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Issues in Jewish Ethics: Ethical Monotheism

by Dennis Prager

Ethical monotheism means two things:

1. There is one God from whom emanates one morality for all humanity.
2. God's primary demand of people is that they act decently toward one another.

If all people subscribed to this simple belief - which does not entail leaving or joining any specific religion, or giving up any national identity - the world would experience far less evil. Let me explain the components of ethical monotheism.

- God
- Personal
- Goodness
- Holiness
- One God; One Morality
- One Humanity
- Human Life is Sacred
- God's Primary Demand: Goodness
- Judaism & Ethical Monotheism
- Christianity & Ethical Monotheism
- Islam & Ethical Monotheism
- Conclusion


Monotheism means belief in "one God." Before discussing the importance of the "mono," or God's oneness, we need a basic understanding of the nature of God.

The God of ethical monotheism is the God first revealed to the world in the Hebrew Bible. Through it, we can establish God's four primary characteristics:

  • 1. God is supranatural.
  • 2. God is personal.
  • 3. God is good.
  • 4. God is holy.

Dropping any one of the first three attributes invalidates ethical monotheism (it is possible, though difficult, to ignore holiness and still lead an ethical life).

God is supranatural, meaning "above nature" (I do not use the more common term "supernatural" because it is less precise and conjures up irrationality). This is why Genesis, the Bible's first book, opens with, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" in a world in which nearly all people worshipped nature, the Bible's intention was to emphasize that nature is utterly subservient to God who made it. Obviously, therefore, God is not a part of nature, and nature is not God.

It is not possible for God to be part of nature for two reasons.

First, nature is finite and God is infinite. If God were within nature, He would be limited, and God, who is not physical, has no limits (I use the pronoun "He"" not because I believe God is a male, but because the neuter pronoun "It" depersonalizes God. You cannot talk to, relate to, love, or obey an "It.").

Second, and more important, nature is amoral. Nature knows nothing of good and evil. In nature there is one rule—survival of the fittest. There is no right, only might. If a creature is weak, kill it. Only human beings could have moral rules such as, "If it is weak, protect it." Only human beings can feel themselves ethically obligated to strangers.

Thus, nature worship is very dangerous. When people idolize nature, they can easily arrive at the ethics of Nazism. It was the law of nature that Adolf Hitler sought to emulate—the strong shall conquer the weak. Nazism and other ideologies that are hostile to ethical monotheism and venerate nature are very tempting. Nature allows you to act naturally, i.e., do only what you want you to do, without moral restraints; God does not. Nature lets you act naturally - and it is as natural to kill, rape, and enslave as it is to love.

In light of all this, it is alarming that many people today virtually venerate nature. It can only have terrible moral ramifications.

One of the vital elements in the ethical monotheist revolution was its repudiation of nature as god. The evolution of civilization and morality have depended in large part on desanctifying nature.

Civilizations that equated gods with nature—a characteristic of all primitive societies—or that worshipped nature did not evolve.

If nature is divine, and has a will of its own the only way for human beings to conquer disease or obtain sustenance is to placate it - through witchcraft, magic, voodoo, and/or human sacrifice.

One of ethical monotheism's greatest battles today is against the increasing deification of nature, movements that are generally led (as were most radical ideologies) by well educated, secularized individuals.


The second essential characteristic is that God is personal.

The God of ethical monotheism is not some depersonalized force: God cares about His creations. As University of Chicago historian William A. Irwin wrote in a 1947 essay on ethical monotheism: "The world was to be understood in terms of personality. Its center and essence was not blind force or some sort of cold, inert reality but a personal God." God is not an Unmoved Mover, not a watchmaker who abandoned His watch after making it, as the Enlightenment Deists would have it. God knows each of us. We are, after all, "created in His image." This is not merely wishful thinking why would God create a being capable of knowing Him, yet choose not to know that being?

This does not mean that God necessarily answers prayers or even that God intervenes in all or even any of our lives. It means that He knows us and cares about us. Caring beings are not created by an uncaring being.

The whole point of ethical monotheism is that God's greatest desire is that we act toward one another with justice and mercy. An Unmoved Mover who didn't know His human creatures couldn't care less how they treat one another.


