Monday, April 20, 2009

Is God Good?

The following is an excerpt from something I wrote nearly eight years ago. I was more of a believer back then…

… Yet despite all this, there is no real evidence that Hashem is good. He told us He's good, but according to His own rules one cannot bring aidus on himself. Before we can really discuss whether or not He's good, though, we have to establish what "good" is.

One very problematic definition of good is that whatever Hashem does or tells us to do is good. It is good because Hashem is the ultimate good in the universe. How do we know this? Because everything He does is good. Why is everything He does good? Because He is the ultimate good in the universe. And how do we know this? Because everything He does is good. . . This is circular reasoning, and as such is simply ridiculous.

A major problem with defining what good really is is that it is very subjective. If there are two stores competing for business, and a customer chooses store A, that is good for store A, but is bad for store B. Thus when Hashem says that He is good, He may be telling the truth from His point of view, but what is good for Him is not necessarily good for humanity. We assume that He means that He is good for us, and this is what we need proof for.

To determine what is classified as good we must establish a baseline of what is normal. Anything above the baseline is good; anything below it is bad. For example, when it comes to food, having enough to eat is the baseline. Having extra food or especially tasty food is good, not having enough food or having unappetizing food (moldy, etc.) is bad. Establishing such a baseline is absolutely necessary. Without a baseline, a person may be tempted to claim that merely having enough to eat is good. Yet, because good is generally accepted as something better than normal, this would mean that not having enough to eat was normal. A world were this is the case is horrific. (The world actually was like that for the majority of the population for millennia, but we'll discuss that later.) So we will establish the baseline as being reasonably comfortable (healthy, fed, clothed, etc.).

When discussing whether or not Hashem is good, most people tend to glorify what appears to be good and discount what appears to be bad because it was done by Hashem. This is unacceptable. Although He is not human, for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not He is good we must hold Him accountable as one. Thus if He afflicts someone with a fatal illness and then cures the person, instead of praising Hashem that the person got well we should look at the situation as it really is. It is much like someone purposely burning down a house and then paying the owner. Not only wouldn't we praise him for paying, we would say he is a terrible person. It is no great thing that Hashem cures a sick person. After all, it is His fault the person got sick in the first place.

We have established that for something to be defined as "good," it must be above the baseline, be something that would be called good regardless of the being responsible, and can not be merely a fix for something bad perpetrated earlier. Let us now examine the evidence regarding Hashem's nature in regard to His goodness. In doing so, we start with the assumption that He is perfectly neutral, then determine His level of goodness based on the evidence.

Let's begin at the beginning. Hashem creates Adam and Chava. A few hours later they have eaten from the eitz hadas and are expelled from Gan Aden. Less then a day after the world's creation, and the first murder occurs. After a millennia and a half, the situation has gotten so bad that Hashem decides to wipe the world clean. The only survivors are Noach and his family. After a year, the water goes down and they can finally leave the taevah. Immediately, Noach, the tzaddik of his generation, gets drunk and passes out on his bed. His grandson comes along and castrates him.

This is, I'm sure you'll agree, a horrible record. Most people would place the blame on the humans. Such consistent failure to follow even basic laws, though, seems to indicate a terrible flaw in humanity. The flaws in a product can only be blamed on the maker of that product, in this case Hashem. This being the case, why are humans so horribly flawed? Only two possibilities present themselves. Either the flaw was accidental or intentional. If the flaw is accidental, that implies that Hashem is incompetent. If it is intentional, that means that Hashem is a sadist who wants His creations to fail so that He can blame then for that failure then punish them accordingly.

A few years go by, and we come to Mitzrayim. The most wonderful thing Hashem has ever done for us, supposedly, is to take us out of slavery. But Who's fault is it we were slaves? Hashem told Avraham that his children would be slaves in Mitzrayim, and we know that had Yaakov and his sons not come willingly, Hashem would have arranged to have them dragged there in chains. That is the justification for allowing Yosef to be taken to Mitzrayim; so that he would be in a position to make his extended family comfortable when they arrived. What is more, the Jewish people hadn't committed any aveiros that this slavery could be blamed on. So what we really have here is Hashem putting the Yiden through almost a century of torture so that when He came to take them out, they would be extremely grateful. Yet apparently this didn't work out, because four fifths of the Jews didn't want to leave Mitzrayim. The Nazis murdered six million Jews over the course of five years and we revile them as monsters. Hashem murdered twice as many in five days, yet the three million Jews who left Mitzrayim extolled His kindness and mercy.

What follows is a bloodbath as the nations who had lived in what would become Eretz Yisroel more or less forever were systematically driven away or butchered. The one nation which managed to trick the Jews into allowing them to stay in their homes is reviled as sneaky and underhanded. Granted, Hashem created the world and so may have the right to allocate it as He chooses, but being G-d He could certainly have done so in a less brutal manner. He can't even use the excuse that He doesn't like to perform overt miracles, because he performed a miracle when He caused the walls of Yericho to sink into the ground.

