah tradition – in Judaism. While the Jewish people are often called the “People of the Book” (a phrase coined by Mohammed), the title is misleading in that the word “book” refers to a physical object. We are not the people of the “Book of the Torah”, we are the people of the Torah, in both its written and oral form. Even today, when much of the “Oral” Torah has been written down in works such as the Talmud, the core of the Torah is still oral and is transmitted from teachers to students. The existence of a living mesorah – of actual flesh and blood rabbis and disciples – is essential for the survival of the Torah and the Jewish people.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lashon Hara – The Prohibitions of Harmful Speech

The Torah instructs us, “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people…” (Leviticus 19:6). This is the prohibition against rechilus—gossiping, which is the most basic prohibition against harmful speech. This prohibition applies to any statement made about a fellow Jew that could bring him harm, whether the harm is social, emotional, financial, or physical. This is true even if the statement is completely true and, in fact, not even disparaging of the person.

An Example of Rechilus

Let’s say you know three people, Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi. Unfortunately, Reuvain and Shimon don’t get along with each other. Recently, Shimon had some financial difficulties and Levi, who is friendly with both sides, helped Shimon out of his difficulty. Now, in truth, Levi’s deed is praiseworthy but you know that, due to his dispute with Shimon, Reuvain will bear a grudge against Levi for helping his enemy. In such a case it would be forbidden to tell Reuvain that Levi helped Shimon even though the statement would be completely true and does not denigrate Levi.

The primary application of the prohibition against rechilus is involved in telling one person something that generate ill will towards another person, however, the principle of rechilus also discourages ordinary “gossip” in which we speak about the affairs of others for no beneficial purpose. Such speech, while possibly not intended to be harmful, will inevitably result in violation of the prohibitions of harmful speech.

As stated, the prohibition against rechilus applies even when the statement does not disparage the other person. If one makes statements which disparage another person then the violation is more severe. Such speech is called lashon hara—evil speech. If the statement is false then the sin is even more severe. False statements about another Jew are called motzi shem ra—sending out a bad name—and are the worst form of harmful speech.

In addition to the prohibition against speaking rechilus and lashon hara, there is also a prohibition against listening to and believing such forms of forbidden speech. The Torah teaches us, “Do not accept a purposeless report…”[1] (Exodus 23:1). The main point of this commandment is that a judge may not accept testimony from a witness outside of the proper procedures of the court. For example, he may not listen to one side of the story unless the other side is present, he may not listen to witnesses who are not qualified to testify, and he may not accept the testimony of a single witness when two witnesses are required. Our Sages teach us that this prohibition also applies to ordinary people in their daily life. We are not permitted to listen to, and certainly not to believe, negative reports about our fellow Jews for no productive purpose.

These are the basic mitzvos that prohibit saying, listening to, or believing harmful statements about our fellow Jews. There are actually a number of additional commandments that deal with these specific prohibitions. In addition, many other mitzvos can play a role in these prohibitions, such as the laws against taking revenge and bearing a grudge, hating your fellow Jew, hurting the feelings of another Jew, causing others to sin, and the commandments to love our fellow Jews and judging them favorably.


