October 22, 2019

Pick two biblical verses

Here’s an experiment that’s both fun and important: If you had to pick two verses from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, that have a) most deeply affected your thinking, and b) you would most want people to adopt in their lives, which would they be?

Here are my choices.

1. Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

This is arguably the single most important verse in the Bible. 

First, if there is a Creator as described in Genesis, life has ultimate purpose and meaning. On the other hand, if the world came about by random chance, there is ultimately no objective, no ultimate meaning to life. Of course, we can make up a meaning in order not to despair, but if we made it up, it is, well, just made-up. Just as if we made up God, God is a fairy tale.

Second, if there is no Creator, where do human rights come from? As the American Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … ”

If the Creator doesn’t endow human beings with unalienable rights, there are no unalienable rights. Who or what else would endow us with human rights? Genes? Mother Earth? Governments?

Third, if there is a Creator who cares about its creations, the least loved among us is still cared for (i.e., loved). And if the Creator is just, there is the promise of an afterlife where the good and the evil receive their just deserts and where we reunite with those we have loved.

This verse has provided me, along with hundreds of millions of others, and of course nearly all Jews until the modern period, with the certitude that the universe is not a random event, that this world matters, and that every one of us matters.

What other verse — let alone secular belief — can provide any, much less all, of what is provided by Genesis 1:1?

2. My second life-changing choice is Psalms 97:10: “Those of you who love God, hate evil.”

(Another verse that makes this point is Proverbs 8:13: “Fear of God is hatred of evil.”)

This is one of the main reasons I embrace Judaism. The Jewish Scriptures hate evil — so much so that they identify love of God with hating evil. You cannot love God if you don’t hate evil.

And only evil. There are many problematic conditions and concerns in life — material inequality and pollution, for example — that we can and often should seek to ameliorate. But it is only evil that we are obligated to hate. And, of course, there are things people hate that deserve no hatred at all — such as people of different religions and of different races. Such hatreds are themselves evil and lead to evil.

This great teaching is also an antidote to the modern obsession with love as the answer to all problems — to the point that there is no room for hating anything, even evil.

In 2001, the Berkeley City Council established Berkeley as a Hate Free Zone. I remember announcing on the radio that I could no longer visit that city, as I believe that some hatred is a moral obligation. If not with hatred, how else is a moral person to react to murder, genocide, totalitarianism, torture, rape and other forms of gratuitous cruelty? 

The rabbis wisely taught that sinat khinam (baseless or gratuitous hatred) is so awful that the act of Jews hating each other for no good reason was responsible for the great Jewish tragedy of the destruction of the second Jewish state and its temple, and the accompanying mass murder, enslavement and dispersion of the Jews. But the key point of the rabbis was not that hatred itself was the sin; it was unmerited hatred.

If I could choose a third verse, it would be Leviticus 19:18, which contains the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But in the contemporary Western world, drenched as it is in love rhetoric, I don’t think it would make the moral and personal difference that the two  verses chosen here would make. 

If parents taught their children only these two biblical verses, we would make a world so much better than the one we live in, it would be unrecognizable. Sadly, however, at least in the Jewish community, many parents would be highly uncomfortable teaching their children either verse. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).