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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.