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Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby The Exodus » 07 Apr 2009, 20:43

Hello all,

I'm pulling my hair out with the simple question of: What makes something right or wrong?

For a long time I've been somewhat of an "objectivist" - meaning only that I do not think morality is something with no *real* value outside ourselves. However, I do not prescribe to the notion that a certain list of rules is *always* right.

My main concerns I'll try to write plainly. I don't see how either a subjective stance of ethics *or* of an objective stance gets us any closer to the question of "what is right". The former cannot, by definition, give *reasons* why something is right, nor is it even able to justify that something *is, in fact* right, and as I'm sure most here would agree that pure subjectivism is self-defeating, I won't say anymore. But it seems the latter doesn't get us any closer either. It eventually results in question begging, because a) it doesn't give us any ability to actually *access* or *know* objective value, and b)it presents the Euthyphro dilemma all over again - is x wrong because God says so, or does God say so because it is wrong? Now, I know the common answer to this critique is to merely say that "x is wrong because God *is* so, therefore, since he says so, it is good", but this doesn't answer, in my mind, the primary question of how WE know what is good. If you do prescribe to a sort of hyped version of Divine Command Theory, this seems to pose problems of our *own* moral intuitions of what is good and bad, which, if we are Theists, we believe are somehow transcendentally given to us by God... for example, I think it would be unjust for God to eternally punish some people in a horrible fiery torment, no matter what the crime. What am I to think of myself - that I'm wrong? Or of God - that he is right? How am I to choose, since I must rely on some understanding of morality (which comes from where?) to make any decision at all?

Then we come to the rather uncomfortable dichotomy between Jesus and Yahweh, where Jesus tells us God is like a father, and the prophets depict God pretty much as a might-is-right tyrant. But if we believe Jesus to be the son of God, we must accept he accepted the Hebrew Bible. Yet, his depiction of God is much different.

Then there is another problem still for theists that if, as I do, we believe in judgment, we must ask ourselves how we are going to be judged. I'm inclined to be sort of Libertarian/Pluralistic in a sense, because I simply do not feel I have the authority to tell someone they are morally wrong - committing evil in fact - by acting on a belief, the same type of which I have. I do not like to think two opposites can be valid, but I simply cannot believe that we - as men - are in a position to judge such a transcendental law as morality, seeing as we cannot completely understand someone's intentions.

But again, pointing to this distinction does not tell *us* what is morally right or wrong. It only tells us that we cannot know for another. What makes something right or wrong? How will God look at our actions and judge them? I don't think he will look at the fact that I had a cheeseburger for lunch as wrong, but supposing I thought it was wrong to eat cheeseburgers, and I ate one ? Or suppose it was wrong to eat one, and I didn't know? Or suppose it was against wrong, and I knew, but I thought with a pure conscience convinced myself that this was a misnomer since it did not deal with anything I deemed important? The fact that I do this with a pure conscience makes it *just like* committing an action with no knowledge of the law, for, as far as I'm concerned, I have no knowledge of any personal law (I supposed you could say subjectively constructed system of ethics) I am breaking, for I have *completely changed my own moral law*.

And here we are introduced to the concept of pragmatic philosophy or pragmatic truth - the idea that basically, things are true to you based on their effect... e.g. I am ashamed of fornication because I have been taught it was wrong, whereas someone in another culture may feel it is a great moral success to have sex with many people. The effects (shame) are a result of a certain cause (teaching). This is not "objective" truth, but "practical" truth. Practical truth (read William James's The Will to Believe) is empirically verifiable. Example - *believe* that you are ugly, and you will walk around with your head down and feel ugly; *believe* that you are attractive, and you will become attractive/have confidence, etc. Another example: the fact that we've been taught to be afraid of rats, *creates* the reality of our fear if we see one running across the floor (your body even has certain reactions to this - perhaps you sweat, feel anxious, heart increases); yet suppose another society has taught their young that rats give long life; this will *create* the reality of, not fear, but desire! How very odd, that our beliefs can shape our reality.

I fear that this may be the case with morality, and thus, some element of Existentialism seems true, which, I am afraid, I find nearly inconsolable with (at least my current understanding of) Christianity, because if this Existential/Pragmatic hybrid is true it seems one can justify *anything to oneself in order to make things "right". Also, this means I have the ability to not only *break* my moral law, but *create* it as well.

Anyway, I seem to be running round and round with this topic, and it's extremely distressing. It seems like I'm one step away from losing my mind. Any thoughts?
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Bluegoat » 07 Apr 2009, 22:49

I only have a minute, but it seems to me that it is sometimes more helpful to think Truth and Not-Truth rather than good and evil or right and wrong. The ultimate Truth is identical with God, it is God, and it encompasses all lesser or partial truths. When we do something morally wrong or evil, it is always a kind of lie. When we steal, for example, we are saying something which does not belong to us does. We are violating the law of non-contradiction.

As for intentions vs objective truth. This is really the question of the relationship of objective to subjective reality, and a big question. Boethius writes on the topic better than most could. In essence what he says is the subjective is taken into the objective. What that means to us as ethical creatures is, I think, that often we are judged by God on our intentions, not the objective status of our acts.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 08 Apr 2009, 05:14

The Exodus wrote:Then we come to the rather uncomfortable dichotomy between Jesus and [HaShem*], where Jesus tells us God is like a father, and the prophets depict God pretty much as a might-is-right tyrant. But if we believe Jesus to be the son of God, we must accept he accepted the Hebrew Bible. Yet, his depiction of God is much different.


Neither Jesus nor Christianity invented the idea that God is like a father. Judaism has long associated God with father imagery--there's a reason that Jews call HaShem Avinu Malkenu--our father, our king. And the Talmud is filled with images of God as a father.