Despite the severity of the prohibition against harmful speech, there are situations in which one is supposed to make such statements in order to prevent harm to others. For example, if you are aware that someone is planning to hire a person whom you know to be dishonest, or that a someone is considering marrying a person whom you know to be dangerous, then you have a responsibility to warn the innocent party. There are, however, a number of important conditions to be met before you may do this:
  1. You must be absolutely certain that your statement is completely true.
  2. Sometimes, what at first glance might appear to be an unethical and illegal act may actually be justifiable if one knows the full situation. Before you tell others that someone has engaged in illegal or unethical activity, you must be certain that your assessment is correct.
  3. You must confront the person who committed the misdeed and gently admonish him. This gives the person the opportunity to either explain his act, and, if he was in fact guilty of a misdeed, he has the opportunity to repent his deed and undo it (if possible). Only after you done this and the person has not accepted the admonishment may you then inform others. If for some reason it is impossible for you to confront the person, or if you know that he will not accept admonishment, then this step may be skipped.
  4. You must have positive intent. You are not permitted to make these statements due to your dislike for the other person, even when that dislike is justified.
  5. There must be no other way to solve the problem. Making a harmful statement about another person must only be done as a last resort.
  6. That no harm will come to the person you are speaking about beyond what is justifiable. Even if the person was guilty of a crime, he may not deserve the repercussions that might result from your statement. If, for example, the person was guilty of theft, but the people he harmed may retaliate with violence instead of using legal methods, then you may not tell them.
  7. You must not exaggerate the information.
As you can see, the conditions under which a harmful statement may be made are quite limited. For this reason it is generally advisable to consult with a knowledgeable rabbi before making such a statement.

As we mentioned earlier, in addition to the prohibition against saying lashon hara, we are also prohibited from listening to or believing it. However, in a case where someone warns you of a potential risk to you from another person, you are permitted to take reasonable precautions to protect yourself. However, you are still not permitted to accept the statement as being true.

The Severity of Lashon Hara

Our Sages teach us that the sin of lashon hara is very great. The Talmud states, “Lashon hara is equal to the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder” (Arachin 15b). This is obviously a very strong statement, especially considering a Jew is required to give up his life rather than commit one of these sins.

The Sages also teach us that one who speaks lashon hara is considered as if he denied the basic principles of Judaism (Arachin 15b). At first glance this would appear surprising, why should this particular sin be considered so important? There are a number of explanations for this statement. The basic idea is that people who speak lashon hara will frequently act as if they don’t realize that they are speaking maliciously, and they will try to avoid speaking in the presence of the person that are disparaging. This behavior demonstrates that they are afraid of the opinion of other human beings and of the anger of their victim, but that they do not fear the judgment of God.

Our Sages teach us “Four groups do not merit to see the face of the Divine Presence: the group of liars, the group of flatterers, the group of mockers, and the group of those who speak lashon hara” (Sotah 42a). This statement shows us the importance of being careful of our speech, not only regarding lashon hara, but of all forms of improper speech.

As severe as the sin of lashon hara is, the reward for avoiding lashon hara is even greater. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, writes in the name of a midrash:
Every single moment that a person seals his mouth [from improper speech] he merits to a stored “light” beyond the comprehension of any angel or creature.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.
Psalms 34:13-14

[1] Can also be translated as “Do not accept a false report” or “Do not accept a destructive report”. All point to the same basic idea, we may not accept purposeless negative reports about our fellow Jews as these are inherently destructive and must be assumed false. (See HaKesav VeHaKabala and HaEmek Davar.)

The Jewish Conception of "Satan" - A Quick Note

The basic traditional Jewish understanding of the purpose of human existence in this world is for us (as individuals and as a group) to bring ourselves closer to perfection/God through our own efforts. This means, of course, that we must begin at some "distance" from perfection/God, and that there must be some degree of resistance towards movement in that direction.

Being that perfection/God is inherently the most desirable goal in existence, then if we were fully capable of perceiving this goal there would be no true "choice" in pursuing it. It is therefore necessary for it/Him to be "hidden" to some degree from our perception, so that we must make a choice between the goal of perfection/God and the satisfaction of other drives. This "hiddenness" must be carefully balanced so that there remains enough knowledge of perfection/God that we can (and, in fact, are morally obligated to) rationally recognize that it is the proper goal of our existence, but not so obvious that that its inherent desirability completely overwhelms our desire to satisfy our other drives.

These other drives, which include all the natural desires of human existence, ranging from basic animal urges (e.g. food, sexual pleasure) to "higher" human drives (e.g. intellectual curiosity, aesthetic pleasure, creativity, even the desire for spirituallity), are the essence of what we refer to when we speak of the yetzer hara (Evil Inclination) or the Satan.

