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Permission to Deny: Part 1

I’ve re-read Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission to Believe this past week and found it just as unsatisfactory as I did when I read it the first time.

For those who are unfamliar with the text, I would suggest reading it — I’d say you can get it for about $10 used on Amazon — as a tool for not only engaging one’s mind but also as a vehicle with which to sharpen your intellect; one’s logical competence and reasoning skills are advanced not only by studying well constructed arguments.  Before I begin, though, please allow me to state my purpose.

Actually, before I state that, I’d like to state what my purpose is not.  My purpose is not to bash Judaism or to undercut kiruv initiatives.  On the contrary, I’d like to elevate Judaism.  But after re-reading this work, I sense that Kelemen was shooting for something beyond what his arguments will tolerate — which is noble, but only as a hava aminah (opening, but ultimately rejected, argument).  Unfortunately, Kelemen makes no attempt to seriously curtail the advancement of poor argumentation, and for that, I can only suspect one of two possible explanations: that Kelemen doesn’t grasp the weakness of some of his arguments, or he does but expects the reader not to.  A third possibility is that he realized his error later but for some reason, was either unable or unwilling to reject it; a fourth possibility is that my evaluation is incorrect, but I would say that it is not — you can be the ultimate judge.  My objection is aimed at the first and second aforementioned possibility — I presume that Kelemen, along with many other people involved in kiruv, don’t necessarily appreciate the arguments he uses with a deep enough awareness to know that they are profoundly flawed.  And when people base their new-found closeness to God on faulty reasoning, nothing good can come of it.  Judaism prides itself on being grounded in reality, and unsound arguments are no way to substantiate such a devotion.

To begin, I wonder what purpose Kelemen has in writing such a work — Judaism is not happy with a God; it necessitates acceptance of the God…of Moses.  And none but Kelemen’s fourth argument (the “Jewish History Approach”) has any relevance to Judaism, really.  Kelemen goes on to write Permission to Receive, in which he outlines rational approached to accepting the validity of Torah mi’Sinai — nearly dissolving any need for his first text.  If you can provide a rational reason to accept that Moses and the Israelites met with and received some form of communication and body of law from God, he necessarily exists.

So let’s begin with the first argument he presents: the moral approach to God’s existence, as he refers to it.  His premise is as follows: Murder (heretofore defined as the intentional killing of innocent humans) is wrong.  For what reason can it be wrong in all places and at all times unless there is a ultimate being, outside the bounds of time and space, who has defined it as wrong.  Kelemen proceeds to outline various circumstances, using both historical as well as theoretical examples, supposedly revealing the moral abhorrence of murder to surpass human-generated convention.  If murder is morally wrong, he concludes, it cannot be because any one finite individual, government or even global community has decided it so — it must be that a God exists to have, without limit of time or space, declared murder to be immoral.

The problem with such an argument is that one cannot agree with its conclusions if one does not agree with its premise.  I would assert that most people faced with such an argument have already been exposed for many years to the Judeo-Christian approach that murder is wrong, and so they sense that murder is wrong because of the existence of a God that has made it so, and that is being used to support the existence of a God — a formally valid argument if you believe in God, but an unsound one because it relies on cyclic logic to establish that the premise is true: that murder is wrong.

I don’t think murder is wrong other than because God has said so, and the same with any other biblical immorality.  I give no greater weight to the impropriety of murder (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16) over that of homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) — and I would only endow either with any significance because God instructed Moses and the Israelites (of which I am a descendant).  Kelemen makes such a caveat at the end of this first section, but I sense that he doesn’t really expect too many people to think this way — I counter, though, that such a sentiment is more appropriate even if it’s not more common.  It’s difficult for people to pick through their thoughts, figuring out which thoughts and feelings emanate from which life experience, but I can’t really justify why murder (or any other moral transgression) should be inappropriate if not for God — and that’s sort of his argument!  This is more of a trick than anything else — suggesting that these things are immoral and trying to find a source other than God for the existence of such a concept when the source of such a concept is actually God; it’s just that people pick and choose what they want in life — we may like French fries but we don’t necessarily like broccoli.  People think of murder as immoral even if they shy away from God because it seems to be the ultimate violation of someone else’s rights, and deep down, “I don’t want people taking said rights from me.”  But homosexuality?  That appears to many as a victimless crime, despite was Leviticus has to say about it!  “I don’t want people telling me what to do behind closed doors, so I’ll try not to tell them what to do behind their closed doors” — but interestingly enough, Leviticus makes no distinction — and so we are faced with nothing less than Jeopardy-style biblical compliance.  But this means that morality cannot be used to prove God’s existence, because it presupposed it.

{ 135 comments… add one }
  • Anonymous October 22, 2010, 9:50 AM

    As you point out, the key to these absurd arguments, is framing the issue within the context of “morality.”

    The basic reason we don’t murder each other is because we are primarily motivated by our own self-interests. If people were all murdering each other for the slightest of indiscretions, it’s only a matter of time before we wipe ourselves out. So since time immemorial, people have devised a structure of laws and courts in order to keep people from indulging in their most primitive instincts, or at the minimum to severely punish them if they do wantonly murder others.

    This system, and not some learned morality, is what keeps us away from murdering, and the proof lies in our reaction to murder.
    When tens of thousands of innocent Afghan or Iraqi citizens are murdered by America fighter jets in the name of “collateral damage,” how many of us really care? How many of us bother to question the morality of it all? I’d bet it’s very few of us. And the reason for that is obvious: these murders have little to no impact on our lives; they don’t affect us in any meaningful way, so we largely don’t care, the morality of it all be damned.

    Personal self-interests and not morality, ultimately guide our behavior.

