Thousands of years before the modern era there were statues and temples all across Greece and Rome that paid homage to various gods, goddesses, and even demigods. We tend to look back on those times as if they were mythological fiction but, the truth is there really was a time when many people believed Zeus was the father of mankind, the King of the Gods, and ruled the world from on top of Mount Olympus. (In Roman mythology Zeus was Jupiter and ruled from the sky). Both Zeus and Jupiter were associated with the sun and the sky. In Egyptian mythology we have the same sun deity in the sun-god Ra and in ancient Mesopotamia/Canaan people were worshiping Baal. There were gods and goddess for everything and the gods at times seduced innocent young women who would give birth to demigods like Hercules, Perseus, and so on. These demigods were often heroes who would save lives from hideous beast and save souls from the clutches of Hades, the god of the Underworld (sound familiar?). These were real beliefs and some of the temples are still standing to this very day to attest to the fact that people truly believed in these beings. It was a time when human sacrifices to the gods were commonplace and human life was not valued in any way. Daughters were sold off as sex slaves or offered up as virgin sacrifices and sons were forced to labor in the fields as if they were possessions rather than family.
Then along came a man named Abraham (Abram).
While there are many critics of Abraham, the first “Jew”, let’s look at what was accomplished by this man to whom the majority of the world is indebted to for their religions (in case you didn’t know Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all derived from Abraham). The Orthodox Jews will state that from Abraham came the mitzvah of Brit Milah (circumcision) and the divine right to the land of Israel but, a much broader view of what happened should be considered. There is much criticism and confusion surrounding the demand given to offer up Abraham’s son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Critics of religion view it as an abhorrent and tyrannical request of a sadistic god when it was actually a demonstration of what needed to stop. Remember, this was an age when people would sacrifice their children to please the gods so when this request was made of Abraham it wasn’t as gruesome a request as we perceive it to be now. However, the sacrifice of Isaac was stopped abruptly because it was not desired. The God of Abraham wanted Abraham to value the life of his child and to not sacrifice him. It was made very clear that the sacrificing of a human being was abhorrent and it was not to be done to please God or to atone for any man – ever. This suddenly put a value on human life and was completely different then all the other religions that viewed the gods as blood thirsty and vengeful tyrants that sought to oppress and subject mankind to a divine servitude. It also is here that the concept of “a chosen people” is introduced. It is Jewish tradition that, Abraham and his descendants were chosen but, contrary to what many may think, it was not a one-way choice. Abraham made the choice to follow this one god and it was then promised that if the descendant made the same choice they would be the chosen people. This choseness has nothing to do with “salvation” either – those beliefs find their origins within the rise of the Christian and Islamic faiths. Nowhere is there ever any mention about eternal life or damnation in the Torah or in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The choice was about leading holy and ethical lives or, to be more to the point, to act like we were created to act – in God’s image.
Fast forward a couple thousand years….
WAR! All across Europe Christians and Muslims were fighting for control of the holy land and for spreading their respective faiths – all the while oppressing the Jews or torturing them into conversion. Inquisitions laid waste to the diversity of Christian and Gnostic beliefs. The blood of millions was spread and for what? Holy living?
Fast forward some more…
A twisted cross, a man named Hitler… enough said on that topic.
Fast forward some more…
Mass media and technology have drastically shrunk the world we live in. It is all too easy to violate a person’s right to a private life with a simple “tweet” of fewer than 120 characters. People live in luxury a few hundred yards away from people who are starving. Morality is almost taboo when you watch some of the shows on television. We drive by ornate churches named after “saints” that are blocks away from under-funded schools and libraries. Yet we think somehow we’ve progressed when we have actually slipped back into the pre-Abrahamic mentality of materialism, self-centeredness, and immorality. We live in the age of “me” when it should be “we”.
Regardless of one’s beliefs in whether the Torah is based on historical facts or is actually divine in origin or not, it is very clear that within the text it lays out a framework of ethics that should be followed while we live our life – the only one we are really guaranteed to have. Granted some of the rituals have lost their relevance in times past but, the fundamentals of morality are undeniable. The faith-based obsessions with salvation or everlasting life in paradise do not and should not negate our obligation to live moral lives where we don’t just focus on our own interests but, on those of our neighbors as well. No reformer, redeemer, prophet, priest, or king can negate our moral obligations to each other or the necessity to lead a good life. Beliefs are great… actions are much better.
© Nelson Rose, The Quest for Light