I find it interesting that you believe the prophets depict God "pretty much as a might-is-right" tyrant. How much of the prophets have you read? And which prophets are you referring to? Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who stressed the importance of social and economic justice? Jeremiah, who constantly affirms God's righteousness? Ezekiel, who shows God punishing sin and yet ultimately filled with mercy? Hosea, who depicts God's love for Israel as a man's passionate and forgiving love for his wife? What about the Book of Jonah, which shows God intimately concerned with the morality of all humanity?

With Passover beginning tomorrow, I won't have any more time to devote to this thread. But I do hope you have a chance to read through the prophets again and reconsider your position...it's hard for me to imagine how you got the notion that 'the prophets' depict God as a 'might-is-right' tyrant. Arguments and disagreements with individual prophets I can understand--but I find such a general accusation incomprehensible and, frankly, ill-founded.

*HaShem is Hebrew for 'The Name.' In Judaism, we don't pronounce the name and often use HaShem in place of it.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby friendofbill » 08 Apr 2009, 14:20

It seems to me that the "might is right" vision of Adonai is more native to the Mosaic era and the era of the kings than that of the Prophets. Some of it still surfaces in prophetic writings, notably Jeremiah, yet even there it is tempered with an evolving comprehension of God's nature as The One, usually described in Scripture as "Father." (I dislike the word "Father" relative to God, probably because I did not like my own father.)

I think, too, that much of the problem evident in reconciling Christian thought to First Covenant ("Old Testament") thinking lies in the fact that the message of Jesus of Nazareth, who was 100% Hebrew, was conveyed to the world by Paul and by gospel writers who relied heavily upon Paul, by way of whom the message was Hellenized. In the "New" Testament we are presented with the teachings of a Hebrew Sage filtered through the minds of thinkers trained in the ways of Greece, of Socratic/Aristotelian principles. True, Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee, but reading his letters one encounters time and again the evidence that he was trained in Greek thinking patterns and reasons with Greek logic. The transition could possibly be characterized this way: to the Hebrew mind, "God" is/was a verb (I AM); to the Greek mind, God is a propostion, a "thing" or a "what" that can be discussd, analyzed and about whom assertions can be made. The Jew would come before God and be silent; the Greek would come before God and discuss God.

Oversimplification, I know. It's simply one factor in the overall picture. Much very excellent work has been done in this particular respect by Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his books This Hebrew Lord and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 08 Apr 2009, 14:50

friendofbill wrote:The Jew would come before God and be silent; the Greek would come before God and discuss God


Ok, one more post while I'm taking a break from making charoset for tonight. Art, that was a good and informative post--except that I've never heard of Jews accused of being silent before God, lol...or coming before Him with a lack of discussions (and/or arguments!) :lol: :rolleyes:

P.S.

friendofbill wrote:It seems to me that the "might is right" vision of Adonai is more native to the Mosaic era and the era of the kings than that of the Prophets.


In the Torah, HaShem is not really (or, at the very least, certainly not only) 'might is right.' HaShem is much more complex than that. This would make a fascinating discussion--after Passover!
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Bluegoat » 08 Apr 2009, 15:15

friendofbill wrote:It seems to me that the "might is right" vision of Adonai is more native to the Mosaic era and the era of the kings than that of the Prophets. Some of it still surfaces in prophetic writings, notably Jeremiah, yet even there it is tempered with an evolving comprehension of God's nature as The One, usually described in Scripture as "Father." (I dislike the word "Father" relative to God, probably because I did not like my own father.)

I think, too, that much of the problem evident in reconciling Christian thought to First Covenant ("Old Testament") thinking lies in the fact that the message of Jesus of Nazareth, who was 100% Hebrew, was conveyed to the world by Paul and by gospel writers who relied heavily upon Paul, by way of whom the message was Hellenized. In the "New" Testament we are presented with the teachings of a Hebrew Sage filtered through the minds of thinkers trained in the ways of Greece, of Socratic/Aristotelian principles. True, Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee, but reading his letters one encounters time and again the evidence that he was trained in Greek thinking patterns and reasons with Greek logic. The transition could possibly be characterized this way: to the Hebrew mind, "God" is/was a verb (I AM); to the Greek mind, God is a propostion, a "thing" or a "what" that can be discussd, analyzed and about whom assertions can be made. The Jew would come before God and be silent; the Greek would come before God and discuss God.

Oversimplification, I know. It's simply one factor in the overall picture. Much very excellent work has been done in this particular respect by Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his books This Hebrew Lord and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

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Spong's works aren't exactly known for their sterling scholarship.

I think far too much is made of the difference between Greek thought and that of the Hebrews, as being somehow of a fundamentally different nature, as if our ability to apprehend the divine is ethnically determined. There seems to be a movement to strip any Greek influences from Christianity as if they are somehow not "authentic." As you pointed out with Paul, that is a foolish idea. I suspect people think if they can get away from that rational Greek perspective we will no longer have to worry about thinking metaphysically about religion. Which is silly on so many counts that it would be impossible to address them all.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 08 Apr 2009, 16:47

Bluegoat wrote:I think far too much is made of the difference between Greek thought and that of the Hebrews, as being somehow of a fundamentally different nature, as if our ability to apprehend the divine is ethnically determined. There seems to be a movement to strip any Greek influences from Christianity as if they are somehow not "authentic." As you pointed out with Paul, that is a foolish idea. I suspect people think if they can get away from that rational Greek perspective we will no longer have to worry about thinking metaphysically about religion. Which is silly on so many counts that it would be impossible to address them all.


Charoset and baking done! Now I just have to worry about the Seder meal itself...

