Friday, July 31, 2009

Religion leads to immorality (Derashah Vaetchanan 5769)

Richard Dawkins, among others, has alleged that religion inspires immoral behavior.

Judging from the events of last week, I’d have to concede the point; numerous rabbis were arrested for involvement in money laundering, tax evasion and, allegedly, even organ marketing. Add those allegations to several scandals in the recent past, and the evidence certainly seems to indicate that religion – or, at least, Judaism - does not provide moral guidance.

The community knows it, too. This past Tuesday night, Borough Park, New York hosted an אסיפה, a gathering, of the chareidi community. The title was “A Legal Symposium,” and the goal was to discuss an American Jew’s obligation to obey the laws of the United States. Agudas Yisroel officials, chassidic rebbes and an attorney all agreed: A Jew is obligated to obey the law of the land. A Jew is obligated not to steal. A Jew is obligated to be honest.

A חידוש, what a novel idea! For this we needed an אסיפה? For this we needed a 'legal symposium?' Several years ago, Governor Ed Rendell cited his father as saying, "The ones who spend the longest time in synagogue on Saturdays are the biggest crooks from Monday to Friday." Gd forbid! But doesn't it sound like he's right? Does this bizarre phenomenon not prove that Dawkins is right as well, that religion – or, at least, Judaism – fails to provide a moral compass, and may, in fact, provide the opposite?

I think the answer is Yes, in part. Religion can lead to immorality, Judaism can lead to immorality, and I believe it is, in part, because Judaism inspires an arrogant complacence:

• The Torah sets a standard of behavior which includes being careful about what we eat, careful about how we dress, careful about what we say, careful about how we engage in business.
• The Torah gives us timetables for when to eat and when not to eat, when to pray, when to celebrate and when to mourn.
• The Torah gives us guidelines for raising our children and honoring our parents, helping our neighbors and helping those who are not our neighbors.
And the Torah says regarding all of these standards, “This is the way to live. These are the values to have. This is the way to be.”

The result is that a Jew can look at her Torah, a Jew who is even minimally observant can look at his own behavior, and feel superior to others, saying, “Based on the Torah’s priorities, I do all right! I see that other people don’t pray, I see that people value selfishness over philanthropy, I see that people eat whatever they wish – I may not be a saint, but I give tzedakah, I come to shul occasionally, I don’t eat treif… Compared to what I see around me, I’m doing pretty well!” And so the complacence and arrogance begins.

Even worse: The more scrupulous a person is in his observance, the closer her behavior adheres to the Torah’s recommended lifestyle, the greater the temptation to arrogance.

That’s when the crime begins, because this sense of superiority leads to terrible rationalizations:
Just as a husband might rationalize in his superiority, “I’m better to my family than other guys are, so it’s all right for me to do other things on the side,”
And just as a business owner might rationalize in his superiority, “I’m more honest than other business owners and so it’s all right for me to file private receipts as business expenses,”
So, too, a Jew in his superiority might fool himself, saying, “I do more to satisfy Gd’s expectations than other people do, so it’s all right for me to take a little money under the table, it’s all right for me to cut corners.”
And so Dawkins is proved correct: Religion encourages sin.

But our parshah provides a way to avoid that sense of superiority, when it directs us away from comparing ourselves to others and away from self-satisfaction with partial achievements, and toward a higher goal.

Right after proclaiming how wonderful it is to be a nation with such righteous laws, Moshe warns, ”רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך, Be very careful! Guard your life - and מאד, guard your life intensely! – lest you forget what your eyes saw, lest it stray from your heart, at any point in your lifetime! Guard your life intensely!”
What are we supposed to remember so closely, and with such a powerful warning? “יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלקיך בחורב, The day you stood before HaShem your Gd at Har Chorev, Har Sinai.”

Not, “Remember to keep the Torah’s lifestyle,” and not, “Keep a checklist of the mitzvot and make sure you satisfy every one of them.” Rather, “Remember that you encountered Gd at Har Sinai!”