A third characteristic of God is goodness. If God weren't moral, ethical monotheism would be an oxymoron: A God who is not good cannot demand goodness. Unlike all other gods believed in prior to monotheism, the biblical God rules by moral standards. Thus, in the Babylonian version of the flood story, the gods, led by Enlil, sent a flood to destroy mankind, saving only Utnapishtim and his wife - because Enlil personally liked Utnapishtim. It is an act of caprice, not morality. In the biblical story, God also sends a flood, saving only Noah and his wife and family. The stories are almost identical except for one overwhelming difference: The entire Hebrew story is animated by ethical/moral concerns. God brings the flood solely because people treat one another, not God, badly, and God saves Noah solely because he was "the most righteous person in his generation."

Words cannot convey the magnitude of the change wrought by the Hebrew Bible's introduction into the world of a God who rules the universe morally.

One ramification is that despite the victories of evil people and the sufferings of good people, a moral God rules the world, and ultimately the good and the evil will receive their just deserts. I have never understood how a good secular individual can avoid debilitating despair. To care about goodness, yet to witness the unbearable torments of the good and the innocent, and to see many of the evil go unpunished—all the while believing that this life is all there is, that we are alone in a universe that hears no child's cry and sees no person's tears—has to be a recipe for despair. I would be overwhelmed with sadness if I did not believe that there is a good God who somehow—in this life or an afterlife—ensures that justice prevails.


As primary as ethics are, man cannot live by morality alone. We are also instructed to lead holy lives: "You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). God is more than the source of morality, He is the source of holiness.

Ethics enables life; holiness ennobles it. Holiness is the elevation of the human being from his animal nature to his being created in the image of God. To cite a simple example, we can eat like an animal—with our fingers, belching, from the floor, while relieving ourselves or elevate ourselves to eat from a table, with utensils and napkins, keeping our digestive sounds quiet. It is, however, very important to note that a person who eats like an animal is doing something unholy, not immoral. The distinction, lost upon many religious people, is an important one.

One God and One Morality

The oneness of God is an indispensable component of ethical monotheism. Only if there is one God is there one morality. Two or more gods mean two or more divine wills, and therefore two or more moral codes. That is why ethical polytheism is unlikely. Once God told Abraham that human sacrifice is wrong, it was wrong. There was no competing god to teach otherwise.

One morality also means one moral code for all humanity. "Thou shall not murder" means that murder is wrong for everyone, not just for one culture. It means that suttee, the now rare but once widespread Hindu practice of burning widows with their husband's body, is wrong. It means the killing of a daughter or sister who lost her virginity prior to marriage, practiced to this day in parts of the Arab world, is immoral. It means that clitoridectomies, the cutting off of a girl's clitoris (and sometimes more), a ritual practiced on almost one hundred million women living today mostly in Africa, is immoral.

While, in theory, the celebration of multiculturalism is neither offensive nor original, in actuality multiculturalism is yet another attempt to undermine ethical monotheism. Its underlying assumption is that there is no one universal moral code; all cultures are morally equal. As a professor wrote to the New York Times after that newspaper came out against clitoridectomies, who are we in the West to condemn anyone else's cultural practice?

One Humanity

One God who created human beings of all races means that all of humanity are related. Only if there is one Father are all of us brothers and sisters.

Human Life is Sacred

Another critical moral ramification of ethical monotheism is the sanctity of human life. Only if there is a God in whose image human beings are created is human life sacred. If human beings do not contain an element of the divine, they are merely intelligent animals.

For many years, I have been warning that a totally secular world view will erode the distinction between humans and animals. The popular contemporary expression "All life is sacred" is an example of what secularism leads to. It means that all life is equally sacred, that people and chickens are equally valuable. That is why the head of a leading animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has likened the barbecuing of six billion chickens a year to the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust; and that is how PETA could take out a full page ad in the Des Moines Register equating the slaughter of animals with the murder of people.

Such views don't so much enhance the value of animal life as they reduce the value of human life.

God's Primary Demand Is Goodness

Of course, the clearest teaching of ethical monotheism is that God demands ethical behavior. As Ernest van den Haag described it: "[The Jews'] invisible God not only insisted on being the only and all powerful God . . . He also developed into a moral God."

But ethical monotheism suggests more than that God demands ethical behavior; it means that Gods primary demand is ethical behavior. It means that God cares about how we treat one another more than He cares about anything else.

Thus, ethical monotheism's message remains as. radical today as when it was first promulgated. The secular world has looked elsewhere for its values, while even many religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that Gods primary demand is something other than ethics.

