Do you have to be religious to be a good person?
No, clearly not.
Are all people who profess to be religious good people?
Sadly, no, there are some people professing to be good people who are pretty awful.
But - and this is my question - does it help?
Does being religious make it more likely that you will be a good person, does being religious help?
I think so.
Let me get stuck into the question in two ways, both prompted by an extraordinary moment at the end of this week’s Torah reading which will help us understand what it means to be religious, and what it means to be good. Spoiler alert - they are one and the same thing but don’t leave quite yet, come with me on the journey.
There’s an argument between Moses and his brother and sister - Aaron and Miriam. They are jealous, ‘has God only spoken to Moses, didn’t he speak to us as well?’ God’s unimpressed. He calls the three siblings together and calls out to Aaron and Miriam - ‘Usually I make myself known to prophets in a dream, but not so with Moses. With him, I speak mouth to mouth. He has seen the image of God. So how come you speak against him? And God was angry with them and left.
You might think I like this story because it’s about a family of two boys and girl being told to get on. And I’m all in favour of families with two boys and a girl getting on. But that’s not it, I’m interested in this idea of God speaking to Moses mouth to mouth’ - peh el peh - in the Hebrew. Actually there is an echo of this image elsewhere in the Torah - way back in the book of Exodus the Bible says that God spoke to Moses face to face - panim el panim.
But this is all a bit odd, for a Jew - we are used to claiming that God has no mouth - like you or I have a mouth. God is God, not a human being. We are used to claiming that God has no a face - like you or I have a face. And what does it mean when the Bible says that Moses ‘saw the image of God - tmunat adonai yabit? Surely the biggest claim of a monotheistic religion like Judaism is that God has no image.
We are at the very heart of the question of what it means to be religious. What exactly is this God thing anyway?
This is a commentary from one of the great Chassidic masters of the late C18 century, Levi Yitzhak of Beridichtev.
Says Levi Yitzhak,
ובאמת זה האדם כשהוא במדריגה זו שיש לו עזר ה' להסתכל על האי"ן אז השכל שלו הוא בטל במציאות
“Moses had the assistance of God to see that which is utterly beyond all sight. And in that moment, his human this-worldly intellect is utterly surpassed - to the point of disappearance.”
אחר כך כשאדם חוזר אל עצמות השכל אז הוא מלא שפע
“And after an experience like that, when Moses returns to the this-world realm of human intellect, he is overflowing with a flow of energy that comes from the Divine - the Hebrew word is Shefa.”
What Levi Yitzhak means is that the way Moses saw God, face to face, had nothing to do with the way light enters through the cornea and is refracted onto the retina in such a way electronic messages are sent through the optic nerve that the visual cortex of the brain recognises as images.
When Moses saw God he experienced sight in a way that no other human being has ever experienced sight.
Another of greatest Rabbis - Maimonides - zeroes in on these verses when he tries to explain quite how unlike any other prophet Moses was. Anything you know about sight - that’s not what Moses saw. Anything you know about speech - that’s not what Moses heard.
Perhaps the best way to explain is through the example of a great short story, written by Edwin Abbott a long time ago. In the story Flatland everyone exists only in two dimensions until someone realises that there is a third dimension, and that world doesn’t just go up & down and left & right, but in & out too. Or maybe you might be into string theory - the great attempt of physicists to work out all the complexities of the world. Every time they can’t explain the world with a number of dimensions you thought you knew about the add another dimension to explain the things that were previously beyond imagining. According to the string theorists, there are up to ten, or possibly eleven dimensions in the Universe. And when physicists look at the eighth or ninth or tenth dimension they don't look like you or I look at another person, they are looking that it’s almost impossible to understand.
And the dimension in which God has a face that Moses sees says Levi Yitzhak, is the dimension beyond all that, it’s the dimension that Moses could only see with the assistance of God, it’s the dimension that wiped out all human intelligence. But having seen that image which is beyond sight, Moses understood something no other human has ever understood, and no other human can ever understand.
