THE GOD OF THE TORAH: THE MOST IMPORTANT IDEA IN WORLD HISTORY  (Dennis Prager: The Torah is composed of the first five books of the Old Testament)

  1. The God introduced by the Torah is the first god in history to have been entirely above and beyond nature. And one of the first things God tells humans is to exercise dominion over nature (Genesis 1:26-28). This liberated humanity from believing it was controlled by nature, a revolution that made moral and scientific progress possible.

A second consequence of God being above nature is humans are not part of nature—meaning that just as we are to control the natural world outside us, we are to control our own human nature within us as well. We are to govern our lives by moral law, not by human nature.

  1. The God introduced by the Torah brought universal morality into the world. Only if a moral God is universal, is morality universal. Morality was no longer local or individual. Cultures do not need to be universal; the world is enriched by multiple cultures. But morality must be universal.
  2. The moral God introduced by the Torah means morality is real. “Good” and “evil” are not merely individual or societal opinions, but objectively real.
  3. The God introduced by the Torah morally judges every human being. There had never been a concept like this. And it became a major reason for Jew-hatred. People do not like to be judged, and the people who introduced the idea of a God who morally judges people have paid a terrible price for bringing the idea into the world. The social psychologist Ernest van den Haag wrote:

Fundamental to [anti-Semitism] though seldom explicit and conscious is hostility to the Jewish belief in one God. . . . [The Jews’] invisible God not only insisted on being the one and only and all-powerful God—creator and lord of everything, and the only rightful claimant to worship—He also developed into a moral God. . . . No wonder [the Jews] are the target of all those who resent His domination.

Having dialogued with atheists for decades, I have come to believe at least some of the current aggressive atheism is due to an animosity toward the idea there is a God Who will judge all of us (another reason is all the evil done in the name of God by radical Islamists—the worst sin according to the Ten Commandments [see Commandment 3 in Exodus 20]).

  1. The just and good God introduced by the Torah gives humanity hope. One of those hopes is there is ultimate justice. The belief that God judges humans means both the good and the evil will get what they ultimately deserve. Even though justice is rarely served in this world, there is a good God who will ultimately set things right.
  2. The God introduced by the Torah introduced holiness—the elevation of human beings from animals to creatures created in the divine image (see commentary to Leviticus 19:2).
  3. The God introduced by the Torah gives every individual unprecedented self-worth. Since all humans are created in God’s image, each of us is infinitely valuable. Every person has the right to say, as the Talmud put it, “For my sake was the world created.”

The nineteenth-century Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, suggested that every person carry in his or her pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written, “For my sake was the world created,” while the other should contain the words “I am but dust and ashes” (the words Abraham said when he argued with God in Genesis 18:27). Each paper should be consulted at the appropriate time. When you feel arrogant and proud of how much more you have achieved than others, remind yourself you are “but dust and ashes.” And when you are feeling despair, remind yourself, “For my sake was the world created.” There is some special mission and task only you can accomplish.

  1. The God introduced by the Torah is necessary for human brotherhood. Since we all have the same Father, we are all brothers and sisters. As the Prophet Malachi asked: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” (Malachi 2:10)
  2. The God introduced by the Torah began the long journey to belief in human equality—solely as a result of the Torah statement that each of us is created in God’s image. Slavery was abolished on a wide scale first in the Western world—by Christians who were rooted in the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible and who specifically cited the Torah doctrine that all humans are created in God’s image.
  3. The God introduced by the Torah is incorporeal (no body; not physical). This opened the human mind to abstract thought by enabling humans to think in terms of a reality beyond that which is accessible to our senses.
  4. The God introduced by the Torah teaches us the physical is not the only reality. Consequently, there can be non-physical realities such as a soul, an afterlife, and morality.
  5. The God introduced by the Torah means there is ultimate meaning to existence and to each of our lives. Without this Creator, existence is random and purposeless.

That people make up meanings for their lives is a fine thing (at least, when that meaning is moral; many things—evil ideologies are the most obvious example—that give people meaning are not moral), but these meanings are nothing more than artificial constructs.

As one atheist professor expressed it, in summarizing the work of another atheist philosopher:

Ultimately, our lives are meaningless. Evolution is blind and serves no intrinsic purpose; in a cosmic sense, we each live for an insignificant amount of time. . . .                           

[David] Benatar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, argues that humans can enjoy “terrestrial” meanings—nurturing children, fighting for the rights of refugees, composing a symphony or making a delicious breakfast, for example. . . . Nevertheless, we are each but a “blip in cosmic time and space.” Mr. Benatar insists that most of us are terminally anxious about this lack of cosmic meaning. . . .                           

I did a very unscientific poll of my friends. None of them believe that there is some wider purpose to human existence.

  1. The God introduced by the Torah gives human beings free will. If we are only material beings (like the stellar dust of which we are composed), everything we do is determined by our genes and by our environment. Only if we have a non-material soul can we rise above our genes and our environment and act autonomously. The secular denial of anything beyond the physical deprives human beings of free will. That is why Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal defense lawyer in American history (as well as America’s most famous religious skeptic), opposed all punishment of criminals: “All people are products of two things, and two things only—their heredity and environment. And they act in exact accord with the heredity which they took from all the past and for which they are in no wise responsible, and the environment.”

The just and good God introduced by the Torah gave humanity hope that there is ultimate justice.

  1. The God introduced by the Torah teaches might is not right. It is God Who determines what is right, not displays of strength and force.
  2. Finally, the God introduced by the Torah made human moral progress possible. Indeed, the Torah invented human moral progress. In the words of New York University historian Henry Bamford Parkes, “Judaism [starting with the Torah] repudiated the cyclic view of history held by all other ancient peoples and affirmed that it was a meaningful process leading to the gradual regeneration of humanity. This was the origin of the Western belief in progress . . .” (emphases added).

What was “the cyclic view of history” referred to by Professor Parkes? In ancient civilizations, life was a cycle, meaning nothing changed from generation to generation. Every generation essentially repeated what came before it. There was therefore no such thing as moral progress—indeed, the word “progress” would have been meaningless. Then came the Torah and its God and life was no longer to be a cycle, but a line—a line moving forward toward a moral goal.

The Rational Bible: Exodus-God, Slavery, and Freedom by Dennis Prager. The Alperson Edition 2018