    • Dave October 22, 2010, 10:08 AM

      Great comment but you’ve never read the book, have you

    • DRosenbach October 22, 2010, 10:39 AM

      That may be the basic reason why you don’t murder, but if someone knows they can avoid the authorities and murder seems to solve a particular problem on is having, religious commitment may be the only reason why someone doesn’t murder — so to say that people don’t murder because they fear being murdered is, I would suggest, true, except for those who believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful deity who legislates from on high.

      • Anonymous October 22, 2010, 11:23 AM

        Actually, history provides us with plenty of precedent to prove that you are incorrect. For thousands of years people have claimed a belief to some deity or another, and yet, they seemed to have had no problem murdering each other over and over again outside of the context of a strong and imposing legal system. Ditto with the non-believer.

        As I pointed out, if as you suggest, believers are primarily motivated by a belief in an omniscient/omnipotent deity, and not by their own self-interests, they would be as consistent in their opposition to murder abroad as they are to murder at home.

        Of course, there are always people who are motivated by thing other than their own self-interests, be it their religious convictions, their innate decency, or otherwise, but they are the exception, not the norm.

        • DRosenbach October 22, 2010, 3:15 PM

          I’d say no evidence you bring can prove “religious commitment may be the only reason why someone doesn’t murder” incorrect — by the very nature of my comment, I was merely speculating the odds of such a thing being the case (and leaning towards my bias, as I didn’t write “may not”…but I appreciate your analysis, your comments and your candor.

          If the average Judeo-Christian was marooned on a desert island, I’d say they wouldn’t murder even with a good reason (e.g. the other guy was very annoying), and you can either chalk it up to the spooky factor of doing something they’ve always been told they can’t or that they sincerely believe that God is watching everything they do and recording it in some retrieval system to recount at a later time.

          • Puzzled October 23, 2010, 8:02 PM

            Right – unless the other guy had the audacity to suggest, during a late-night chat session, a slightly different idea about God.

  • Dave October 22, 2010, 10:11 AM

    Fantastic stuff, I agree completely. I have never been able to find an answer to many of these questions that satisfy me either.

    • Dave October 22, 2010, 10:15 AM

      Excuse my ridiculously bad grammar I haven’t had coffee yet

  • G*3 October 22, 2010, 10:56 AM

    > For what reason can it be wrong in all places and at all times unless there is a ultimate being, outside the bounds of time and space, who has defined it as wrong.

    He’s begging the question, assuming that there is a transcendent morality to prove a transcendent modality-giver. If we define morality as what God wants us to do, it becomes perfectly cyclical:

    1. Morality (=God’s will) is universal and transcendent
    2. For morality to be universal and transcendent there must be a universal and transcendent morality-giver: God
    3. Therefore morality (=God’s will) is universal and transcendent

    > supposedly revealing the moral abhorrence of murder to surpass human-generated convention

    An abhorrence for murder is probably more than just social convention, but so is the near-universal human preference for sugar. So what?

    • DRosenbach October 22, 2010, 11:47 AM

      Absolutely — and that is an assumption: that morality is what God wants. Another possibility is that God desires morality. The debate proceeds as follows: Is it good because God wants it or does God want it because it’s good.

      Some say that the Psalmic verse (136:1) necessarily endorses the latter. I would disagree, giving credit for the source of morality and ethics to a God, assuming we speak of them in objective, absolute terms — this verse, then, is rather a poetic emphasis of Jewish theology: God is good and whatever he endorses is good (or good enough for the time being, as we would categorize child selling, slavery, polygamy, etc.), and this merely comes as a reminder in hard times that, yes, all that we perceive, even that which appears negative and hurtful is actually positive and beneficial. But others may disagree, and they do.

      • Catholic Mom October 22, 2010, 1:02 PM

        This is where Christianity goes beyond Judaism. In the early parts of the Torah we see the simple logic:

        God is good
        God created the universe and controls it
        Therefore, whatever happens in the universe (though it appears negative and hurtful) is actually positive and beneficial.

        I’ve actually heard chabadniks make this argument pretty straightforwardly. You know — if you were a prehistoric man and you somehow were transported to the future and saw a surgeon about to cut open a child with a knife you would scream and try to stop it becase you don’t understand what’s going on. It appears evil but it’s actually good. Problem is, you go down this route and pretty soon you’re finding a benefit that came out of the Holocaust. And actually, people do go down this route and do try to do that.

        Another approach taken in the Torah is that bad things happen to people because they (or their ancestors) did bad things, hence they are being justly punished. Hence they deserve what happens to them.

        But by the time you get to Job, Jewish writers and thinkers are starting to wrestle with the problem that bad things do seem to happen to good people for inexplicable reasons. But they’re still trying to find a “happy ending” for it in this world. Job is eventually recompensed in this world for all his sufferings. (Too bad for all his family members who died, they don’t seem to get anything out of it, but this is, after all, an extended parable.) Hang in there, have faith, trust God, and it will all come out all right in this world.

        Except, of course, for when it doesn’t. Which is where Christianity picks up the problem. Christianity recognizes the objective existence of evil in this world. Things don’t just SEEM bad, they actually ARE bad. And this is not because we don’t realize that what seems bad to us now is actually good for us or because we fail, Buddha-like, to detach ourselves sufficiently from the illusion of the physical world. Yet this state of suffering is NOT something willed or desired by God. God is not some body-less emotion-less omnipotent abstract force out there in the universe inflicting all this stuff on us (a la Job) for unknowable or educational or punitive reasons.

        The whole point of the incarnation is that God becomes man — he takes on human suffering, fear, anxiety, grief, and so on. The NT describes Jesus as “a man like us in all things, except sin.” The Gospels go out of their way to show Jesus as experiencing loneliness, grief, fear, pain and all other human emotions. He is “emmanuel” — “God with us” — God in solidarity with us, God even in death with us. He offers us the “happy ending” of Job not in this physical world which cannot last (even Job dies, although it happens after the story ends) but in the spiritual life that never ends.

