The Torah, morality, antisemitism and the Tao

Are civilizations without the Torah also without morality, and is this the origin of antisemitism?

Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

The question of the origin of morality is probably unanswerable, but a courageous attempt was recently made on this site, and with it an even more daunting effort to explain the cause of antisemitism.

In his article, Mr. Hillel Fuld asserts, “The less morality in a society, the more antisemitism there is. Think about it: Ancient Egypt, the Greek empire, the Roman empire, the Nazi empire … all those empires tried to annihilate the Jews. All those empires lacked morality.”

Fuld posits that this lack of morality was the cause of antisemitism. As he puts it, “Let’s remember what the source of morality is: It’s the Torah, the Bible, the Old Testament. Call it whatever you want, but the world knows it’s immoral to steal, lie and murder from the Torah. The Torah is the epitome of morality. Thus, the messengers of morality are those who delivered the Torah to the world—the Jews.” When societies wish to be immoral, “They blame the messenger. They blame the Jews.”

Though somewhat self-congratulatory, Fuld’s argument is an interesting one. But is it accurate?

First, were civilizations without the Torah by definition without morality? It is very unlikely, if not impossible, that this is the case. A society cannot exist without some kind of moral code, for a fairly obvious reason: No community, large or small, can sustain itself if people are constantly killing and robbing each other. A moral order is necessary to maintain basic social stability.

However, one could say that this is not real morality, just arbitrary norms. There is something to this, but even thinkers steeped in the Bible have ultimately rejected it. The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, for example, criticized moral relativism by asserting that all civilizations embrace more or less the same moral code.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote, “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’ … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

Lewis presented numerous examples of the moral principles inherent in the “Tao,” including from the Torah, but one of the most interesting comes from a civilization Fuld singled out for opprobrium: ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians believed that, when a person dies, he must face the judgment of the gods in the afterlife. He thus makes a series of statements related to the concept of ma’at, which might be translated as “correct order.” These statements include:

“I have not committed sin.”

“I have not stolen.”

“I have not slain men and women.”

“I have not uttered lies.”

“I have not committed adultery.”

“I have not slandered.”

“I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.”

“I have not blasphemed.”

“I have wronged none, I have done no evil.”

All of these are expressions of moral principles. They are, in fact, remarkably similar to the Ten Commandments, and even include the extraordinary statement “I have made none to weep,” which is as compelling a moral imperative as “Do unto others…”

It seems, then, that Fuld is wrong. Civilizations that knew nothing of the Torah had a very firm morality—a Tao. It was a sound morality, and not very different from that of the Torah.

Is the Torah unique, then? And is this uniqueness connected to antisemitism?

I think the answer is yes. First, the Torah is unique in that it proscribed idolatry and—more importantly—attributed morality, the Tao, to an abstract and universal God. These were revolutionary ideas, and a significant step forward in humanity’s development.

The Torah is also unique in a historical sense: It was the means by which the Tao was transmitted to what became Western civilization. And it did so in a manner that was superior to the West’s other source of the Tao—that of the Greeks. The Greek understanding of the Tao was essentially a skeptical one. By contrast, the Torah understood that the Tao is universal and immutable, and was thus far more successful in transmitting it.

This is almost certainly connected to antisemitism, though not in the manner Fuld describes. The connection is, in fact, a Freudian one: Western civilization stands on two pillars—one Jewish and one Greek. The Hellenistic civilization, however, has long since passed into history. The Jewish civilization, by contrast, is still here and still vibrant, and this has serious implications.

Put simply, the adoption of the Jewish Tao by the pagan West was an act of cultural appropriation on a world-historical scale. This is not by definition a bad thing. Cultural appropriation is a historical constant, and can often revive and revitalize a moribund society. In this case, however, it created a certain anxiety of influence.

This anxiety is expressed in a kind of Oedipal relationship. The West knows that the Jews are the only surviving fathers of its civilization, and this has led to the kind of fear, resentment and hatred, along with love and fascination, that sons very often feel towards their fathers. It often seems as if the West feels, in classic Freudian terms, that it must kill its father in order to become itself, yet cannot quite bring itself to do so. Hence the strange and sometimes dark dance between the Jews and the West.

Antisemitism, pace Fuld, it is not about morality or immorality. It is about history, the history of the transmission of the Tao, and its often formidable discontents.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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