There were then several hundred years of relative peace, culminating in Dovid HaMelech's expansion wars and the prosperity of Shlomo HaMelech's reign. Then the Babylonians sack Yerushalayim and destroy the Bais HaMikdash. What did the Jews of the time do to deserve such a tragedy? They followed only the letter of the law and didn't go lifnim mishuras hadin. Such a reason could only be given by a sadist looking for any reason to punish.

Except for a short time after the Chashmonaim drove out the Greeks, from that time on for nearly two thousand years Eretz Yisroel was a province of one empire or another, none of which were very kind to Jews. The Jews were scattered over the Earth, ending up in hostile countries. There isn't a square inch of Europe or Asia that the Jews haven't been expelled from at one time or another. When we were allowed to live somewhere, it was under heavy taxation and with the constant fear of pogroms. True, we are nonetheless ridiculously prominent in world affairs relative to our small numbers, but that hardly makes up for two millennia of suffering.

Perhaps one could argue that the Jews, being Hashem's nation, have stringent standards and these standards were violated in some way severe enough to justify the horrors visited upon us. But then what of the rest of humanity? From the fall of Rome until well into the Renaissance, the majority of the population were starving, lived in tiny, filthy accommodations, were constantly swept with diseases, and worked from dawn to dusk trying to grow enough food to live on. The majority of children died before they reached adulthood. Women died in childbirth as often as not.

Then there are the incidents that stand out as being particularly horrible, such as the Black Death that wiped out a third of the population of Europe. Not to mention the repercussions to the Jews. How can such wanton murder be justified?

Even today, arguably the best age the world has ever known, the majority of humanity lives in abject poverty. The AIDs virus is an epidemic in Africa. Cancer cases are on the rise. . .

8 comments:

  1. You are using a normal definition of good as opposed to a theological one, specifically Jewish "theology." A standard theological definition of goodness is: "acting in accordance with God's will" (augustine?) So, taking this as as our premise since God, being the toughest thing on the block kavyochol (whatever that nonsense word is supposed to mean it isn't hebrew or aramaic) He does exactly what He Boruch Hu wants. Therefore He is good. QED or as we say in beis medrash SM.

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  2. The problem with that definition is that its circular. God is good because good is what God wants becasue God is good...

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  3. That was the bloody point.

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  4. Did you ever ask yourself if you truly understand what the Torah is saying, before you go and apply its words to something else, and then use the new implication to attack the Torah and accuse it of being evil?

    In every one of your points, there was at least one serious flaw in your understanding of what the Torah believes on the issue, most being very basic.

    You began with your assertion that we cannot rely on the Torah's telling us that H-shem is good, since G-d as its author cannot testify to his own merit.

    The only source which would make this a seemingly valid argument is the Gemara which says H-shem "keeps the Torah". Because if he didn't have to keep it - we could safely assume that the Halacha in eidus was intended only for us, and does not apply to H-shem.

    So first of all, you need to consider the cases where the Torah says one IS believed to testify about himself. Secondly, this is obviously meant to be taken in a non-literal sense, because H-shem has no guf and cannot don Tefillin, or wear Tziztis, nor can he keep any other of the physical mitzvos.

    So what does it mean he "keeps" the Torah? And how much of it is meant to be taken in a non-literal way?

    These are questions you need the answer to before you can move to the next step and apply it to a given scenario, and determine what the Torah would rule.

    The rest of the piece was all based on the assumption that according to the Torah, we are instructed to judge the pros and cons of the world based on our own way of seeing things.

    I don't know how you could have made such a mistake, there is an open pasuk which says "Ki lo machshivosai machshivosechem, v'lo darkeichem derachai".

    The Torah is replete with stories and lessons of being Matsdik es hadin and TRUSTING in H-shem, especially when things were very difficult to understand.

    The time will come when we'll understand. Our Tafkid here is to do and to become. Not to understand.

    The message here is very clear: We are seeing and thinking with an unclear lense. We are absolutely incapable of judging G-d, since we cannot see things which he can, and because our very perception of good and bad is not reliable.

    The bit on the history of mankind was very clever, but ultimately incorrect.

    We did those things. Not him.

    All he did was create the system in which we would be capable of doing whatever we chose to do.

    The approach of the Torah is that mankind would make all these exact decisions for themselves if they could see what G-d sees.

    Why he did that, and why it was absolutely necessary, and could H-shem have made things happen differently, and why couldn't the end gain of all this have been the only thing to have happened? These are all good questions and all have good answers.

    If someone wants to address an apparent problem with something the Torah says, he has to learn enough about it and understand it properly before he can do so. Otherwise its exactly like a scarecrow argument, and the person is being intellectually dishonest.

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  5. Firstly, you should know that I wrote this a very long time ago, when I was still pretty yeshivish and felt the need to argue from within the Torah framework. Anyway,

    > You began with your assertion that we cannot rely on the Torah's telling us that H-shem is good, since G-d as its author cannot testify to his own merit.

