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How Does G-d Decide What's Right and What's Wrong?

How Does G-d Decide What's Right and What's Wrong?



I would be most interested in hearing your views regarding that dialogue of Plato's where Socrates argues (with Euthyphro, I think) that moral acts are not moral because the gods love them, rather the gods love moral acts because they are moral (the actual discussion is about piety). Contemporary philosophy has embraced Socrates' view. But I believe that the Torah view -- if I understand it correctly -- is that Socrates got it backward: What makes theft, etc., wrong isn't an intrinsic quality in the act that we as well as G‑d can perceive. What makes theft wrong is that it is displeasing to G‑d (or that G‑d decided he doesn't want us to steal).


The crux of it is that to Plato and Socrates, things are the way they are because they must be that way. Time and matter are necessary entities. The principles of Euclidean geometry are "self apparent truths" that could not be otherwise. This notion runs throughout Greek philosophy. And it is perhaps the central point of divergence with Jewish thought.

The Jewish G‑d has free choice. He chose time and space. But He could just as well have chosen entirely other parameters. We can have absolutely no comprehension of what those parameters might be, since He did not choose them and therefore they never came to exist, even in concept. But there is nothing compelling about time and space in particular, or about the way they work, that compels their Creator to create them. And similarly with the rules of logic, causality, geometry, and, yes, ethics.

This is truly the concept behind the very first verse of the Torah, "In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth." As you know, in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Bible), G‑d makes heaven and earth -- because the Greeks simply didn't have a word for creation out of nothing. The idea to them was more than absurd -- it wasn't even in the lexicon.

But there's more: The active form of the verb (G‑d created -- not "Heaven and earth came into being") implies that this was an act of volition. In fact, when the act of creation is describe as "And G‑d said…", Nachmanides translates that as "And G‑d willed…". Nothing had to be created. But He did create, so we are here.

The sweeping inclusion of "heaven and earth" also has weighty implications. Heaven is generally understood in mythology as the source of our existence down here. The way the gods are up there are to blame for how we are down here. But in Torah, nothing precedes our existence. G‑d, who cannot truly be called an "existence", originates it all out of the void.

Nothing precedes our existence, not even the absence of it -- for there was no time according to almost all the classic Jewish thinkers. So there was no before. In creating our existence, G‑d also creates the absence of it -- meaning that it could also not be.

Therefore, the Jewish G‑d cannot be properly called a "Primal Cause", since that would imply a necessary effect in consequence of the cause. The existence of the universe has no cause. There was no potential for a world to exist preceding it. Nothing. And so, it could be made any way He wishes it to be made.

Unnecessary Ethics

Now to the issue that you raise, concerning ethics. If the cosmos were a necessary existence, both in matter and form, one would have to conclude that the ethics needed to sustain this cosmos are also necessary. The question of why there is evil in the world would have to be dismissed by assuming this to be also necessary, as an artifact of the matter of which the world was made, or some other similar explanation.

But this is how the rabbis put it in an ancient Midrash (Breishit Rabbah):

At the onset of the world's creation, G‑d beheld the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked... "And the world was chaos and void" (Genesis 1:2) -- these are the deeds of the wicked. "And G‑d said: Let there be light" (ibid. verse 3) -- these are the deeds of the righteous. But I still do not know which of them He desires... Then, when it says, And G‑d saw the light, that it is good" (verse 4), I know that He desires the deeds of the righteous, and does not desire the deeds of the wicked.

What the Midrash is saying: On the first day of Creation, G‑d said there should be light. But there was also darkness, chaos and void. Then the Torah tells us that G‑d called the light day and the darkness He called night.

The rabbis interpret light and darkness in a broad sense. At this point, there already exist two options: The deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked. And at this point, there is no way to know which one G‑d desires. There is nothing intrinsic about good or about G‑d that G‑d must choose good.

As the Book of Job (35:6) states: "If you sin, how have you affected Him? If your transgressions multiply, what do you do to Him? If you do righteously, what have you given Him? What can He possibly receive from your hand?"

