Shmuly Yanklowitz

Can one be Religious and Unethical?

In my years immersed in religious text study on a quiet hilltop just south of Jerusalem, I believed that the more I studied the better of a person I would become. One shocking day I learned, however, that it was an illusion. One could study the wrong way and the Torah could make them worse. Indeed, we must approach our texts with an intellectually critical lens and not a morally submissive one.

One might be tempted to suggest that one is only religious if they are ethical as well suggesting that if one errs ethically, they have not adhered to the real teachings of the religion. But this point dismisses the crucial moral responsibility that we have to refine our religious traditions. We must embrace that one can indeed be religious and be unethical. To not accept this phenomenon is to take responsibility for evil that comes from our communities. It is to pretend that adherence to our particular faith contains all that is needed to be a moral person in the 21st century.

The Pope meant well when he recently said that Christians who mistreat others should say: “My life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life.” Similarly, during the 2016 election the Pope challenged whether Donald Trump was truly being a Christian. He is teaching that to be a good Christian one must be honest which is noble but in doing so, he is not also taking responsibility for problematic Christian teachings and Christian norms here.

When Muslim leaders today say that “terrorists are not real Muslims” their intentions are also good. They want to emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace but they’re not taking responsibility for the fact that hateful teachings are found in Islam that enable these terrorists. They’re not acknowledging how widespread fundamentalism is within global Islam today.

When Jews try to dismiss Jewish extremists as acting outside of Judaism, they aren’t taking responsibility for Jewish teachings that enable them. We must grapple with those texts, laws, and teachings and make clear that a new translation or legal ruling must be given that is explicitly different.

What is vital for the stability of world affairs — and souls — is the notion we must embrace that none of the religious traditions of the world is absolutely perfect. They attempt perfection, they may even provide correct pathways, but they are not categorically without flaw. Violence and intolerance can be found in religious scriptures from every faith. That is why it is up to each individual in each faith to seek the ethical truth in the universe with every fiber of our being. Our religions need checks upon them and embracing a critical and reflective hermeneutic does not cancel our piety but enhances it. There is a huge diversity of “valid” teachings within every tradition that are “authentic” to the tradition. To be more moral, one must make unique moral choices within one’s respective tradition and not merely submit to religious teachings or authorities. If we want to see a more just society then we must have a more expansive moral consciousness and encourage more people to cultivate ethical character beyond what our religious traditions may mandate. We embrace but also transcend particularism into broader vistas.

The Ramban famously taught (commentary on Leviticus 19:2) that one could be a “naval birshut haTorah” (a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah). One could follow every law but still be a wicked person. We must have a larger moral consciousness and cultivate moral character beyond what our religious traditions may mandate. One could believe in God and in the Torah, can profess fidelity to Jewish law, can show kindness to one’s friends and local community, and can live fully within the Jewish laws and still be a scoundrel (hating refugees, shunning immigrants, oppressing women, neglecting the poor, etc.). Although we know they are not truly “religious” (since good religion most certainly includes higher ethical commitments and not just a fidelity to traditional law, belief, and ritual) we must also admit that that person is indeed “religious” (badly religious) within a valid model of the Jewish tradition. They can, indeed, be religious (more than just ritually observant) and still be unethical.

Rav Kook taught that even a “fear of God” could lead one to be morally confused.

A person’s fear of God (yirat shamayim) should not displace natural morality, since then it ceases to be a pure fear of God. The sign of pure fear of God is when it aids natural morality, which arises from the human being’s upright nature, to attain an even higher level, higher than it could attain alone. However, if fear of God is depicted as hindering the person’s effectiveness and capacity to perform beneficial actions for the individual and the community, and as causing fewer activities to be undertaken, then that fear of God is invalid,” (Midot Haraiyah, Love, Section 11, p. 27).

In addition to just living with religious virtues (like the fear of God), we must deeply cultivate our moral conscience which informs those virtues. Rav Kook continues on how crucial our basic human natural morality is for living an ethical life.

The manifest natural morality needs to be clarified before the soul can reach a higher fundamental morality. Only by encouraging a firm, basic foundation in this way can we build the structure whose summit reaches Heaven. The more extensive the oak tree’s roots, and the deeper and more deeply rooted they are, the fresher, stronger and more fertile its branches will be and its leaves will not whither,” (Midot Haraiyah, Love, Section 16, p. 32).

Religious communities cannot be afraid of drawing upon moral wisdom outside of the text (sometimes that may even contradict a traditional or literal reading of a text). Religious people should not try to escape responsibility by dismissing hateful texts in their traditions as un-Jewish, un-Christian, un-Buddhist, or un-Islamic behaviors. This is mere, myopic apologetics. Rather than block out these existing sources and norms and let ourselves off the hooks, we must actively address and correct these ideas that entered our traditions.

With the tides of world affairs being torn asunder and the creep towards far-right extremism becoming ever-more possible from the far reaches of the Philippines to Europe, and even here in the United States, we should be vigilant of those that use faith as a blanket to cover their reactionary disregard for the most vulnerable. It is time that we become “woke” to their behavior and begin to recognize it for what it is: the antithesis of responsible religion! And the antithesis to living an ethical life. Likewise, it may be time to fundamentally alter our perception of what being responsibly religious means in the post-modern mindset. It is time that we embrace the notion one can be both religious and unethical and that each religion is incomplete. To not accept this phenomenon is to shun responsibility for the evil that emanates from our communities.

We can lead the corrective. While the proper definition of morality differs by religion, there is something to be said that a basic level of ethics exists enough in the ether and that we all share a conception of our best natures. Let us turn the tide and refocus our spiritual journeys towards fostering a more just, peaceful, and holy world.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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