I don't think, Bluegoat, that Art was trying to exorcise Greek influences from Christianity or labeling them as inauthentic. I think he was rightly pointing out, however, that Christianity views the Hebrew Bible through a lens that Judaism does not--and it may be a lens that Jesus himself wouldn't recognize. Paul seems to have been a Hellenized, diasporic Jew. As an Americanized, diasporic Jew, I certainly don't think that's a bad thing! But there's no use glossing over the differences between him and Jews born and raised in Galilee.

Meanwhile, the Greeks influenced Judaism as well as Christianity, of course--Philo and Maimonides are the best examples of this, although the heavily Platonic Philo was ultimately much more influential in Christian thought than in Jewish. (Neo-Platonism, however, sure seems to have impacted Kabalistic thought.)

At any event, however it came about, Jews and Christians read the Hebrew Bible quite differently. How could it be otherwise? After all, Christians don't share our traditions of the Oral Law (which, since Jesus's day, has been largely collected in the Talmud), the Midrashism and all our commentaries. Church fathers came at the Hebrew Bible from their own Greco-Roman perspectives--they weren't steeped in Jewish traditions. That fact doesn't make Christianity inauthentic; but it certainly makes it different. And it's one of many, many things to keep in mind if you're trying to figure out how things looked in the New Testament period.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby The Exodus » 09 Apr 2009, 00:31

JRosemary wrote:
Neither Jesus nor Christianity invented the idea that God is like a father.


That is comforting news. Just like Jesus did not invent a "new" morality, but told us about something that already existed.

jrose wrote:I find it interesting that you believe the prophets depict God "pretty much as a might-is-right" tyrant. How much of the prophets have you read? And which prophets are you referring to? Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who stressed the importance of social and economic justice? Jeremiah, who constantly affirms God's righteousness? Ezekiel, who shows God punishing sin and yet ultimately filled with mercy? Hosea, who depicts God's love for Israel as a man's passionate and forgiving love for his wife? What about the Book of Jonah, which shows God intimately concerned with the morality of all humanity?


I have no pretense in being more familiar with your belief system than you are. However, I have read the Hebrew Bible, several times, and, find certain espoused princples in grave contradiction with my own sense of goodness and justice. I don't know what else to say. I cannot believe (and this will probably sound very offensive to you, but please, I mean no such thing) the Hebrews had a complete notion of what God is like. Of course, this argument turns on the fact that I'm a Christian, so we may be running in circles, but I will say I find the full revelation of the nature of God in Chris Jesus.

jrose wrote:it's hard for me to imagine how you got the notion that 'the prophets' depict God as a 'might-is-right' tyrant. Arguments and disagreements with individual prophets I can understand--but I find such a general accusation incomprehensible and, frankly, ill-founded.


If you like, you can start a new post and we can have a more in depth discussion of this.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby archenland_knight » 09 Apr 2009, 21:37

I'm not a Jew. But like JRose, I am puzzled as to how one can read the Old Testament, especially the Prophets, and get an overall picture of God as a "might-makes-right" tyrant.

Oh sure, He had to bust a few heads occassionally, but what father of a large, unruly family doesn't have to do that from time to time. Sure, the kids had to be grounded from time to time. But I just don't see a tyrant depicted at all.

Rather, I see the exact same God in the Old Testament that I see in the New. Of course, as a Christian I believe Him to be more fully revealed in the New, but nothing of God's Character in the New Testament contradicts anything of His Character in the Old. This passage from Isaiah 54 is indictive of what I mean:

Isaiah 54 wrote:ISA 54:1 "Sing, O barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,"
says the LORD.

ISA 54:2 "Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.

ISA 54:3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
your descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.

ISA 54:4 "Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

ISA 54:5 For your Maker is your husband--
the LORD Almighty is his name--
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth.

ISA 54:6 The LORD will call you back
as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit--
a wife who married young,
only to be rejected," says your God.

ISA 54:7 "For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.

ISA 54:8 In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,"
says the LORD your Redeemer.

ISA 54:9 "To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.

ISA 54:10 Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,"
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

ISA 54:11 "O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted,
I will build you with stones of turquoise,
your foundations with sapphires.

ISA 54:12 I will make your battlements of rubies,
your gates of sparkling jewels,
and all your walls of precious stones.

ISA 54:13 All your sons will be taught by the LORD,
and great will be your children's peace.


In context of all of Isaiah, it becomes clear that the "Barren Woman" of the first verse is God's Chosen people. At the time, of course, it meant the Hebrew people. Now, of course, we Christians believe it to include those brought to Him by Faith in The Messiah.

Far from a "might-makes right" tyrant, you have a picture of a loving husband calling out to a wayward bride, in Mercy and Grace bringing her back to Him, to restore her to His side and to cherish her forever.

I know there is this bizzare idea circulating out there that the God of the Old Testament was some cruel, angry God. Some of those holding this idea even profess to be Christians. But this idea simply isn't supported by the text of the Old Testament. It's just not there!

Now the people of the Old Testament ... some of them were terribly cruel. And some of them were doing no more than any soldier of any defending his nation today might do.

The Exodus (hereafter TE) wrote: However, I have read the Hebrew Bible, several times, and, find certain espoused princples in grave contradiction with my own sense of goodness and justice.


We tend to view the Old Testament through modern, Western eyes, with modern, Western ideals and predjudices firmly in place. Those who want to judge the Old Testament's morality tend to judge it by modern, Western standards. They don't seem able to consider that maybe it's our Modern, Western standards that are wrong, and not the ancient scriptures.