But then, the Genesis story continues and says, "And G‑d saw the light, that it was good." So now we know that G‑d chose to desire the deeds of the righteous.

But G‑d did not have to choose good over evil. He could have chosen violence, theft and all other destructive elements. More significantly, He could have chosen that both good and evil remain in constant struggle. As the Baal Shem Tov explains this Midrash, G‑d could have decided that darkness makes a very nice setting for light, and evil makes a similarly fitting background for good. And He could have just desired that things continue that way, eternally. He didn't -- but the option was there.

Tolerating Evil

This is the best explanation I know for the great quandary of evil: Since G‑d created "the heavens and the earth," and since He chooses good and not evil, then how on earth does evil ever come to be? How can that which opposes His will be derived from His will? Since we believe in creation ex nihilo, including, as Nachmanides describes in detail, the very material out of which all is made, there's no one and nothing left to blame evil upon. All is from Him.

If G‑d hated evil because it opposes Him in essence, this quandary would be insurmountable. Once we say that He chose to hate evil, the issue is dismissed. On the contrary, that very choice to hate evil is the ultimate source that brings evil to existence by implication. After all, you can't hate something that doesn't exist. So evil exists in order for G‑d to despise it. Or better, it exists out of G‑d's spite for it.

Steve Goldstein, architect, was lost on an unnamed island in the South Pacific for who knows how many years. When they finally came to rescue him, they were amazed to find him the singular inhabitant of a small town, all of which had been designed and built by Steve Goldstein, architect. Before Steve left, he gave them a tour -- of his house, his café, his supermarket, his movie theater, his sports arena, and finally, his prize achievement, his synagogue.

But there was one tall building he did not take them to. He seemed intent on ignoring all their questions about it. When they insisted and persisted, he gestured in annoyance and replied, "Oh, that. That's the shul I don't go to."

Everyone needs a shul they don't go to. Every story written has an antagonist. Every game has a challenge. And G‑d creates evil. As the prophet Isaiah said as clear as can be, "He forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil" (Isaiah 45:7). His will creates goodness and His disdain creates evil.

The rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 69b) say this much in their own style:

When Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, he cried, "Where is His awesomeness? Where is His might? Idolaters are dancing in His Temple and He is silent!"

Later, in the time of Babylonian Exile, when the Men of the Great Assembly established a standard version of prayer, they needed to choose superlatives by which to praise G‑d. They chose, "the mighty and the awesome G‑d." To Jeremiah's question, they answered, "That itself is His awesomeness, that itself is His might. He sees those who go against Him and He is silent."

G‑d is not impelled to act against evil, since its very existence is by His choice. He is able to stand back (figuratively, of course, since we understand Him as being imminent as well as transcendent) and watch the drama unfold.

His Free Choice and Ours

This explains our realm of free choice, as well: Since good and evil exist by their Creator's volition, so, too, they are acted out by volition. In other words, we, the players in this drama, choose the path of our drama, towards good or evil, just as the Author chose that these paths should exist in the first place.

The cycles of nature, the paths of the stars, the laws of motion, etc. -- in all these (i.e. most of our everyday life), we have no choice. Only in matters of choosing between good and evil do we have a choice. We can't make spring come before winter, or make children older than their parents, or revise one plus one to become five. But we can decide not to clobber the guy in the next cubicle, or give a few more dollars to a good cause. As the Talmud puts it, "All is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven."

But doesn't G‑d also have free choice in determining these laws and patterns? Since G‑d is a free agent in all things, we should also be!

On this, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, provides an insight. First G‑d chose what will be good and what will be evil and the dynamic between them. Once this was determined, all things were designed as the background to this drama. Since the drama had already been written, the background could only be designed in one way. No choice was left. Therefore, we, too, have no choice in these matters.

Absolute Hatred

One last point: One may take a wrong turn under the influence of the above discussion, assuming that since G‑d chose to hate evil, therefore it doesn't really matter so much to Him, since He could always turn around and change His mind. In fact, just the opposite is true. When something is hated for a reason, the degree of hatred is commensurate to the worthiness of that reason. But when, with nothing compelling either way, G‑d chooses light over dark, this is a choice from the very essence of G‑d. It is therefore compelling without limit.