        • anonymous October 22, 2010, 1:45 PM

          With all due respect, Catholic Mom, Christianity isn’t “picking up” on any problem that Judaism couldn’t figure out. Your implication that our rabbis didn’t know what to do with the notion of evil is quite insulting. And for the record, we Jews have had bad stuff happen to us since Abraham first walked the earth, we didn’t need to wait for Job to get baffled.

          In terms of the Holocaust – no rational person could claim that he understands why God let the Holocaust happen. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t *mean* for the Holocaust to happen – it just means that comprehending its occurrence is beyond human capacity.

          Now perhaps this belief that a human could understand God’s reasoning is becasue Christianity also believes that God could be contained within a body. But such a conception of God is completely antithetical to the Jewish idea of God.

          The Jewish notion of God is “ein sof” – without borders. And “ein od milvado” – there is nothing in the universe outside of God. So this other idea that you mention – that you believe “solves” all of Judaism’s problems – that evil actually does exist in the world (outside of God’s control) is preposterous according to Jewish thought. God is everything. God is limitless. God is not “battling the devil.” And for man to think that we can understand God’s ways is arrogant and pretty much defeats the purpose of having a supreme being in the first place.

        • G*3 October 22, 2010, 2:14 PM

          Catholic Mom, my understanding is that Christianity deals with evil in the world in much the same way it is dealt with in polytheistic religions: by attributing evil to evil beings such as malevolent gods or the Devil.

          In practice, most people think of bad things as stuff that just happens, while good things are a miracle. A plane crash is just bad luck. The one person who survived was saved by God.

          • Catholic Mom October 22, 2010, 4:19 PM


            Well put. And totally true. As for example when someone describes how a tornado hit their house and had they been sitting two feet farther to the left they would have been crushed. Obviously divine intervention. Except, of course, that God could have just prevented the tornado from occuring in the first place.


            Yet you believe that you are made in the image of God, that a spark of God exists within you. Is God limiting or containing himself in this way? We assume that God’s powers are infinite, therefore we do not presume to say what he is capable of. But you are right that there seems a fundamental “identity” to God which is outside of space and time. Yet (according to Christians) another fundamental identity which entered history and time for our sake. That is why we identify these two different qualities of God as two different persons of the Trinity, represented metaphorically as Father and Son, yet of the same substance.


            True, a human mind cannot understand God’s reasoning or comprehend the fullness of the universe (even a secular person cannot do this from a purely scientific viewpoint). That is why Christians cannot fully explain the existence of evil. Yet it clearly exists. And the message we get from the Gospels (“Good News” in Greek) is that this is NOT God’s will for humankind. We are also told that it will not last forever — not only in terms of our own existence but in terms of the existence of the universe.


            My apologies. No insult intended. However, the problem of evil is clearly developed over the development of the Torah. Obviously the rabbis wrestled with it. And, just as obviously, the major claim of Christianity (which Jews reject, so I’m not expecting you to agree with this) is that Christianity introduced a new idea, a new answer to the problem which Jewish theology and Greek philosophy had failed thus far to supply. St. Paul said: “Jews seek signs [miraculous proofs sent from God] and Greeks seek wisdom [logical philosophical arguments] but I preach Christ crucified — a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the gentiles.” And this new idea exploded across Europe and Asia to become the most powerful religious force in history.

            • Catholic Mom October 22, 2010, 4:25 PM

              Weird! It left out the stuff I put in quotes. See, there ARE evil forces in the universe. Mostly in computers.

              Let me try again:

              First quote:

              “In practice, most people think of bad things as stuff that just happens, while good things are a miracle. A plane crash is just bad luck. The one person who survived was saved by God”

              Second quote:

              “Now perhaps this belief that a human could understand God’s reasoning is becasue Christianity also believes that God could be contained within a body. But such a conception of God is completely antithetical to the Jewish idea of God.”

              Third quote:

              “And for man to think that we can understand God’s ways is arrogant and pretty much defeats the purpose of having a supreme being in the first place.”

              Last quote:

              “Your implication that our rabbis didn’t know what to do with the notion of evil is quite insulting. “

            • anonymous October 22, 2010, 5:13 PM

              Christianity did “explode” across Europe and Asia but how many people who joined this religious force did so by “force” of the sword?

              For those that did chose it freely, you’ve got to admit that there’s something quite convenient about being promised eternal salvation for doing nothing more than believing in someone.

              And finally, I don’t think that the *most* powerful religious force in history award should go to anything but Judaism. First monotheistic religion out there that the subsequent religions can only add on to but not get rid of.

              • Catholic Mom October 22, 2010, 5:56 PM

                In terms of the initial vast explosion, none. You’re confusing it with Islam.

                Just consider the conversion of my ancestors. Five times missionaries were sent to Ireland and five times they were killed by the Druids. Finally Patrick showed up. Waiting until the great Druid solstice feast when all fires except the great Druid fire on the Hill of Tara were ordered to be extinguished on pain of death, Patrick built a huge bonfire clearly visible from Tara. Dispatched by the furious Druids, the pagan king arrived shortly with a large retinue of armed mounted men. Patrick stood before him unarmed and quoted from the Psalms: “Some come on horseback and some come in chariots, but I come in the name of the Lord.” The king figured the guy was either suicidal or had something worth listening to. Deciding on the latter, the king gave Patrick permission to travel Ireland preaching the gospel, but left it up to his subjects to believe or disbelieve. At the end of Patrick’s lifetime, all of Ireland was converted and Druidism was dead. That was some “powerful force.”

                • Skeptic October 23, 2010, 8:08 PM

                  and like all religious stories, thats probably mostly BS

                  • Catholic Mom October 23, 2010, 8:34 PM

                    Don’t worry Skeptic. You get a free pass under the terms of what the Church terms “invincible ignorance.”

                    • anonymous October 25, 2010, 1:58 AM

                      Catholic Mom-
                      I’m not a historian, so I can’t tell you which exact years Christians – Catholics in particular – converted people by the sword, but I do know what your people have done to my people – what the Muslims have done and continue to do is a separate story.

