In my experience, churches are pretty good at coming up with slogans to put on signs out front, near the curb. Some are cute. Some are clever. Some are corny. Whatever the case, one thing I find is true: they tend to be catchy. Synagogues, on the other hand, don’t tend to put slogans on their front lawns. The only slogans you’ll find are when they put up signs for Federation’s Campaign. But nothing much for themselves.
I’d like to share a few interesting church slogans I’ve come across over the years.
I saw that one in front of a church near my old house in north Toronto several years ago. Very cute. Maybe my favourite.
GET MESSAGE INSIDE
Pretty clever. I found that one online. Here’s another one I found online:
WHAT ON EARTH
ARE YOU DOING
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE?
Another clever one.
Now here’s a sign I came across where I currently live, in Hamilton, Ontario:
LIFE WITHOUT GOD
IS LIKE AN UNSHARPENED PENCIL…
This last one really bothered me. Yes, it’s clever. It’s got a nice little analogy going for it. But it bothers me. Sure, I’ll see a church sign that expresses a different faith system. I’m fine with that. We human beings have different beliefs. But this belief, this slogan, bothered me when I first drove by it several years ago, and it still bothers me today.
And I’ll tell you why.
Believing or Not Believing in God
Judaism does not say that a person’s life is pointless if he/she does not believe in God. Quite the opposite. Every life is precious.
Maimonides, the great twelfth-century rabbinic sage and philosopher, wrote:
One must feed and clothe the gentile poor together with the Israelite poor, for the sake of peace.
— Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:7
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the second century compiler of the Mishnah, said:
Great is peace! For even if the Israelites worshiped the stars – should peace reign among them, God would say: “I cannot rule over them since peace reigns among them.” Learn, therefore, that peace is great and strife is hateful.
— Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38:6
What?! Even if Jews worshiped the stars?! But then we wouldn’t believe in God! Can you believe how radical this statement is? This represents the opposite view to that expressed in the church slogan.
This is what he’s saying: if people do not believe in God but their actions serve to create a world of good, then this is a fulfillment of God’s wishes!
And what does God say about God? Consider the Shema, which we read twice a day.
You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
— Deuteronomy 6:5
So we are commanded to love God. But what does that mean? How do you love someone? Do you write cards? Do you write poems? Do you simply utter the words, “I love you?”
The answer is in the text. It’s in the second paragraph.
If you will earnestly heed the mitzvot I give you this day, to love Adonai your God and to serve God with all your heart and all your soul…
— Deuteronomy 11:13
God tells us that it is by our actions that we show our love for God. It is not belief in and of itself.
Parashat Mishpatim and the Value of Life
This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Mishpatim, contains a few crimes that are considered capital crimes – punishable by death. One of them reads as follows:
He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.
— Exodus 21:12
It doesn’t say “a Jewish man”. It doesn’t say, “If the victim didn’t believe in God, the murderer shall be spared.” No. Life is life and murder is murder. Every human life has value.
Today’s parasha contains that famous line about an eye for an eye. It’s often misinterpreted. The idea behind that law is not vengeance but justice. And justice is meaningless if it doesn’t apply to everyone – not just to those who believe in God. Every human life has value.
Now, back to the church slogan. I look at that sign and I see a very exclusive and even dangerous idea. You cannot dismiss the value or worth of a person’s life based on the god she/he worships or whether or not he/she believes in God.
Yes, as Jews, we are commanded to worship God as defined in the Bible. We are commanded to observe God’s mitzvot — God’s laws. But it is precisely by fulfilling the mitzvot and by acting to do good in this world that we fulfill God’s wishes.
Jewish or non-Jewish, believer or non-believer, if you are serving the ideals of God – the ideals of justice, truth, and loving-kindness – then you are serving God.
Life is never like an unsharpened pencil; life always has a point.