The goal of the Torah is not simply to meet a certain standard of behavior, such that I might be satisfied with being better than others. The Torah's standard of behavior is meant to bring me to a greater goal:

The goal of the Torah is for me to encounter Gd once again, to live with Gd, as Adam and Chavah did in Eden and as our ancestors did at Sinai, whether in shul or at home or at work. It means to feel when I rise in the morning “מודה אני לפניך – I thank You, Gd, as I rise before you,” to daven with a sense of “דע לפני מי אתה עומד – Know before Whom you stand.” To go to work with “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד– I place Gd before me, always.”

My gauge of success is whether I have a total awareness of HaShem in my daily life.

When I have that goal, I look to achieve perfection, and I am less likely to slip into immoral behavior. This is implicit in the Torah’s repeated warnings, "‘ויראת מאלקיך,’ You shall live in awe of Gd.”

• לא תקלל חרש ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t curse a deaf person – live in awe of Gd
• ולפני עור לא תתן מכשול ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t place an obstacle before a blind person – live in awe of Gd
• מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן ויראת מאלקיך – Rise before the aged and honor the elderly – live in awe of Gd
• לא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t oppress others – live in awe of Gd

And so on. The Torah repeats it again, and again, and again. And the gemara explains: In many cases I will think I can get away with it. I will be seduced by the lure of easy money, of social status. I will know that, hey, everybody does it. And at that point, remember: The goal is not to be better than others, the goal is to encounter Me. My goal is “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד,” to be perpetually aware of Gd, and this does not allow for immorality, this does not allow for criminality, this does not allow for cutting corners just because everyone else does it. Regardless of where I stand in relation to others, my concern is my relationship with HaShem.

This morning, we read the Haftorah of Nachamu, Yeshayah’s message of consolation to the Jewish people. After the desolation of Tisha b'Av, after the brutal massacres and painful exiles, HaShem tells us to be comforted. HaShem pledges to take us back into that close relationship we had long ago.

But when will this happen? When we are עמי, when HaShem can say that we have become עמי, My nation. When none of us overlook sin, commit crimes and immerse ourselves in scandal out of a misguided sense of superiority. When יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלקיך בחורב, standing with HaShem at Sinai, is again a reality, when שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, when we perpetually stand with HaShem.


1. I am not leaping to legal conclusions. I know nothing about the specific guilt or innocence of the accused in this case. However, I am speaking about the collective set of scandals which have engulfed Jewish communities in the past few years, and specifying this most recent case only because of the אסיפה in Borough Park.

2. I know that there are multiple causes for scandals. I don't claim to be able to simplify any of them down to some easy formula. But I do believe this is a key factor.

3. The gemara on ויראת מאלקיך is found, among other places in Bava Metzia 58b.

4. Also tying into this idea: Akavya ben Mahallel's idea (Pirkei Avot 3:1) that one will never sin if he is contemplates the fact that as low as his physical origin and ends, he will still end up standing before Gd one day.

5. Motzaei Shabbat Update: Having now delivered this derashah, I'm troubled that quite a few listeners took this as a "them" derashah - as in, "Boy, rabbi, you really gave it to them!" Not explicitly, of course, but people seemed to think this was about some other group, those nasty people, and not themselves. Perhaps I could have mitigated the effect had I noted that the same sense of superiority and failure to fulfill part of Torah applies to people who are honest and fair to others, but feel they can cut corners on their service of Gd...


  1. Perhaps a parallel to incentive compensation programs would be enlightening. If you have a formulaic program without a strong culture, ther's a strong tendency to have a "check the box" mentality (e.g. I met my pro bono chesed quota, so sorry but you'll have to drown")
    Joel Rich

  2. Wow. What a powerful message! We will miss you.

  3. Joel-
    Along the lines of your note on my post regarding talmud torah on tisha b'av, I suppose.

    Thanks; I will miss Allentown, so I guess we're even...

  4. Bingo,
    Joel Rich