                      Your people accused my people of kidnapping your children and putting their blood in our matza and countless Jews died over these blood libels.

                      Your people accused my people of kidnapping your waffers – kidnapping *crackers* and torturing them, a “crime” for which countless Jews died.

                      Of course there were the countless explusions all over Europe and the Spanish Inquistion.

                      Every year on the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, we sit on the floor and mourn all the horrible things that have befallen the Jewish people and your people and the things they’ve done to my people get mentioned several times as we mourn.

                      So in a discussion about how Christianity solved the problem of “evil” on a Jewish blog, I’m sorry to say that from how I see it, your people caused much more evil than they solved.

                    • Catholic Mom October 25, 2010, 9:49 AM

                      anonymous — yours is the only comment on this whole thread without a Reply button.

                      You said:

                      >>Catholic Mom-
                      I’m not a historian, so I can’t tell you which exact years Christians – Catholics in particular – converted people by the sword,

                      You can skip from topic to topic to topic and I’m sure you’ll end up with pedophile priests because your conclusion is

                      Christianity = bad

                      and everything else flows from this. You just know this not because you’ve actually studied anything on your own or know any history whatsoever, but you’ve always been told this and everybody around you says it so it must be true. You know — the Jews killed Jesus. Everybody says it. It must be true. No need to think for yourself.

                      The point being made on this thread is this: Christianity took a major philosophical problem and came up with a new answer. The answer was so compelling that millions of people converted to the religion. Unlike Islam, Christianity spread by the compelling power of its ideas. This is a historical fact even if you don’t know it (or like it). Did Christians, once in power, once in bed with the state, once effectively synonmous with the state, abuse their power and persecute others? Of course. That could almost be predicted once Church and State became intermingled. One would like to see what an unfettered theocracy would do in Israel right now, for example. Christians parading through the streets of Jerusalem on Good Friday and other occasions are frequently only protected from attacks by ultra Orthodox Jews by the secular police. But neither this nor similar historical behavior of Christians has anything whatsoever to do with the merits of the theology of either religion which is what is being discussed here.

                      BTW, just for educational purposes, you might want to read this story from the October 20th NY Times. It begins:

                      “Among the ruins on the edge of this ancient oasis city are deep trenches littered with bones. That, local people say, is all that remains of one of the great atrocities of antiquity, when thousands of Christians were herded into pits here and burned to death by a Jewish tyrant after they refused to renounce their faith. ”

                      Religious tolerance has not been a hallmark of any of the so-called “Abrahamic” faiths.

        • A. Nuran October 25, 2010, 7:30 PM

          Catholic Mom,

          I disagree with huge swaths of Jewish theology. And I am constitutionally suspicious of any revealed religion. This should come as a shock to anyone who has read anything I’ve written here 😀

          So when I say you have the wrong idea about Judaism you can be sure it’s not out of a reflexive, unexamined support for everything the rabbis tell us. Judaism has tackled all of those theological and philosophical problems. And it’s done at least as good as, if not a better job than, Christianity. The Church has been forced to turn a minor Celestial functionary into an anti-God in order to shoehorn evil into its beliefs. It has to go through even more contortions and has been forced to add even more alien philosophies to make it all hang together. And it suffers from an even worse argument from authority than the most doctrinaire Talmudic traditions.

          • Catholic Mom October 25, 2010, 8:41 PM

            Actually, the Church does not consider evil as having originated with the “Devil.” Evil originates, in Christian theology, from the the fundamental estrangement of God and man having to do with man’s basic nature. I forget who said it, but somebody once famously quipped that the doctrine of Original Sin was the only Christian doctrine that did not require empirical proof [because it was self-evident.]

            >>And it suffers from an even worse argument from authority than the most doctrinaire Talmudic traditions.

            Actually, Catholicism is far more logical than Judaism on this score. It simply states and believes that Jesus Christ specifically established the Church as an ongoing institution under the authority of the Apostles and their direct successors and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. [Jesus said: “Whatsoever you loose on earth in loosed in Heaven; whatsoever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.”]

            Every bishop of the Church is a direct successor of the Apostles with the Pope being the director successor of St. Peter to whom Jesus said “You are Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will found my Church.” No rabbi claims direct succession and authority from Moses.

            What you do NOT have, unlike with the 38,000 Protestant (and Jewish) sects is some guy with his own little group of followers setting up his own little religion. Paul says quite explicitly that no one is to say “I am of Apollo or I am of Paul.” There is only the Church Catholic. That’s why it’s held together for 2,000 years with over 1 billion members.

            I’d say it’s worked out the “authority” problem very well. Meanwhile the Protestants are still wrangling over hundreds of theological and ecclesial issues while different rabbis give different rulings on the same questions.

            • anonymous October 26, 2010, 3:05 PM

              Catholic Mom-
              I never said that Christianity = bad. Jews, unlike Christians, do not believe that everyone must be part of our religion in order to be saved. In fact, although we disagree with the changes you and the Muslims made to our Torah, there are Jewish authorities who hold that Christianity and Islam have been positive in that they’ve spread monotheism to the world. Though – just for the record, monotheism, as well as the psalms your ancestors supposedly inspired the Druids with – are part of Jewish tradition which your people conveniently borrowed from us.

              I didn’t bring up the iniquities of your priests either since there are scummy people in every group and entire groups can’t be held accountable for the shortcomings of individuals.

              I did, however bring up some pretty horrible things that your *leaders* did again and again – and yet between hundreds of years of Crusades (with, yes, *forced conversion*) a Spanish Inquisition (with, yes, *forced conversion*), and countless other atrocities committed by your people, you seem to have no remorse as a member of this group AND you have the chutzpah to somehow try and paint the Jews in a similarly negative light with this NYTimes article that you sited.