Nevertheless, while these other drives do serve to provide alternate desires/goals that can distract us from our primary purpose (moving towards perfection/God), this does not mean that this is the only reason, or even the primary reason, for their existence. Every natural urge and desire has an important primary function in of itself, independent of its secondary function as a spiritual impediment/distraction. The Jewish ideal is not to eliminate these drives, but to control and channel them in spiritually productive ways. No human drive is inherently evil; the evil is only in seeing the satisfaction of these drives as an end in itself instead of a means towards the true goal of moving closer to perfection/God.

The Moral Consequences of Atheism

As a general rule, modern "atheists" are more accurately termed "materialists", in that they deny not just the existence of "god" but of anything outside of or independent of physical reality. (There are atheists who do not believe this and there are also religions, such as Buddhism, that, while "atheistic" in the sense of denying the existence of an all-powerful Creator, certainly recognize the existence of non-physical realms, entities, and phenomena. Some ancient pagan religions may have also fallen into this category. The manner in which the issues raised in the following discussion would apply to these intermediate cases is unclear, and would probably have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis.)

One of the inevitable logical conclusions of such a denial is that it means that there can be no purpose for the existence of the universe. A materialist universe does not exist for any purpose, it just exists. And the same is true for everything that exists within that universe. In the materialist universe, life, like everything else, is the result of various physical phenomena operating without purpose. A human being is simply a temporary arrangement of matter and energy, of no more inherent significance than any other arrangement.

This is a conclusion that is often unrecognized, or even denied, by many atheists, for the simple reason that human beings are "designed" (whether by God or Natural Selection) to see purpose and meaning in the world around them and to feel a need for purpose and meaning in their own lives. The fact that many atheists do not recognize that the denial of "god" inevitably means a denial of any kind of inherent meaning and purpose in existence is the result of human psychology, not logical reasoning.

Of course, many serious atheists do recognize this fact. They argue that the fact that humans are predisposed towards perceiving and desiring purpose and meaning does not prove that such purpose and meaning actually exist in any objective sense. For these more rigorous atheist thinkers, the honest atheist must simply accept that his existence, like the existence of the universe as a whole, has no objective meaning or purpose, and that the only way one can satisfy the human desire for meaning and purpose is to create one’s own subjective meaning and purpose.

One of the problems that these thinkers run into, however, is that the concepts of purpose and meaning are inextricably tied up with the concepts of morality and ethics. Every moral and ethical system is based upon a system of values, and "value", as a concept, is basically synonymous with purpose. (Thus, certain things are said to have "intrinsic value", i.e. they are valuable "for their own sake" - meaning they are purposes in themselves, whereas other things have only "extrinsic value", i.e. they are valuable only as means towards other purposes.) If we eliminate the possibility of objective purpose from the universe, we are also eliminating objective value. Nothing can have value without purpose and if the only purpose we can give something is subjective, then the only value it can have is subjective as well. This is true for all values, including the value of human life itself. If the only purpose for my own existence is that which I choose to give it, then the only value my life has is that which I choose to give it. This also means that the only value/purpose that the life of another person has is that which I choose to give it. (The fact that the other person chooses to give a different value to his own life is irrelevant. In order for that other person's judgment to matter to anyone other than himself, there would need to be some objective moral authority that obligates me to respect that person's opinion. Of course, I could choose to respect that other person's values, but that would be purely my choice, and would have no more moral significance than my choice of salad dressing.)

No matter how elegantly crafted it may be, no ethical system can have more inherent meaning than that of human beings themselves. If there is no inherent value to human life, then even the most sophisticated ethical system has no more authority than the rules for a board game. Even worse, for board games exist within a broader ethical system that discourages cheating, whereas an ethical system that denies the existence of objective purpose/value exists only in the mind of the human being who imagined it. Breaking the rules of one's own self-created moral system would be akin to cheating at solitaire or using "God mode" in a video game, in that the only downside is that I lose the personal sense of satisfaction that I would get from following the rules that I made up to satisfy values that I made up because they happened to please me at the time.