    The point about God not being able to be an eid on Himself was a throwaway point. The real problem here is the circular logic:
    1. How do we know God is good? Because the Torah says so.
    2. How do we know that the Torah is telling the truth? Because God wrote it.
    3. How do we know that God is truthful? Because God is good, and part of being good is being truthful.
    1a. How do we know God is good? Because the Torah says so.
    And so on ad nauseum.

    > We are seeing and thinking with an unclear lense. We are absolutely incapable of judging G-d, since we cannot see things which he can, and because our very perception of good and bad is not reliable.

    How convenient. Never mind that if God was human, we’d condemn Him as megalomaniacal tyrannical mass murderer. He’s God, and we just can’t understand.

    > We did those things. Not him.

    Right. All bad things are our fault. All good things are God’s doing.

    Do you really believe that “we” were responsible for high infant mortality, deaths in childbirth, the Black Plague, and subsistence farming?

    > and all have good answers.

    I’d love to hear them. Really. I spent years looking for them. All I got were fallacious arguments.

    > If someone wants to address an apparent problem with something the Torah says, he has to learn enough about it and understand it properly before he can do so. Otherwise its exactly like a scarecrow argument, and the person is being intellectually dishonest.

    Nu, I was a teenager when I wrote this. I hadn’t yet learned that I hadn’t yet learned everything.

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  6. > The point about God not being able to be an eid on Himself was a throwaway point. The real problem here is the circular logic...

    1. How do we know God is good? Because the Torah says so.

    Well, I would change it to "Because He said so". But I never got the impression that his saying so was the actual source of our perception of Him as good. Throughout Jewish literature it's simply assumed, and when the Torah speaks of Him being good, it's not to give us this knowledge, but rather to make something else clear. The reason why such an assumption is more than just a blind belief is because the concept of G-d being bad is a very difficult conclusion to reach, at least in the big picture.

    > 2. How do we know that the Torah is telling the truth? Because God wrote it.

    Again, I would phrase the question "How do know G-d is dealing with us honestly, and that he is being good to us"? And the answer is "Because of who He is". And this is really the first question and answer in the equation.

    > 3. How do we know that God is truthful? Because God is good, and part of being good is being truthful.

    This question should be "How do we know about the true nature of G-d's actions, that we can say because of it that he must be telling us the Truth and being good to us? And the answer is, two reasons: Elokeinu, velokei avoseinu.
    1. By contemplating the creation, we can recognize an infintesimal fraction of the creators greatness and wisdom, as well as what the creator is not limited by.
    2. We witnessed it.

    > How convenient. Never mind that if God was human, we’d condemn Him as megalomaniacal tyrannical mass murderer. He’s God, and we just can’t understand.

    If a human gave us a legitimate reason to believe he sees something we don't, and that we would agree with him if we knew what he did, then I don't think we would condemn him.

    "How convenient" wasn't really an argument, but just so you know it can be said about virtually anything.

    "Where were you on the night of sept 14th when the murder occurred?"

    "I was out of town on a business trip, your honor"

    "How convienent"...

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  7. > Right. All bad things are our fault. All good things are God’s doing.

    Do you really believe that “we” were responsible for high infant mortality, deaths in childbirth, the Black Plague, and subsistence farming?

    It was a generalization.

    What I mean by "we" is, us humans made the decisions which caused the system if you will, to react the way it did.

    Statements in the Torah which imply the above, (All bad things are our fault. All good things are God’s doing), can often be misleading. G-d created good, and he made it available, and desired that we choose it. All good that we choose is "G-d's doing" or more accurately "comes from G-d", since there is no existing good which is not from this original "good" he created.

    Evil however, was not desired by G-d, or more accurately was not created by G-d. Its POSSIBILITY was created only for the sake of providing an arena in which the good that G-d created could manifest itself.

    Anything under the category of evil, exists only as a result of our choices and actions, and was never intended to exist in reality. Only in potential.

    Another way of understanding this, like the Ramchal explains in Derech H-shem, is that good is G-d's "light", and evil is nothing other than the absence/concealment of this light. Therefore, it cannot be said to really even exist, as much as it appears to. Just like physical darkness doesn't really exist despite its overwhelmingly noticeable presence.

    > I’d love to hear them. Really. I spent years looking for them. All I got were fallacious arguments.


    You have to understand certain things very clearly before you are capable of addressing these questions and hearing their answers.
    My guess is you looked in the right places but never got the necessary background to make any sense of the words. Most Rabbis are unfamiliar with these concepts, as they are significantly easier to accept with emunah, than proper comprehension. The usual advice given is not to dwell on the difficult and esoteric, and instead focus on the practical laws and their depth. A common approach to this is "You do your job and let G-d do his".

    Chances are, any Rabbi who you might have conversed with on these issues was not really an expert, because if he had spent his time on philosophy - he wouldn't be a Rabbi.

    Being totally honest, as much as we can comprehend, there will always be some point - however distant - where we have to realize we are incapable. This does not invalidate anything. Our hands cannot hear, but that doesn't mean sound doesn't hit them or effect them.

    Similarly, there's no reason for us to believe that our minds are capable of understanding everything there is out there, especially when we consider the realms these ideas exist in and our infinite distance from them.

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