              If you had you bothered to look into this “massacre” you’d see that it’s firmly in the category of hagiography as there is little evidence that this happened at all, and what little evidence there is comes only from biased sources.

              While it’s true that the Jews have not had as many opportunities to be in power and theoretically abuse power (like the Church has), when we were in power, and there was no separation of Church and State in the Temple times, we allowed non-Jews to bring sacrifices in our holy Temple, and our King Solomon even composed a prayer for gentiles that their prayers should always be answered. (Oh, and there were no forced conversions or massacres of non-Jews then either.)

              Let’s just get back to the original point, though since this debate is getting old. You’re entitled to your opinion, but we Jews do not feel that Christianity made any improvements or breakthroughs in the category of dealing with evil in the world.

              If it gives you comfort to be able to have a God that you can hug, who is just as vulnerable to bad things happening to him as you are, then enjoy your huggable, suffering God, but the God of the Jews cannot be hugged, cannot be contained within a body, but *does* have complete knowledge, control, and power over the universe. Again, have your God however you want him, but just let us keep ours in peace.

            • anonymous October 27, 2010, 12:23 AM

              Just had to jump in here as well, but we think that rabbis giving different answers to different people is a *good* thing. It’s not because there’s a lack of authority – it’s because we believe that people are different, have different situations, different needs. I think the fact that Judaism doesn’t have one response for every man is an amazing concept. It’s complicated though – just like man.

      • G*3 October 22, 2010, 2:06 PM

        > Is it good because God wants it or does God want it because it’s good.

        Yes, the Euthyphro dilemma. Most people seem to assume that God desires what is good, but this assumes an objective morality that exists independently of God, something that I think is blasphemous by the standards of current-day Orthodox Judaism.

        • DRosenbach October 22, 2010, 3:33 PM

          G*3: My moreh derech (spiritual adviser) actually disagrees with me, contending that there is absolute good and God extrinsically desires it — it was with him that I initially had the debate about Psalms 136:1.

          Catholic Mom: That’s not the only way in which Christianity went beyond Judaism — they also claim that the Messiah came already. Odd! But to keep this from becoming Jew vs. You (which I think we did once already), let me just say 2 things:

          1 – Anonymous states correctly that Judaism needs no Christianity to justify any theological questions — it introduces views, arguments and concepts inconsistent with reality and glaringly opposed to textual source material to try to clear what it considers to be problems in Judaism, and it doesn’t even do a good job.

          2 – Other than the Ishbitzer and like-minded individuals, the vast consensus among halachic and hashkafic authorities allow for one to overrule God’s plan with, for example, self- mutiliation. That’s bad, but you can’t blame God for that.

    • OfftheDwannaB October 22, 2010, 3:27 PM

      Excellent. And well said.
      Drosenbach: You’ve got to clean up your writing, especially if you’re trying to make distinct logical arguments. It becomes hard to follow you. Just write down one point at a time, and don’t bring it up again, certainly not in the context of making another, separate one.

      • DRosenbach October 23, 2010, 10:44 PM

        Thanks Off — I’ll make sure to re-read my posts another time from now on.

  • Drew Mazanec October 22, 2010, 1:25 PM

    I’ve given a slightly different variation on the Moral Argument on my blog here:

    The question is: are there OBJECTIVE moral values, meaning moral values and duties that exist independently of whether we believe them or not?

  • OfftheDwannaB October 22, 2010, 3:48 PM

    Christopher Hitchens uses this to make a different argument. Religion has not increased awareness of morality in the world, only decreased it. He says, name one thing morally good in one religion that isn’t also found in other religions. Then he says name one thing bad in a specific religion. Here we can find many things off the top of our heads.

    He’s also cheating of course.
    Most people aren’t familiar with Eastern, African, or nomadic religions pre-Western (read: Judaism-influenced monotheistic) influence. Therefore when he seems to be so broad-minded and says to look at all other culture’s religions, he’s banking on this ignorance. And if you do look at these religions, like Shintoism pre-WW2 or classic Hinduism, Bhuddism, you find many of these supposedly intrinsic values to not be universal.
    Of course Eastern society and religion could have corrupted these things as well as any western society or religion, but it does destroy the argument, and shows, to me, that everyone has an agenda, even if it’s just to look like the smartest kid on the block.

    • DRosenbach October 24, 2010, 10:15 AM

      But religions copy each other, and you can’t separate them out because each one will deny that the other served as a template, and we’re left with a colossal game of “he said, she said.”

      Just as an interesting aside, does anyone but Judaism (and it’s Abrahamic imitators) maintain a concept of reward an punishment from an omniscient, omnipotent God? Perhaps a focus should be limited to those cultures originating prior to Judaism. I’d say that’s a moral move — telling everyone to watch what they’re doing even when they think they’re alone because everything is being recorded.

  • Irrational Exhuberance October 22, 2010, 4:34 PM

    What a horrible world it would be if “Anonymous” were in charge of anything! Consider, Anonymous writes: “When tens of thousands of innocent Afghan or Iraqi citizens are murdered by America fighter
    jets in the name of “collateral damage”.
    First of all, anonymous has very little credibility with the numbers
    they cite. Does the “tens of thousands ‘murdered by Americans’ ”
    include the Muslim suicide bombers’ victims in marketplaces ?
    Probably, otherwise the numbers are absurd. Why does Anonymous blame A for what B did ? Well, because Anonymous is a racist who “expects less morality” from the subhuman B, in his mind.
    But back to the main point: Note how anonymous calls American actions “murder”. In the English language you (tragically and unfortunately) might “kill civilians” while bombing combatant targets near them. You “murder civilians” when TARGETING those civilians.
    Yes, in both cases, the civilians are just as dead, and their loved ones are just as devastated. However, most of NORMAL, MORAL people realize that in war the army targeting combatants and accidentally killing civilians is a morally superior army to an “army” that deliberately targets civilians. So why does Mr. Anonymous speak of American jets “murdering” rather than unintentionally killing? Well, simple, because, deep down Anonymous sympathizes with the guys targeting civilians, hates us, and wants to make the American sound like his suicide bombing buddies who he makes apologies for.
    The sixth commandment is “You shall not MURDER”.
    It is NOT “You shall not KILL”.
    Sometimes killing a person is the most moral, best way to act, such as if a man has his finger on the trigger of a nail studded suicide bomb vest and is standing in the middle of a market, and you kill him.
    Anonymous would say: “No ! Let him blow up the babies because the only way you can stop him is by killing and that’s murder!!”
    Needless to say, a world in which the rules are anonymous’s rules,
    would be a much more horrible world than the one we live in today.

