Every reader of this column — no matter how alienated from religion — is familiar with the adage, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Even the United Nations issued a postage stamp with these words chiseled into stone.
I suspect, however, that many people who are familiar with this verse either have no idea where it’s from, or believe it’s from the New Testament. In fact, it is from the Torah, the very middle of it, as if to say, “this is what the Torah is all about.”
But my concern here is neither the fame nor the influence of Leviticus 19:18. Rather it is how few people know what the verse really says. It does not say simply, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”
Whether deliberately, or even consciously, or not, the verse has been secularized, and thereby robbed of half its meaning.
From the Torah’s point of view, as well as that of logic, whether or not God demands that we treat our fellow human beings decently is the most important moral question. If it is not God who directs us to be good people, who or what does?
There are three possible answers: a) Moses or whoever else wrote that verse; b) reason or common sense; c) our individual consciences.
The Torah knows that any of those would be far less effective in getting people to treat their neighbor decently.
The entire ethical edifice of the Torah rests on understanding that unless God is regarded as the source of ethics, there will be no ethical society. Of course there will always be ethical individuals. But that was always true. There were ethical individuals among the child-sacrificing Canaanites, among the human-sacrificing Aztecs and among the most primitive tribes that ever lived. But no one would argue that Canaanite, Aztec or pagan beliefs made those individuals ethical, let alone built ethical societies.
Unfortunately, most Jews and most other secularists believe that an ethical society can be built without God. But, interestingly, every atheist philosopher I have interviewed or debated has, to his credit, acknowledged that if there is no God, morality — i.e., good and evil — are only subjective opinions. If there is no God, “good” and “evil” no more represent an objective reality than do “pretty” and “ugly.”
When confronted with Judaism’s (and logic’s) insistence on a transcendent source of morality, the most frequently offered argument by those committed to a godless moral world is: “More people have been killed by religions in the name of God than by anything else.”
This line is, quite simply, false. It is not an opinion with which I happen to differ. It is just false. The fact is that far more people have been murdered — not to mention enslaved and tortured — by secular anti-religious regimes than by all the God-based groups in history.
Mao-Tse Tung’s atheistic regime in China killed between 40 million and 70 million people.
Joseph Stalin’s atheistic regime in the Soviet Union killed 20 million or more people.
Pol Pot’s atheistic regime in Cambodia killed about one out of every four Cambodians.
The North Korean atheistic regime has killed millions of its own people.
Nazism, an irreligious racist doctrine, killed as many as 17 million civilians.
The Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in Rwanda for ethnic and tribal reasons, not religious ones.
The 5.4 million Congolese killed in the last decade has nothing to do with religion.
And at this moment, as regards Jews and the greatest Jewish existential question — that of Israel’s survival — the more religious the American Christian, the more likely he or she is to support Israel, while the greatest enmity toward Israel emanates from the center of secularism, the university.
Those who claim that God-based societies have killed more than any others regularly cite the Crusades and the Inquisition. But this, too, proves my point. First, these events occurred 1,000 years ago and 500 years ago, respectively. If God-belief is such a source of murder, why the need to use examples from so long ago? Second, the Crusades were essentially Christendom’s war to re-conquer the holy places that Muslims had conquered in their wars of aggression against Christianity. Unless one holds that all wars are immoral, this one was not particularly so. What was particularly immoral was the massacring of Jewish communities in Germany by Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land; though even here, one should note that those massacres were never directed by the Church, and that Jews regularly hid in the homes of bishops.
As for the Inquisition, the largest number of executions I have seen for the Inquisition period of 1540-1700 is 3,000. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Hutus in Rwanda, all murdered more in a day than the Inquisition murdered in 160 years.
Today, when one thinks of murder in the name of God, one thinks of Islamic terror. And one is right to. But radical Islam has nothing to do with the Torah or any Judeo-Christian belief system, and its Allah is not the God of the Torah or of the New Testament. Indeed, its adherents target Jews and Christians.
Many secular Jews and others fervently yearn for a good society. It is a yearning I share. The record shows, however, that with all its problems, a God-based society — as envisaged from Moses to Isaiah to Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin — is the best chance we have to actually make one.
When asked why they risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, rescuers gave many reasons. But none of them answered “because of secularism” or “because reason told me to do so; it was the only rational thing to do.”
Coupling God and morality — as in Leviticus 19:18 — was the Torah’s greatest moral achievement. The Jews’ decoupling of God and morality is the Jews’, and the world’s, greatest moral tragedy.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.