What we are discussing here are the philosophical consequences of atheism/materialism, not its validity. The fact that, by definition, atheism denies the possibility of any kind of objective meaning and purpose in life does not mean, in of itself, that atheism is wrong.

Moreover, while this may be the unavoidable philosophical consequence of atheism, it doesn't mean that atheists are automatically self-serving nihilists. As any sincerely religious person can testify, the fact that one intellectually recognizes a "truth" does not mean that one will automatically fall into line with all of the necessary implications of that truth. The mere recognition of a "truth" does not free us from the bonds of human psychology. Human beings are "hardwired" for good traits (e.g. love, compassion, loyalty), as much as they are for bad traits (e.g. self-centeredness, greed, pleasure seeking). Religious people are constantly struggling with the conflict between what they believe and what they desire. While the situation is different for an atheist (in that atheism does not obligate one to do or not do anything), it is not at all surprising that the vast majority of atheists generally conform to the moral norms of the society in which they live.

The bigger question is what the long term effect of such a worldview can have on the society as a whole. (I believe that, in of itself, the long term influence of atheism on society is certainly negative. Nevertheless, the world is a complicated place, and in relation to other societal factors, atheism may actually serve a positive role in some ways. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook argued along these lines, saying that, among other things, atheism served as a corrective for overemphasis on the negative aspects of religion (e.g. fear of punishment).)

At this point, many atheists will counter by arguing that, even if what we’ve said is true, theism doesn’t really solve the problem either. While it is true that, in a theistic universe, the universe exists for a reason, nevertheless, that reason is the Creator's, not ours. Is there any fundamental reason why we should accept His purpose in creating us as our own purpose for living? 

For most religious people, the first response to this question would be that the fact that we owe our very existence (and the existence of everything we value) to God creates an obligation of gratitude towards Him that requires us to conform to His will and obey His commands. However, gratitude alone doesn't fully answer the question. There are limits to the obligation of gratitude. Gratitude cannot obligate us to do that which would render the benefit we have received from the benefactor meaningless. Our gratitude to our Creator for our existence can only extend to that which would not fundamentally undermine the value that we attach to that existence. To the degree that obedience to God's will would diminish the value we attach to our existence, our debt of gratitude to God would be diminished as well. If proper obedience to God is perceived, as it often is (even, tragically, by some religious people), as a slavish, mindless abandonment of all human dignity, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that any degree of gratitude could impose such an obligation.

The key to this question is in our understanding of the nature of God. If we perceive God as a being with needs, wants, and desires (even if those needs are far beyond human comprehension), then we have to entertain the possibility that God created us for some self-serving purpose and that the laws He has imposed upon us are intended to direct us towards serving that purpose. If this were true, then the concerns discussed above about the limits of gratitude would come into play and the case could certainly be made that the demands made by most religions significantly exceed the moral obligation imposed by gratitude.

The traditional perception of God in Judaism, however, is completely different. Seeing God as the source of all existence, God is perceived as being entirely independent of creation, needing nothing whatsoever. From this it follows that the purpose of Creation cannot be self-serving, as God has no needs to serve. The purpose of Creation can only be understood as being purely for the benefit of the created beings. The same would also apply to the laws revealed by God. These laws do not direct us to serve God (in the sense of serving to satisfy some kind of Divine need or desire), rather they direct us towards achieving the ultimate good for which He created us. From this perspective, to reject God's purpose in our creation would be fundamentally irrational as, by definition, it means that you are turning away from the ultimate good (for both yourself and for the world as a whole) in favor of some far lesser, and arguably detrimental, purpose.

It is at this point that gratitude comes into play. Once we recognize that God brought us into existence and gave us His laws for our own benefit (even if we do not understand what that benefit is), then obedience to God's will is not demeaning at all but the result of rational assessment of our own best interests. In such a case, to refuse to obey God's will is not only irrational and self-destructive, but also ungrateful.