G‑d can forgive us for choosing evil, since He is above the drama. But He does not forgive the evil itself. After all, that is what He chose: that He will hate evil with an ultimate hatred, and eventually have it utterly destroyed -- may that be sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (31)
January 14, 2017
To Shlomo M
The word "form" or "shape" in Hebrew is 'iyysev

Bara' means "create" and it does not mean form.

Gd created the world from Gd's own Self, using the sefirot.

Gd did not merely "shape" or "form" the world from existing matter. Originally there was no matter. There was only G-d.
January 14, 2017
To Aaron
Gd said to teach your children to swim, to find them a mate (so they can make babies), and to teach them a trade.

This (IIRC) are the three obligations of a father, which are written in the Oral Torah. The oral torah was (obviously) part of the culture, handed down orally and by imitation until the Romans were killing so many of us that we feared it might be lost and we wrote it down. It may even be in the Mishnah (the earlier part of the Talmud). Either way, Gd did say it.
January 8, 2017
G-d created Knowledge
Your question appears to ask about Ha'Shem's thought process. Why does he do the things he does? Why is there evil? Why does the world adhere to a time line? etc.
Answer: When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they partook of the right to information. They opened the human mind to among other things, intrigue. However, mankind cannot handle all knowledge, which is precisely why Ha'Shem told Adam not to eat from the tree. G-d did not create the evil, only the knowledge of it.
Your question is a good one, but one which only Moschiach can answer.
Benzion Waldman
Millburn, NJ
June 22, 2015
hoshej and ohr
Tzvi: Our eyes as a´shem gave them to us work better with ohr than with hoshej.

Ohr takes us to ein sof. Why would anybody study torah without light?

A blind person sees better with his heart, he does not need light.He needs ohr.
leon roiter
February 13, 2010
Thanks Tzvi!
What an interesting and insightful article.
Sydney, Australia
September 18, 2009
I don't think Socrates had it backwards. Goodness has an intrinsic quality.

The Greek philosophers were trying to get away from the idea of whimsical gods (in Hebrew--elohim) and things being as they are because of the choices and whims of the gods. They were searching for intrinsic values.

It seems the writer, here, is going backwards to a pagan idea that good is good because of the will of deity, not because God created it thus. If it something is good, it is because God is good and created the laws of goodness. Goodness, therefore, has an intrinsic quality. It is not something accidental or whimsical. The God of Israel is not a "fly-by night" god.

Also, the word "bara" (translated "created" in most English Bible versions) in Hebrew means "to fashion or to make." It does not mean to create out of nothing.

It is from the Greeks we got the idea of ex nihilo, creation "out of nothing." It was Philo Judeaus who brought the best of Plato into Jewish thought.
Shlomo Mansfeld
Reno, NV
August 6, 2009
Godlessness and Righteous people
God is not a person. He does not make choices as we do. Trying to understand God's acts from a human perspective is a waste of time. The tricky thing is that we cannot judge, we can try and I don't think it matter much if we do. Judging God would just be the simple act of a limited entity that hasn't reach understanding of, or contact with it/him. Judging him is part of the process of understanding him. The drawback of this process is that eventually it will drives us to self destruction. And God has nothing to do with that.

About the burned child...
God was not in the child's father. His Godlessness makes him act as he did. God is in the child. That's why he/she survived. Even if the baby didn't survive the abuse, the Godlessness in the father actions serves a purpose. Other people can see and learn from the event, as an example of how wicked a man without God can be. With the example, a solution a remedy or preventive action could be put in practice to avoid abuse.

If people around the baby (the people who are responsible for the babys care and the community) teach that God saved him/her from a certain death at the hands of a Godless man, the baby will grow giving thanks for every day God gives to live.
By the same token that person (the baby) will learn that God is more than a word, a concept or the prime matter of a theological structure. If the absence of God can be in the most deceiving places (like the baby’s own father), God can be too in the most deceiving places, as well in many other ways and forms that we haven’t thought about yet. We must try to understand how intricate God's essence is, and look for it.