We must be careful not to do that. If we find principles espoused in the Scriptures that seem "wrong" to us, we must ask ourselves if:

1. We really understand what's being said
2. If we truly understand the circumstances surrounding the situation described in the text
3. Or if, maybe, we're the ones who need correction.
Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby friendofbill » 10 Apr 2009, 12:44

We must be careful not to do that. If we find principles espoused in the Scriptures that seem "wrong" to us, we must ask ourselves if:

1. We really understand what's being said
2. If we truly understand the circumstances surrounding the situation described in the text
3. Or if, maybe, we're the ones who need correction.


True, dat. But there is, I thihk, another factor to figure into the equation: the factor of "evolution of understanding."

Often, there is no problem understanding what is being said. Leviticus 25:44 says plainly that we may own slaves. Exodus 35:2 says plainly that if my neighbor works on the Sabbath he should be killed. Leviticus 19:27 makes clear that getting a haircut is a terrible sin. According to Leviticus 21:20, if you have a sight defect, you should never approach the altar of God -- so if you wear glases you should not be a priest, or, perhaps, even come forward to communion..

So the question is: Did God really say those things? It is easy to say, "The God of the Old Testament was a mean stinker, a tribal deity, a provincial god, etc." ... if indeed those bloodthirsty laws were His.

Or were they cultural/tribal traditions and/or taboos which were placed, so to speak, in the mouth of God?

As I see it, man's understanding of God has been a matter of evolution from the beginning -- evolution of ideas/understanding, not raising the issue of physical evolution here. Certainly God has not changed or evolved, but is the same yesterday, today and forever; so if the descriptiopn of Him in Leviticus is contradictory to the description of Him in the New Testament, it is not He Who has changed, but our own understanding that has grown. Also (IMO, of course) this tells me that the process did not come to a screeching halt in 325 A.D.; that God did not "pull out" at that time, leaving us with a set of creeds and a few books of the NT, never to speak or instruct or have a new idea again.

As I see it, we have a choice: believe in the 100% divine inspiration/dictation of the Bible, and deal with the fact that God wasn't as nice nice back then as He is now, so He has changed; or understand that the Bible is a book written by faithful, seeking men and women whose understanding needed to be increased, enlarged and fine-tuned, a process that is still ongoing.

As always, all I can post is my own opinion.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 21 Apr 2009, 13:48

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond here.

The Exodus wrote:I have no pretense in being more familiar with your belief system than you are. However, I have read the Hebrew Bible, several times, and, find certain espoused princples in grave contradiction with my own sense of goodness and justice. I don't know what else to say. I cannot believe (and this will probably sound very offensive to you, but please, I mean no such thing) the Hebrews had a complete notion of what God is like. Of course, this argument turns on the fact that I'm a Christian, so we may be running in circles, but I will say I find the full revelation of the nature of God in Chris Jesus.


I'm not going to engage in triumphalistic 'my-religion-is-better-or-more-complete-than-yours' games. Frankly, I find them distastefull.

I will ask you to do this: before you continue disparaging the Hebrew Bible, learn more about Jewish understandings of God and Scripture. The Torah, for us, is not only the Five Books of Moses. It's the totality of Jewish teaching. We have the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, endless commentaries, ancient and modern, Midrashim...

Ok, that's more than any one person could exhaustively study in countless lifetimes. So here's two pratical suggestions. Purchase the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary. This is the Chumash that the Conservative branch of Judaism uses.

It's going to be a little hard to get used to--because a 'Chumash' is not quite a straightforward rendering of the Books of Moses. Instead, it's divided into Parshas and Haftarahs. In Judaism, we read the entire Torah, in order, every year. So each week in the Jewish liturgical year has a Torah portion or 'parsha' (or 'parashah' in Hebrew) dedicated to it. Thankfully, the parshas go in order. So on a holiday called Simchat Torah we both end with the last parsha of Deuteronomy and begin again with the first parsha of Genesis.

After each parsha is a haftarah. This is an additional, shorter reading from the prophets to accompany each parsha. So you'll have a parsha from Genesis, for example, then a haftarah, and then you'll reach the next parsha from Genesis.

The Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary ('etz hayim' means 'Tree of Life') contains excellent commetaries, both conservative and liberal, ancient and modern, and solid introductions to each parsha. It also has some good essays. Reading it will probably not make you want to rush off and become a Jew, but it will give you a much better understanding of how Judaism understands the Books of Moses. (It also has lots of notes on the Hebrew and, of course, the Hebrew Scripture as well as the English translation. In fact, the book reads from right to left, as it follows the Hebrew. So, unless you're used to reading Hebrew or Arabic, you'll feel like you're reading the book backwards, so to speak.)

If that long winded explanation of what a Chumash is has frightened you off of the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, then here's my second suggestion: get The Jewish Study Bible. That's just a straightforward English translation of the Hebrew Bible with lots of interesting notes and essays. I like the commentaries in the Etz Hayim better, but the Jewish Study Bible is still a good source. (And it has the whole Hebrew Bible, which a Chumash does not.)

friendofbill wrote:Often, there is no problem understanding what is being said. Leviticus 25:44 says plainly that we may own slaves. Exodus 35:2 says plainly that if my neighbor works on the Sabbath he should be killed. Leviticus 19:27 makes clear that getting a haircut is a terrible sin. According to Leviticus 21:20, if you have a sight defect, you should never approach the altar of God -- so if you wear glases you should not be a priest, or, perhaps, even come forward to communion..

So the question is: Did God really say those things? It is easy to say, "The God of the Old Testament was a mean stinker, a tribal deity, a provincial god, etc." ... if indeed those bloodthirsty laws were His.

Or were they cultural/tribal traditions and/or taboos which were placed, so to speak, in the mouth of God?