Being religious means allowing for that to be the case, it means allowing for there to be that extra dimension beyond all human intellect, beyond all human sight, a realm where the secrets of the universe will always be beyond human grasp and understanding.
And in the Jewish tradition, the claim we make is that one great prophet, Moses, in a way I cannot understand and cannot replicate and cannot test and cannot explain, crossed that threshold between the dimensions of human capacity and the realm of Shefa - divine energy.
That’s the nature of religion.
So what has any of that got to do with being good?
We need one more verse.
Way back in the first Chapter of Genesis God creates humanity, and the Torah says this,
God said, Let us make humanity in our image and our likeness, so God created humanity in God’s image.
And this, for me is the heart of all Jewish ethics. Just like the shadow thrown by a cube is a square, and just like the shadow a sphere is a circle, so too the shadow, the image, of God is me, or you, or you - or any of us.
Actually, that’s kind of the point - the image of God isn’t a single human being - it’s the totality of all human beings that have ever or will ever be created.
In a 2,000-year-old Rabbinic Text, Mishnah Sanhedrin, the Rabbis ask why God created all humanity from a single original human - and their best answer is that it was God’s way of demonstrating how beyond understanding God really is, for - say the Rabbis when a flesh and blood Monarch wants to press a coin, they create a mould and every coin comes out looking exactly the same - but when the king of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, wants to create a coin they create a mould and every coin comes out looking different. That’s us, of course, we are the coins that come out looking different.
It’s one of my favourite images in all of Rabbinics, because back then, just like today you get faces on coins. And back then coins were things that most human beings thought were really important. But coins are boring - they all look the same. It’s human beings that are really important, because we all look different, and each of us in some unique, mysterious way that is beyond human ability to describe, each of us contains within our humanity something of the image of God.
And this is where religious ethics comes in. If you have a belief that there is a divine power beyond all human understanding and that that divine power created us to contain some element, some whisper, some potentiality, some shadow of that divinity in our humanness - then how could you possibly mistreat another human.
The best word to think about to understand religious ethics is ‘otherness’ - God is wholly other, wholly beyond in a way I can’t explain, in a way that makes no human sense. But every other human being in the world is other in a very direct way that tests my ability to respect the image of God every time I want to have an argument with my siblings, or every time I walk past a homeless person on the street, or every time I buy something in a shop, or send an email or ...
The goal of our human lives is to acknowledge the otherness of other people in such a way as to acknowledge how they are created in the image of God every bit as much as I am.
The goal of our human lives - not Moses, Moses was different, Moses looked at God face-to-face and saw the image of God directly - but you or I - our goal is to look at the image of God as expressed in the faces of the people we meet, the people we know, and the people we don’t know, the people we like and - and here’s the kicker, even the people we don’t like.
And you want to know how to be really good? Treat everyone you meet as if they are made in the image of God. I don’t know a better way of putting it. I don’t think any secular philosophy has ever got close. I like Immanuel Kant, but Kant falls short. I think the secular world will fall short because the secular world doesn’t value otherness the way religion values otherness.
Because for religious people other people aren’t something to be tolerated or to be treated as ends in themselves, or to be done to as one would wish to be done for oneself.
For religious people, other people are our test of living up to the gift of our creation.
There’s politics here - how should we treat all those other people who come to our country. The Mayor of London was at an Iftar held in a local Synagogue this week. He said something about how important it is for people from different religions and cultures to come together this because, and I quote “our diversity isn’t a weakness but our greatest strength, it isn’t a challenge to be managed but an asset to be unlocked.” Diversity isn’t a weakness, otherness isn’t a problem, it’s the solution.
But let me end with something micro - about our everyday lives.
Let me assign some homework. Try this.
Look at someone, anyone, and imagine you are seeing on their face the image of God. Imagine you are face-to-face with God.