    • Anonymous October 22, 2010, 5:51 PM

      I am not going to waste my time responding to your inane gibberish, for it does not even warrant a response. Any reasonable thinking person can do a simple Google search and discover that many thousands of Iraqis and Afganis have in fact been murdered (targeted) by American forces. Your denial of these facts, speaks not to your delusional “patriotism” or decency, but to your denial of reality.

      I will point out however, that nowhere in your character assassination do you make even a feeble attempt to disprove or discredit my central thesis — namely that people are primarily driven by there own self-interests. Even if it were true that only one innocent civilian were “murdered” by an American force, do you react the same way to the murder next door? I think not.

      Of course the very fact that you support, and seem to glorify “killing” in the name of a “war” based on false pretenses, speaks volumes to just how corrupt your “moral” code really is.

      Its preferable to be anonymous than to be irrational.

      • Irrational Exhuberance October 22, 2010, 6:18 PM

        “I am not going to waste my time responding to your inane gibberish, for it does not even warrant a response.”
        I will take that to me you can not refute any of my points,
        and you are embarassed that I exposed your immorality.
        As to your points:
        1. I agree with you that (most) ” people are primarily driven
        by there (sic) own self-interests”.
        2. Your “Google facts” that the U.S. Army deliberately
        targeted tens of thousands of civilians for murder shows
        that your sources must be bizzare, lunatic web sites.
        Yes, civilians have been accidentally killed in mistaken
        (sometimes inexcusable mistaken) raids, and yes, a VERY
        FEW rogue squads have broken the RoE and committed
        offenses, but that is no reason to say (like YOU did) that
        the “American Army murdered tens of thousands”, like
        you did. (Unless you hate America and/or want to see
        it maligned). Especially since the American army’s opposition
        in this case are amoral nut jobs who blow up civilian markets

        Finally, you accuse me of glorifying war.
        Where did I glorify war?
        I said that killing a man with his finger on the trigger of a nail studden suicide bomb vest in the market is morally OK, and implied that you say, if shooting him in the head is the only way to stop him, let him blow up the babies, because you would be a “murderer” if you shot him.
        I guess your reply means that my assessment was correct.

        This news about Obama’s RoE for Afghanistan should make YOU happy:


        But not the rest of us.

      • Chris_B October 23, 2010, 10:29 AM

        “I am not going to waste my time responding….”

        Yeah but you did anyway. The thing is that you got caught out on faulty reasoning. Be a gentleman and bow out.

  • daniel October 22, 2010, 6:11 PM

    Agreed. I’m fine with judaism, and think there is full proof to G-d’s existence, but I often find the “extra” proofs put forth by kiruv people to be unconvincing.

  • Anonymous October 22, 2010, 7:53 PM

    I think Judaism is pretty sensible and Christianity is pretty silly. Do Christians think that about Jews too?

    • Yankel October 23, 2010, 3:27 PM

      It’s an entirely faith based religion – full of contradictions. After a short study of the way the religion began, you will begin to wonder how anyone could have believed there was anything to it.

      I mean there are a few nice concepts in their philosophy, but ultimately empty if you care about truth.

      So it would not surprise me if they did consider Jews silly.
      Although from my experience, they might even agree that logically Jews are validated, but the devil is decieving them, and they just have to see the light and believe.

      Sorry Catholic mom, but you can thank your irrational and completely brainwashed fellow missionaries for my opinions on the matter.

      • DRosenbach October 24, 2010, 10:19 AM

        As R’ Asher Wade states, referring to Christian leadership: “They either know or they’re sincere.”

  • Friar Yid October 22, 2010, 11:13 PM

    Am I missing something? Last I checked there wre non-theists (to say nothing of folks whose religion don’t fall neatly into monotheistic terms, such as Hindus, Buddhists, animists) who also don’t think murder is a good thing. It would seem that this first plank of Keleman’s is already wrong. I don’t see why this particular answer needs to have anything to do with God, much less serve as a proof of his existence. Rather than looking to heaven, I would submit we re-focus on people: i.e., the reason “murder” (i.e., the killing of innocents) is continually defined as wrong across cultures has to do with innate human ideas around the psychology of defining both violence and innocence.

    Then again, I suppose I’m somewhat biased when it comes to Larry’s assorted theories.

    • DRosenbach October 23, 2010, 10:55 PM

      If you’d re-read Kelemen’s chapter on this moral argument, you’ll see that he does a pretty good job of explaining why it’s difficult to pin the immorality of murder on any human convention. Perhaps we can compare it to adultery, which would be a somewhat similar non-victimless crime (as opposed to, homosexuality). Is adultery wrong because of some innate psychological sense of innocence? I find it interesting that adultery occurs to such an extent among the glitter and glamor of Hollywood — I’d say it’s because many celebrities lack a sense of integration into the world and they think they are the world. So when Brad Pitt cheated on Jennifer Aniston, I’s say it’s because Brad saw Jen as something less than equal to himself. He was in it for himself, and who was she to stand in his way. The analogy can be said for murder — someone is in your way but you’re the one who’s got to get ahead, so they need to be removed as an obstacle in your path. Nah Friar Yid…I just don’t see there being anything wrong with murder from an intellectual standpoint. I have to say it’s totally religious. Instinct — which is what you’re trying to pin this all on — would approve of cheating, stealing, killing, conquering and all other sorts of domination in the hopes of progress.