As I see it, man's understanding of God has been a matter of evolution from the beginning -- evolution of ideas/understanding, not raising the issue of physical evolution here. Certainly God has not changed or evolved, but is the same yesterday, today and forever; so if the descriptiopn of Him in Leviticus is contradictory to the description of Him in the New Testament, it is not He Who has changed, but our own understanding that has grown. Also (IMO, of course) this tells me that the process did not come to a screeching halt in 325 A.D.; that God did not "pull out" at that time, leaving us with a set of creeds and a few books of the NT, never to speak or instruct or have a new idea again.


In my opinion, God is not Santa Claus. God is God--the Master of Life and the Source of All Breath: the One who decides when our lives begin...and when our lives end. And any attempt to make God as nice and cuddly as Santa Claus is going to fail. There's a reason that both Abraham and Moses had to stand up to God and argue with Him on behalf of a fragile humanity. And this is why there is such tension in all sacred literature, the world over--and such problematic passages the world over.

Why does Vishnu--who is all about peace and preservation--in His incarnation as Krishna, seem to advocate bloody warfare and then all but glory in the death that will result from the upcoming battle? Because the Gita, like all great sacred literature, won't whitewash its understanding of the Almighty.

In short: if you want nice, jolly and cuddly, go for Santa Claus. Don't even bother with God. That's not to say that God won't console you, won't strengthen you or doesn't love you. Far from it--He is intricately bound up with His creation. I'm just saying that confusing Him with Santa Claus is a bad idea.

And the New Testament, by the way, does not offer a cuddly God--and, in my opinion, it does not seek to 'whitewash' God. Instead, it says that God will command someone to leave their father unburied and unmourned, that God will split and destroy families, that God can be compared to an unjust judge, that God will strike dead church members merely because they didn't want to give all their money to the church--and, depending on how you read certain passages--perhaps even that God will eternally torture countless people. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problematic passages of the New Testament.

You complain that the Hebrew Bible allows for slavery? But nowhere does the New Testament condemn slavery. It's just accepted as an institution. Per Paul in First Corinthians:

"Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity." (7:21, RSV)

As I'm sure you're aware, the second part of that verse can also be translated: "But even if you can gain your freedom, instead make use of your slavery." And in this context--Paul telling the Corinthians that each should remain as he was called--that second translation may well be the correct one. In either case, though, it's hardly a ringing call for an end of slavery! (And there is no such ringing call in the whole New Testament.)

Does this mean we should all support slavery? Of course not. The logical outcome of the Exodus story--and the underlying assumptions of the Torah--lead us to oppose all slavery. The logical outcome of applying lessons of the New Testament is to oppose all slavery.

Onto the problematic passages of the Torah--and yes, they are problematic. But I'll repeat what I said above: remember that, for Jews, the Torah is not merely the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is the totality of Jewish teaching--so if you want to know how Jews respond to these problematic passages, read our commentaries, ancient and modern (with, in a typically Jewish fashion, both majority and minority opinions preserved.) Learn about our Midrashim--all the stories that pick up where the Bible leaves off. Learn about the Oral Law, found primarily in the Talmud. We do not read the Hebrew Bible in a vacuum. (And, since that's a tall order, lol, look at the alternate suggestions I gave above!)

I have not addressed your primary contention--that God is changeless and therefore people must, from generation to generation--grow in their understanding of God. That may well be--although I see no reason to accept the idea that God is changeless. The God of the Hebrew Bible is quite capable of changing His mind and staying His Hand. The idea of a changeable God makes many people uncomfortable...as the idea of a God incapable of change makes other people equally uncomfortable! This does not seem to be a Jewish-Christian divide, as you'll find both Jews and Christians on either side of the argument. (If you want Jewish support for the notion that God doesn't change, per se, see Rambam--that is, Maimonides. He's your main guy.)
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Lioba » 21 Apr 2009, 20:03

by JRosemary » Wed Apr 08, 2009 2:50 pm


In the Torah, HaShem is not really (or, at the very least, certainly not only) 'might is right.' HaShem is much more complex than that. This would make a fascinating discussion--after Passover!
´

Passover is over and I long to hear what HaShem really means in your eyes.following the discussion with much interest although I ddin´t write until now.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby The Exodus » 22 Apr 2009, 01:41

JRosemary wrote:
I'm not going to engage in triumphalistic 'my-religion-is-better-or-more-complete-than-yours' games. Frankly, I find them distastefull.

I will ask you to do this: before you continue disparaging the Hebrew Bible, learn more about Jewish understandings of God and Scripture. The Torah, for us, is not only the Five Books of Moses. It's the totality of Jewish teaching. We have the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, endless commentaries, ancient and modern, Midrashim...


You lay on me quite a burden! :cool:

I wasn't trying to say "my religion is better than yours". I am only saying why I don't accept the Hebrew Bible as being a complete revelation of the nature of God. Or, maybe I should say, *my understanding* and many of the ideas posited by Christians regarding some of its precepts, aren't sufficient enough to make the claim that it is.

At any rate, it is likely we agree very much about the nature of God. Your ideas have been developed in your tradition, as mine have been, but it may be the case that, though we have had different sources of learning, we are in close agreement.

rosemary wrote:In my opinion, God is not Santa Claus. God is God--the Master of Life and the Source of All Breath: the One who decides when our lives begin...and when our lives end. And any attempt to make God as nice and cuddly as Santa Claus is going to fail. There's a reason that both Abraham and Moses had to stand up to God and argue with Him on behalf of a fragile humanity. And this is why there is such tension in all sacred literature, the world over--and such problematic passages the world over.


I don't think me or Bill are arguing for a pretty, fluffy God. I think the point he raises is a good one. What are your views concerning the Levitus passages he cites?

rosemary wrote:Why does Vishnu--who is all about peace and preservation--in His incarnation as Krishna, seem to advocate bloody warfare and then all but glory in the death that will result from the upcoming battle? Because the Gita, like all great sacred literature, won't whitewash its understanding of the Almighty.