God didn't create Evil. Evil is a consequence of God's existence in our consciousness. Our nature as human beings created the perception of evil. We define it. In our minds god is light and evil is shadow. Without one the other cannot exist. But it is all a mental process not necessarily the way it is. Our limited minds makes this be as it is. God it is not like that at all. God is Indefinable.

Before we developed the ability to know and to know that we know (sapiens-sapiens) evil was not there for us to see (Garden of Eden) we didn’t understood evil. Then humans tried to understand God and in the process we questioned God, thus making evil. That's what we've been doing since.

God doesn't let evil things happen to us. We do. We make houses in flood plains, we engage in wars.
We don't educate our children and give them the necessary values to be righteous people as adults.
God gave us intelligence to understand these things an yet we keep living in the same places and repeating the same mistakes. Very sadly, in some cases as a tradition.
It is us who created all the technology that destroy earth's balance. Hurricanes, tornadoes, Tsunamis, all are part of the ecosystem trying to gain balance. God design earth to be in a way and earth does as it is intended to. It is us, we are trying to change things the way we want them to be.
We should not blame God for our mistakes.

Everything that happens in the world has importance and a purpose. Our wrongdoing has a purpose, and Gods will as well.
Marcos Ruiz
Puerto Rico
August 3, 2009
If everything that happens is sent from Gd
why does Gd send evil to a pre-verbal child?

Like the infant whose father fried it?

We are told this must be from a correction needed from a prior gilgul.

How is being fried in a pan a "correction"?

What does "correction" mean in this context?

The child was burned over 100% of its body.Muscle damage.Multiple surgeries & STILL crippled, physically, emotionally, and morally.

What do we say to this child?



If the child doesn't have an evil soul, what does "correction" even MEAN?

Is this how rigtheousness grows in the child? Crippling it so it cannot serve Gd? How is that a "correction"? Again, what does "correction" even MEAN?

Tell us what to say to this child!

If the child thinks it was simply the father's evil, that's bad enough.
If it thinks Gd did it, how can it trust Gd?
If it thinks it deserved it, how can it trust itself?
Its EMUNA is shattered.
This is no "correction"!
Daniel Kohn
August 3, 2009
Why does Gd send suffering?
If GD sends everything that happens, then some of what happens is purely the result of Gd, and not a consequence of our own doing.
If we live in the flood plain we will get flooded.
If we live beyond the 100-year flood plain, and there is a huge flood beyond anything that ever happened before, we are suffering from something we did not cause. Why must everyone in this neighborhood (or everyone in New Orleans) lose his home? Did Gd do it? Surely the sin level of everyone in town is not the same. Why did Gd do this?
Adults make mistakes and take the consequences. Folks who flaunt the Torah may get difficulties: wake-up calls.
But infants have not done anything evil.
A book catalogues the life, to age 16, of an infant whose father put it into a hot frying pan.
Why does Gd permit him to have a baby?
Tikkun nefesh?
Tell us
how this harm, body & soul, helps a baby to serve Gd better than if it had not been fried
& what to tell the baby?
Daniel Kohn
August 3, 2009
Continued, II
So from the pov of the species, murder and adultery are wrong. Theft,maybe. Honoring our parents doesn't matter.
Also there is another commandment which appears nowhere: Care for the young. Enable them to survive. Teach them what they need to know to make it on their own.

Most creatures in a state of nature do all of these w/o being commanded. Only humans fail at these "mitzvos". So the wrongness of murder, adultery, and mistreating children is built into the system and all higher creatures (birds and mammals) know them. Except us.

Does that mean they are intrinsically wrong or that Gd chose to create a system in which they were wrong?

Since Gd CREATED the system, it must be that Gd chose to create a system in which they were wrong.

But Gd did NOT create the wrongness of theft until private property emerged.

And Gd never did say, "Thou shalt provide for thy children and teach them to make a living."

Why not?
Aaron Sachs