      • Friar Yid October 24, 2010, 12:19 AM

        I think you’re misreading me. I fully understand that human nature is capable of being amoral or even anti-moral. The trap you and Keleman fall into, however (or perhaps, create), is that in order to claim that morality is divine, you have to cast humanity as having no morality whatsoever. I just don’t buy it.

        The fact that nearly every society on earth and in history had an established code of conduct which forbade murdering innocents (again, subjective to definitions of murder and innocent) indicates, tells me that while there is an animal instinct toward doing whatever you want, there is also a strong drive toward making distinctions about what is and isn’t moral. Call it human intellect over animal instinct, call it superego over id, whatever, but it exists. For good or bad, I see morality as a human creation and accomplishment. I don’t understand why it’s necessary (or particularly logical) to divorce human morality from humans and claim it’s all emanated down from a divinity, other than the fact that it serves your and Keleman’s argument.

        I would apply a similar argument to your point about adultery– the fact that Brad Pitt saw nothing wrong with cheating on his wife does not disprove American culture having a moral code. Indeed, I would say the fact that people were so titillated by the story indicates that adultery is still a taboo and not as widely accepted as you suggest.

        It’s not about contrasting humans’ debased instincts versus divinely-inspired morals. It’s about recognizing that humans are more complicated than you and Keleman are willing to give them credit.

        • DRosenbach October 24, 2010, 10:11 AM

          I sense that your argument deflates itself when you use terms like “nearly ever society” and “subject to [subjective] definitions of murder and innocent.” How can there be an absolute morality when we can see that it’s not absolute? It’s like the parallel between bringing the ketores in the Temple in Jerusalem and being a sandek at a bris milah. One was not allowed to do the ketores twice (and one wouldn’t need to) because anyone who did it saw immense wealth shower upon him — but R’ Shachter says to draw a parallel to being a sandek is ridiculous because it’s quite evident that people who’ve been sandek are no wealthier than those who haven’t.

          We can take a look and see (as you have so eloquently provided for yourself) the exclusions to the absolute, uniform rule of morality. If it’s not universal — and we see that it’s not — then it’s nothing more than the subscribing societies subscribing to such a concept. And they can look back at past and around at current societies and say to themselves, “Yeah…that’s a good idea. Let’s not kill each other, or someone might just come and kill us.”

          We are all tainted by religion — whether we ascribe to it or not, society is very religious-minded, at least in certain aspects.

          And the parameters of murder and innocents is exactly what plays into the perception that humans are in charge. Judaism maintains that God provided all the details and we look to the Torah, both written and oral, to find sources for our details. But whether or not a fetus is covered, or a zygote in a Petri dish, or multiple zygotes in a uterus implanted after IVF — all that is left to people’s whims, and that’s not morality according to Judaism. That’s a sign of the times, a fad, carrying on with what’s fashionable. Homosexuality has become an in-thing, and that’s how practitioners of it can be featured on television shows, in movies and American Idol. It’s a part of reality, and so we portray it as a part of reality. Murder is still a little more taboo, because it’s not secrets performed in a bedroom but rather gore performed in the street.

          I give humanity no more credit that it can reveal it deserves. Humans are abstract-thinking creatures, so we like to pretend that our quantitative difference manifests as a qualitative difference, but that’s outside the realm of science — that’s religion. And that’s my point.

          What do you suppose, that amorality is a mis-wiring of the human mind? I’d say it’s a lack of appreciation (either willful or inadvertant ignorance) or God’s will.

          • G*3 October 24, 2010, 12:05 PM

            > How can there be an absolute morality when we can see that it’s not absolute?

            There isn’t.

            You seem to be trying to argue the following:

            1. There is an absolute morality.
            2. Morality either is a human construct or emanates from a Divine source
            3. We see that humans are not perfectly moral, as there are qualifications to their definitions of moral ideas (such as what “innocent” means, what “murder” means, etc.).
            4. Therefore absolute morality cannot come from humans.
            C. Absolute morality must be from a Divine source.

            Why not say more simply that premise 1 isn’t true? There is no absolute morality, just certain instinctive tendencies in humans that drive human societies to outlaw murder, however they may define it.

            • DRosenbach October 24, 2010, 4:14 PM

              Well, I would say there is an absolute morality, legislated by God and handed down to humanity via Moses at Sinai. But I’m taking that as a given based on a particular rationale, not using the existence of it to prove God’s existence, which is what Kelemen and his flawed argument attempt to do.

          • Friar Yid October 24, 2010, 12:50 PM

            When did I say there was an absolute morality? Your argument requires that morality be universal and consistent. Mine only recognizes that certain baselines tend to exist. I don’t need to have every society have the same rules, because I’m arguing a trend, not an ironclad law. Why this is relevant is because even if human morality varies and is not always consistent, the mere fact that it exists demonstrates that humans are not a-moral creatures who need to be tamed by divine morality.

            We are all tainted by religion — whether we ascribe to it or not, society is very religious-minded, at least in certain aspects.

            Perhaps, but again, I see religion (as a concept) as emanating from the societies that create it or are built around it. You and L.K. seem to view religion as being a separate entity that suffuses into cultures around it. Put another way: without Aborigines, you don’t have Aborigine religion or morality. You contrast Jewish morality with the fads of the time, but Jewish morality has evolved, too– there are things in the Torah that the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t get behind, and so they re-interpreted them. (I think, for example, of all the roadblocks the rabbis create that preclude anyone from ever getting the death penalty, despite the fact that there are numerous cases where the Torah says the punishment for specific acts should be death. Deuteronomy says you should stone your disobedient son, but the rabbis are bending over backwards to keep that from happening. How is that not a change in the Jewish concept of morality?)