My understanding of God is not one who delights in bloody warfare and death. I do agree though that much ancient literature depicts gods that DO delight in this, and certainly there is something very noble about fighting and dying in war, but *advocation* is something very different. Maybe I am confused, but are you saying that God delights in warfare and killing; that he is bloodthirsty?

Rosemary wrote:And the New Testament, by the way, does not offer a cuddly God--and, in my opinion, it does not seek to 'whitewash' God. Instead, it says that God will command someone to leave their father unburied and unmourned, that God will split and destroy families, that God can be compared to an unjust judge, that God will strike dead church members merely because they didn't want to give all their money to the church--and, depending on how you read certain passages--perhaps even that God will eternally torture countless people. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problematic passages of the New Testament.


I don't think the NT presents God as "cuddly" either. I'm not quite sure why you think I think this. I merely think the understanding of God was fully revealed in Christ. Christ says some very hard things, but I do not think he is bloodthirsty, neither do I think he "desires sacrifice" or strict adherence to ritualistic/tribal law. I do, however, raise issue with the concept of Hell you here present.

Many of the problematic passages in the NT cease to be so when it's read using reason and common sense, looking through the lense of Christ as sole interpetter. For example, if Paul seems to say something that contradicts Christ, I, for one, must reject my understanding of Paul. (Also, it may be the case I'm misunderstanding Paul in the first place.) Basically, I don't sacrifice my *general* understanding of the nature of Christ, for one or two obscure verses that may have questionable words (such as predestination, e.g.)

rosemary wrote:I have not addressed your primary contention--that God is changeless and therefore people must, from generation to generation--grow in their understanding of God. That may well be--although I see no reason to accept the idea that God is changeless.


This is an important point to address (and I'd really like to hear some more on what you think on this, because I'm v. interested in this myself), because, if God *is* indeed changeless, what does this mean? Could he potentially change into something evil? Why not? Does *God's* understanding of good and evil change? If not, why would he change his mind? Furthermore, how do you *know* he has changed his mind? How do you know a psychopath isn't lying when he says God has "told him" to commit murder, kidnap, bomb, etc?

I would submit that God's nature does not change, though he does ask different things at different times. I do not, however, believe every passage in the Hebrew Bible accurately reflects the character of God - such as purposefully allowing Satan to torture Job, as if Satan is capable of tempting God into letting him perform this sort of "experiment". I think the inerrant inspiration of scripture is a misnomer, because, even if you think that it is inspired, you still have to go about interpretting it; and there are *many* interpretations.

So the questions are a) is scripture inerrant (meaning always scientifically/historically/morally accurate); or b) does the peoples' understanding of God slowly change?
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 22 Apr 2009, 05:44

The Exodus wrote:I wasn't trying to say "my religion is better than yours".


I'm relieved to hear it! Triumphalistic arguments, in my opinion, are tedious and soul-numbing. :brood:

I don't think me or Bill are arguing for a pretty, fluffy God. I think the point he raises is a good one. What are your views concerning the Levitus passages he cites?


I'll take them one by one--but let me start with this. In my opinion, it's perfectly acceptable to fight with HaShem in a good cause. If there's something in my religious tradition or Scripture that I think is totally wrong, I just argue with Him about it. After all, Abraham and Moses both argued with HaShem--and both in good causes. (And, besides, the meaning of 'Israel' is 'God-wrestler.')

But I don't argue about the small stuff. If a mitzvah--commandment--is easy, I just do it. (Or I at least have the grace to feel bad about not doing it.) For example, I don't have any love of eating shrimp, so why should I annoy HaShem by eating it? For some reason, He doesn't want Jews eating shrimp. That's His right, I suppose, and I have no compelling reason to make an issue out of it. :rolleyes:

Onto Leviticus:

1. Regarding slavery. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament accept slavery as a fact of life. The Hebrew Bible is filled with laws to make slavery more humane--but it doesn't repudiate it. But it also contains the story of the Exodus, and that has inspired not only Jews to strive for freedom but countless others, including our founding fathers, abolitionists and innumerable people--black and white, Jew and gentile--who worked tirelessly in the civil rights movement.

In fact, at my home we opened our seder with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that sums up Passover and the Exodus story: "There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt."

But the Exodus story teaches us something important: freedom is hard. The people who crossed from the Sea of Reeds into the wilderness looked back longingly, time and again, on their days as slaves in Egypt. Slavery had been unpleasant, but they preferred that to the difficulties and dangers of freedom. So that whole generation--those who escaped Egypt and stood at Sinai--had to die in the wilderness. It was their children who were raw and hungry for freedom. It was their children who crossed the Jordan into the promised land.

But however hard freedom is, it is at the very core of Judaism. Yes, our Scripture allows for slavery--it even makes special provisions for those who wish to remain with their masters after they've served their time. But our Scripture never presents slavery as an ideal. Allowing slavery seems a concession to our ancient society on HaShem's part--and the whole Torah cries out that we can do better.

2. Re the death penalty for various infractions (working on Shabbat, dishonoring your parents, etc.) The Oral Law (traditionally given to Moses at Sinai) has long since settled these issues. Basically, the Oral Law (which, however it came about, is now largely collected in the Talmud) gives about 500 conditions that must be met before you can execute anyone. In fact, by the time you get through the Talmud, it's damned hard to execute anyone for anything. In fact, when the Sanhedrein had the power to carry out executions, it was considered bloodthirsty if it executed more than one person in any seventy year period.

