A Religious Person or A Good Person – What’s More Important?

As we try, during these Days of Repentance, to improve ourselves, an important question arises: What’s the most important thing – to be a “religious person”, or a “good person”? Meaning, is it better to be someone who prays to God and tries to worship Him, or to be a kind and ethical person, someone who’s very careful about how he/she treats other people?

Believe it or not, this question is so important that it’s at the heart of most of the major military conflicts that have threatened the world in recent years. For us here in Israel as for the majority of the Western world, our most vicious enemies these days are the radical Islamists, be they the Shiite groups led by Iran, or the Sunni groups organized under the banner of Al-Qaeda. While these groups disagree about many things (and are currently fighting and killing each other in Syria), they both agree that the most important thing is for the world is to worship God in the correct manner (as they understand it), and they are willing to do anything necessary – including killing their enemies’ or their own children – to bring that about.

These groups are opposed by the Western world, who believe (to quote the US Declaration of Independence), that all people are “created equal” and are entitled to “certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One of the most important “unalienable rights” the Western world believes in the freedom to worship God (or any other god or gods) in any way one sees fit – or to not worship at all.

So those are the extremes – the Islamists believe that serving God takes precedence over treating people with kindness and sensitivity, whereas the West believes the exact opposite – being ethical comes before being religious.[1]

What does the Torah say?

The obvious answer is “both”! The Torah clearly addresses our relationship with God as well as our relationship with other people, and gives us many commandments relating to each of these concepts. These twin ideas are represented by the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed – the first one lists commandments “between man and God” and the second lists commandments “between man and man”. So the Torah clearly says that you need both.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. After all, the Islamists also believe in the values of kindness and justice, and the Western world values (or at least respects) religion. The question isn’t whether you need only one or whether you need both – the question is which one comes first and which second?

There is a certain philosophy currently being promoted by various individuals and groups within the Jewish People, which argues that the essence of Judaism and of Jewishness is to be a good, kind and ethical person.[2] Numerous rabbinic sources, such as “דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה” (sometimes translated as something like “ethical norms come before religious law” – although it may very well mean something else) can be quoted to support this position. Speakers advocating for this approach do not suggest that prayer, ritual and other ways of serving God aren’t important; they agree that “you need both”. Just that the “laws between man and man” come first and “between man and God” second. These people often criticize other philosophies within Orthodox Judaism, who they accuse (correctly or not) of prioritizing ritual over ethics.

So, who is right? Is “religion” the first order of priority and “ethics” a close second? Or the other way around?

I think an intriguing answer can be found in the mitzvah of Shabbat. If we look at the short text of this mitzvah in the Ten Commandments as they appear in the book of Shmot and compare this to the parallel text in the book of Devarim, something very interesting emerges.

According to the text in Shmot (20:10), Shabbat is a religious law whose purpose is to bear witness to the idea that God created the world:

“For in six days the Lord made the heaven, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the day of Shabbat and sanctified it”

But the text in Devarim (5:13-14) says something entirely different:

“…in order that your man-servant and maid-servant may rest [just] like you. You must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the day of Shabbat.”

According to this, Shabbat is a social law designed to bring a measure of equality into a very unequal relationship. All week long there are slaves who do the work and masters who order them around. On Shabbat, though, all work ceases, so the slaves get to rest just as the masters do. The master is commanded to allow his slave this weekly respite out of empathy, and also as a result of the realization that he was once a slave himself – so he should know to treat the slave in an ethical and compassionate manner.

Is there a contradiction between the two Biblical texts? Are there competing traditions as to the reason for the mitzvah of Shabbat?  Of course not.  The two passages not only complement each other, but in fact they are one and the same.  And understanding how and why that is can help us answer our initial question.

The text in Devarim says that we must observe Shabbat in order that our slaves will be able to rest, just as we do.  This is not only presented as a matter of ethics and kindness, but also because “the Lord your God brought you out from [Egypt] with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”.  Thus the idea in Shmot – that Shabbat testifies to the idea that God created the world, leads directly to the idea in Devarim – that He also continues to rule the world.  He decides who is on top and who is on the bottom, who is wealthy and who is poor, who a master and who a slave.  If you are a master today, that is only because He wills it as such – once upon a time you were the slave, and the situation could change tomorrow as well.

The master who internalizes these messages realizes that he must allow his man-servant and maid-servant to rest just as he does because indeed, all people are equal.  God is the true master and we are all His slaves.  So the theological message emphasized in Shmot leads directly to the social message emphasized in Devarim.

And perhaps, therefore, the answer to our original question – is it more important to be a “religious person” or an “ethical person” is that the Torah teaches us that the two are actually one and the same. The only way to truly be an ethical person is to be a religious person, and a truly religious person will by definition be ethical.  Any philosophy that argues for one over the other misses the point.

May we all reach true religiosity, true ethics and true kindness, and may we all merit to be sealed in the Book of Life.


[1]This particular point is actually crucially important. The two cultures that currently dominate the planet and are involved in a huge confrontation actually each represent an interpretation of part of the Torah’s message. I hope to elaborate on the significance of that in a future post.

[2]The more extreme formulations of this idea can be found in radical movements like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism – which have redefined Judaism as an essentially cultural and philosophical system whose most important tenet is to make the world a better place and which don’t involve worshiping (or perhaps even believing in) God at all. Of course, one could argue that these groups do not represent authentic Judaism at all; they are merely expressing the ideas of secular Western culture using Jewish terminology. But a very similar idea, in a more mild form, can also be found among Orthodox Jews who follow halacha scrupulously. These groups affirm the necessity of serving God – just say that this is secondary to being an ethical person.

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