            The idea that Jewish morality exists (and was formed) outside of time is just silly. Morality/ies existed before the Torah. It too, at one point, was a “fad.” And it too has changed as new ideas have developed.

            In my view, you’re co-opting human accomplishments and giving God credit, but leaving humans to take all the blame for their failures. But that’s not proof, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your starting premise is that humans aren’t moral and need God to be moral, then every instance of human morality has already been identified as an act of God, not man. There’s no way to disprove it because you’ve already boxed yourself in.

            What do you suppose, that amorality is a mis-wiring of the human mind?

            I don’t think humans are inherently moral or immoral. I think the trend is towards some combination of both, of integrating good-will and affection with pure self-interest. What’s interesting is how that trend develops and is eventually solidified as the society and culture expand.

            • DRosenbach October 25, 2010, 6:22 AM

              I suppose this is where we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • FrumGer October 24, 2010, 8:24 AM

    -Christian Scholar…. now there’s an oxymoron..

  • Eli October 25, 2010, 1:17 PM

    Based on some personal conversations I had with R Kelemen, I’m going to vote for “that Kelemen doesn’t grasp the weakness of some of his arguments”.

    • DRosenbach October 25, 2010, 10:16 PM

      That was my supposition — the tough part is not reading his book, then, but trying to have a thoughtful conversation with those who utilize his arguments in debate; it’s so frustrating talking to people who can’t appreciate the depth of though that go into the words that come out of your mouth, only to parrot stuff like Kelemen presents as objective reality, as in, “I’m telling you, you’ve got it all wrong. Have you read R’ Kelemen’s book? Ah…go read that and then we can talk…oh you’ve read it already? Well, go read it again and think about it again and then we can talk.”

  • ghottistyx October 31, 2010, 2:41 PM

    I know I’m jumping on this thread a bit late in the game, but if anyone is still reading this, what about Freud’s argument that religion is only manifesting the “Superego” to the adult? That when you’re a child, good and bad are defined as what your parents and your teachers tell you are good and bad. As the child grows, they begin to develop their own moral compasses. Finally, as adults, what keeps them from being good if not the prospect of being punished by a parent or teacher? According to Freud, the function of religion all these years has been simply to be that finger pointing from the sky keeping people in line, even when they leave their parents’ houses.

    I know I’m oversimplifying Freud’s argument, which is quite a bit more involved. But Freud himself also goes at length as to why he himself doesn’t believe in a God or a religion. Nonetheless, he doesn’t advocate the abdication of the institution of religion, because sof davar, it is quite effective in keeping people from entering that “State of Nature” Hobbes spoke about.

    Of course, Freud ends up coming across as a bit of an elitist: in his view, apparently, religion is solely for keeping the unenlightened in check. There are plenty of very enlightened people out there who happen to be religious as well. Of course, as Bill Maher pointed out in his movie “Religulous”, when it comes to faith, almost all of these enlightened people all of a sudden become quite irrational. I am seeing quite a bit of this phenomenon on this thread in particular.

    Now I know that Dawkins for sure explicitly takes issue with the Freudian approach. Hitchens, at least in passing, takes issue with it as well. They both contend that religion is not The Ultimate Moral Compass, and offer as proof plenty of Biblical and Post-Biblical proofs of immoralities–some of which is true, but plenty of which is based on faulty assumptions. For example, we can criticize Ben Sorer U’Moreh (the son who steals from his parents to buy meat and wine and is put to death) all we want, but don’t forget that the Talmud says NO ONE has ever been convicted of this (which I know begs the question why have such a rule to begin with, but that’s another discussion for another time…). They also speak of the genocides of the Canaanite nations, Amalek, the bans of Edom, Ammon, and Moab, and as plenty of people have brought up, the inquisitions, blood libels, persecutions, et al. all done in the name of God.

    But in light of Keleman’s argument, how are we to look at Freud’s reduction of religion as simply a manifestation of the Superego for grown-ups?

    • DRosenbach October 31, 2010, 3:34 PM

      You love writing “sof davar,” don’t you?

      • ghottistyx November 1, 2010, 12:18 AM

        Yes. Aside from hamayvin yavin, it’s one of my favorite Hebraicisms. If I had to pick a favorite Yiddishism, it would be nu?

  • religionisphony April 3, 2013, 9:52 PM

    Judaism likely evolved from fertility cults in the ancient middle east. You want rain for your crops make sacrifices. Religion is based on belief and no court would find any of the arguments for god(s)… valid. Jews say they have historical evidence from Mt Sinai. Given the extraordinary claim of a supernatural visitation, more evidence than normal is needed to prove such a claim versus ordinary historical events. Religions have vested economic and political interests which is why they deal so harshly with non believers. A good antidote to religion is the book the God Delusion by Dawkins

    • Alter Cocker April 4, 2013, 7:23 AM

      The question is where trolls like you evolved from.

      • religionisphony April 4, 2013, 9:25 PM

        @ alter cocker – From the same place you and the rest of living life. Study science and you will find the answer. Study the chumash/bible with an unbiased open mind and you will discover it is not divine. Start with Spinoza writings and bible criticism. Read Dawkins book. There is no empirical evidence for the existence of Supernatural beings.

  • religionisphony April 5, 2013, 10:23 PM

    Nor is there any reasoning or logic based evidence for the existence of Supernatural beings.

  • David Apple May 8, 2018, 3:23 AM

    Rabbi Kelemen also discusses the bomb in one of his lectures and books. ACJA defuses the bomb https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYoJe5CmMr0 in multiple ways. The Rabbi’s arguments are very very weak.
    I suspect RK had an emotional need for religion and convinced himself he had logical reasons to believe. He was just not skeptical enough. He also plays the emotion card in his books including god old guilt. I now understand the term Kiruv Clown. It is so sad to see the Rabbis fooling themselves and others with their specious arguments.

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