3. Re Leviticus 19:27 "You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard."

Now we're getting into halachic issues--'halacha' is the Hebrew word which generally gets translated as 'law,' although that's not a great translation. It's worth noting that halachic issues apply only to Jews--God demands universal morality, but He doesn't impose these halachic restrictions on anyone but the people Israel.

But here goes: first of all, there are plenty of ways to get a halachically sound hair cut/shave. So if you convert to Judaism, you can still cut your hair and shave your beard.

Second of all, Art said that getting a haircut was a great sin. No--again, this is a halachic issue, not a moral one. (Some halachic issues are also moral issues, but this ain't one of them.) No one is equating shaving un-halachically with committing murder.

Why does God impose these restrictions on the people Israel? I don't know. But I can tell you is that I'm grateful to HaShem for the gift of halacha--and especially the gift of Shabbat--and I'm striving to increase my observance. (And believe me, I'm not all that observant. But I'm looking to deepen my practice, not run away from it.)

Halachic observance turns your thoughts constantly to God. When you're grocery shopping, looking for kosher products, you're thinking of God. When you light the Shabbat candles and say the blessing over them, you're thinking of God. When you check the labels on the shirt you're buying to make certain that it's not a linen-wool blend, you're thinking of God. When you cease working on Shabbat, and devote the day instead to your family, to study, to mediation, to prayers--you're thinking of God. When you shave your beard in a particular, halachic way, you're thinking of God.

As my rabbi likes to put it, halachic observance wakes us up. Left to ourselves, we go through life numb, allowing ourselves to get caught up in things that don't matter and forgetting all about God. Halachic observance forces us to refocus on God and family and the things that are important.

But rid your mind of the fear that missing observances, or choosing not to observe, is some grave sin. No one's worried about going to hell because they forgot to light the Shabbat candles or because they decided to eat shrimp! :rolleyes: And yet, that fact doesn't decrease the importance of halacha. The different branches of Judaism, and different Jews, may argue over the specific requirements of halacha, or even the relative importance of some mitzvot (commandments) over others. Or even over whether all mitzvot binding. (Reform Judaism maintains that not all the mitzvot are binding today. They hold that the moral mitzvot are all binding, but the 'ritual' mitzvot are optional.) But religious Jews of all branches agree that this stuff matters.

Are there specific mitzvot I disagree with? Yes. In that case, as I said above, I argue with HaShem about it and risk annoying Him by not observing them.

4. Restrictions on the priesthood--Art seems upset about this, but I'm not sure why. First of all, these restrictions refer to our hereditary Kohanim...not to rabbis, and not to Christian priests. (Unless Christianity has adopted these restrictions for their non-hereditary, non-Kohanim priests, but if that's the case, Christianity is putting these restrictions to an arguably different use than intended.)

So no one can be a priest in Judaism except by inheriting the position. And why would anyone want to be a priest? I suppose I can understand the honor of approaching the Holy of Holies in the Temple back in the day...but, when you come right down to it, you were primarily presiding over animal sacrifices. Not my idea of a good time--so it's hard to feel sorry for a near-sighted descendent of Aaron.

(As a sidebar, as much as I'd like to blame HaShem and shake my fist at Him for the animal sacrifices, I can't. Originally, in the Garden of Eden myth, humans didn't even eat meat. We were all vegetarians. Allowing us to eat meat at all was another concession on HaShem's part. And the idea of sacrifices, according to the Hebrew Bible, was humanity's brilliant idea--not God's.)

At any event, we don't have a Temple anymore, so deeds of loving kindness have replaced sacrifices. Now the Kohanim get certain honours during the Torah service and sometimes give the Kohanic blessing. This blessing--which includes holding out their hands in a manner extremely familiar to Star Trek fans--is what inspired Leonard Nimoy to use that hand position as the Vulcan salute. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew (he's Reform now) and was familiar with the Kohanic blessing. He discusses that here:



(And yes, I will go to any lengths to include Star Trek references in my posts.)

At any event, I don't know what restrictions still hold on the Kohanim now-a-days. Since there's no altar to approach, I doubt any are in play.

The Exodus wrote:
rosemary wrote:Why does Vishnu--who is all about peace and preservation--in His incarnation as Krishna, seem to advocate bloody warfare and then all but glory in the death that will result from the upcoming battle? Because the Gita, like all great sacred literature, won't whitewash its understanding of the Almighty.


My understanding of God is not one who delights in bloody warfare and death. I do agree though that much ancient literature depicts gods that DO delight in this, and certainly there is something very noble about fighting and dying in war, but *advocation* is something very different. Maybe I am confused, but are you saying that God delights in warfare and killing; that he is bloodthirsty?


Whether we like it or not, HaShem is presented as a God who, at certain times, commands war. (And there certainly seem to be times when HaShem glories in war.) But it's not a simple matter--for example, when the people Israel crossed the Sea of Reeds, Moses led us in a pretty darn bloodthirsty song about the drowning Egyptians: the famous Az Yashir Moshe, known in English as The Song at the Sea, which we sing both on Shabbat and at daily services. (See Exodus 15.) And HaShem has no problem with that...and yet, according to a famous Midrash, when the angels began to praise HaShem at the defeat of the Egyptians, HaShem rebuked them. How can they sing His praises, He demands, when His children are drowning?

As far as the Gita goes, Ghandi maintains that even though Vishnu commands war, following the precepts of the Gita will lead you to pacificsm. I'm not sure I buy that, but I understand his point. But I think the Gita--and the Hebrew Bible, of course--both give us an accurate depiction of God. There are times when HaShem does command war--though we might not want to take it upon ourselves to figure out when He makes that command. But most of us who are not outright pacifists agree that there is such a thing as a just and necessary war. And, since humans soldiers and generals often admit to somehow enjoying war, even while recognizing the sheer horror of it and even while hoping for an end to it...well, there's no reason to think that God doesn't feel the same way.

That said, we can still argue with HaShem over this. I think Saul should have argued with both Samuel and HaShem about destroying the Amalekites!

The Exodus wrote:
Rosemary wrote:And the New Testament, by the way, does not offer a cuddly God--and, in my opinion, it does not seek to 'whitewash' God. Instead, it says that God will command someone to leave their father unburied and unmourned, that God will split and destroy families, that God can be compared to an unjust judge, that God will strike dead church members merely because they didn't want to give all their money to the church--and, depending on how you read certain passages--perhaps even that God will eternally torture countless people. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problematic passages of the New Testament.


I don't think the NT presents God as "cuddly" either. I'm not quite sure why you think I think this. I merely think the understanding of God was fully revealed in Christ. Christ says some very hard things, but I do not think he is bloodthirsty, neither do I think he "desires sacrifice" or strict adherence to ritualistic/tribal law. I do, however, raise issue with the concept of Hell you here present.


Re ritualistic/tribal law--see my long discussion of halacha above. I think of halacha as a great blessing--not a terrible burden. Again, see my notes above, and bear in mind that different branches of Judaism (not to mention individual Jews) interpret halacha and halachic requirements differently.

Re hell: as I said, it depends on how you want to read certain passages. I realize that Christians go in any number of different directions with this stuff. And, since I'm coming from a traditon that preserves majority and minority interpretations of Scripture (and everything in between), I think that's a good thing. There should always be multiple opinions and interpretations of Scripture. And I don't have any opinion on the matter myself--I'm agnostic about the whole concept of an afterlife.

Many of the problematic passages in the NT cease to be so when it's read using reason and common sense, looking through the lense of Christ as sole interpetter. For example, if Paul seems to say something that contradicts Christ, I, for one, must reject my understanding of Paul. (Also, it may be the case I'm misunderstanding Paul in the first place.) Basically, I don't sacrifice my *general* understanding of the nature of Christ, for one or two obscure verses that may have questionable words (such as predestination, e.g.)


Interesting. As I said above, if I see something wrong in my tradition, I argue with HaShem about it. I don't mind annoying Him in a good cause. And if I were a Christian, I'd constantly be telling Jesus that he was completely in the wrong (and way out of line) for telling that boy to leave his father unburied in order to go follow him...especially considering how important the mourning rituals are in Judaism. Heck, Jesus would never hear the end of that from me. :wink:

Ok...that's long enough for one post, don't you think? I'll have to stall on the topic of God changing (or not so much) until I can gather my thoughts. Oh, and I have lots to say about Job, but that will likewise have to wait.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby friendofbill » 22 Apr 2009, 20:28

Justa thought or two, JRosemary. I understand your contention that God "changed His mind" often in the biblical accounts of, for example, Judges, Kings, and Chronicles. That is presicely why I contended that the characterization of Him in the early wrirings was not fully developed, and reflected the current cultural and religious biases of the people. Later, the prophet Malachi would bring the message from, presumably, the same God: "I am the LORD; I change not." So one must either agree with the early accounts (God can change) or with Malachi, or try to have it both ways.

Now consider what we know today about the universe, both the macrocosm, including the vast universe filled with billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars and planets, and including the micrcosmic plane described by quantum mechanics, of quarks and antiquarks and things that exist but don't and can be observed but never seen. If you accept, as I do, that all of that is the work of God, suddenly we have a God entirely too big to perform in the manner of a provincial deity or behave in a manner predictable by human beings or perceptible to human logic.

In the Torah, and also in the New Testament, I see the attempts of men who have encountered God to describe that encounter in terms of their own cultural and philiosophical capabilities. I see no reason to be bound by laws that reflect a basically primitive culture. When Exodus 21:7 tells me I may sell my daugter into slavery, I do not take that as a suggestion. When my neightbor goes to work on Sunday (our version of Sabbatyh) I do not demand that he be killed, per Exodus 35:2. When my wife wears a pantsuit made from a cottion ployester blend, I do not condemn her for violating the law stated in Leviticus 19:19. Quite simply, our understanding of God has evolved since that time. That does not invalidate the Scriptures: it releases us from the debilitating enslavement to literalism that makes the Bible an object of worship, and frees us to bathe in the wonder of 4000 years of man meeting and reporting on God. How could they describe their experience except in terms of the three-tiered universe which they believed in? How could they describe and invite wiorship for a God Who would not be conceivable to them in the confines of the narrow universe in which they lived? The very fact that they could speak of Him at all reveals that they had encountered Him and seen Him at work and were doing their best to understand what they had seen and heard, but without the tools we have today, through science and through intellectual and philosophical growth, to enhance that understanding. And it presents us with a mystery: that the infinite Ground of All Being, I AM Himself, can and does take note of us on this little insignificant planet drifting in the outskirts of a hardly unusual galaxy.

I perceive a real danger in placing too much emphasis on the past and in placing too much emphasis on the future. The one approach mires us down in legalism and endless disputation, and the other emasculates us as we sit wringing our hands waiting for the parousia. There is no time in which we can act, or help, or love, or care, or serve, except the present moment. The present moment requires that we underrtand the place from which we came, certainly, and that we be aware where we are going: but we cannot live yesterday or tomorrow, we can only live to day. IF we rest our confidence in being children of Abraham, Jesus reminds us that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones in the road. If we rest our confidence in a Lord coming tomorrow or next week, He reminds us that no man knows the day or time, and we have things to do right now.

I am not sure where the "Santa Claus" part of your response came from or to what it refers, so i will leave it alone.

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