Jews and Ethical Monotheism

Since Judaism gave the world ethical monotheism, one would expect that Jews would come closest to holding its values. In some important ways, this is true. Jews do hold that God judges everyone, Jew or Gentile, by his or her behavior. This is a major reason that Jews do not proselytize (though it is not an argument against Jews proselytizing; indeed, they ought to): Judaism has never believed that non Jews have to embrace Judaism to attain salvation or any other reward in the afterlife.

But within Jewish religious life, the picture changes. The more observant a Jew is, the more he or she is likely to assume that God considers ritual observances to be at least as important as God's ethical demands.

This erroneous belief is as old as the Jewish people, and one against which the prophets passionately railed: "Do I [God] need your many sacrifices?" cried out Isaiah (Isaiah 1:11). The question is rhetorical. What God does demand is justice and goodness based on faith in God: "Oh, man," taught the prophet Micah, "God has told you what is good and what God requires of you only that you act justly, love goodness and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, emphasis added).

In Judaism, the commandments between human beings and God are extremely significant. But they are not as important as ethical behavior. The prophets, Judaism's most direct messengers of God, affirmed this view repeatedly, and the Talmudic rabbis later echoed it. "Love your neighbor as yourself is the greatest principle in the Torah," said Rabbi Akiva (Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim 9:4).

That is why when the great Rabbi Hillel was asked by a pagan to summarize all of Judaism "while standing on one leg, he was able to do so: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others; the rest is commentary now go and study" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Hillel could have said, "Keep the 613 commandments of the Torah; now go and do them," but he didn't. In fact, he went further. After enunciating his ethical principle, he concluded, "The rest is commentary." In other words, the rest of Judaism is essentially a commentary on how to lead an ethical life.

Unfortunately, with no more direct messages from God, and few Hillels, the notion that the laws between man and God and the laws between people are equally important gained ever wider acceptance in religious Jewish life.

Perhaps there are three reasons for this:

1. It is much more difficult to be completely ethical than to completely observe the ritual laws. While one can master the laws between people and God, no one can fully master human decency.

2. While ethical principles are more or less universal, the laws between people and God are uniquely Jewish. Therefore, that which most distinguishes observant Jews from non-observant Jews and from non Jews are Judaism's ritual laws, not its ethical laws. Thus it was easy for a mind set to develop which held that what ever is most distinctively Jewish—i.e., the laws between people and God—is more Jewishly important than whatever is universal.

3. Observance of many laws between people and God is public and obvious. Other Jews can see how you pray, how diligently you learn Talmud and Torah, and if you dress in the modest manner dictated by Jewish law. Few people know how you conduct your business affairs, how you treat your employees, how you talk behind others' backs, or how you treat your spouse. Therefore, the easiest way to demonstrate the depth of your religiosity is through observance of the laws between man and God, especially the ones that are most public.

Yet, while observant Jews may overstress the "monotheism" in "ethical "monotheism," the fact is that they believe the entire doctrine to be true. Secular Jews, on the other hand, believe that ethics can be separated from God and religion. The results have not been positive. The ethical record of Jews and non Jews involved in causes that abandoned ethical monotheism has included involvement in moral relativism, Marxism, and the worship of art, education, law, etc.

The lessons for religious Jews are never to forget the primacy of ethics and not to abandon the ethical monotheist mission of Judaism. The lesson for secular Jews is to realize that ethics cannot long survive the death of monotheism.

Christians and Ethical Monotheism

While the challenge to making ethics primary in Judaism is largely one of Jews rather than of Judaism, the challenge to Christianity is more rooted in the religion itself. Within Christianity, the doctrine developed that correct faith, not correct works, is God's primary concern.

Paul articulated this view in the New Testament: If good deeds could lead to salvation, he reasoned, "Christ would have died in vain" (Galatians 2:21). For that reason, he continued, "We conclude that a man is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the law commands" (Romans 3:28).

True, Catholicism holds that faith alone is not sufficient, that some works, too, are necessary for salvation. But between faith in Christ and goodness in behavior, the Church has, until recently, nearly always taught that faith is more important. Thus the Church held for nearly two millennia that even the kindest non Christians were all doomed: "Outside of the Church there is no salvation." In a major move toward ethical monotheism, the twentieth century Catholic Church has reinterpreted this statement, and now teaches that while salvation will come through Jesus, it is not necessary for an individual to assert belief in Jesus by name in order to be saved; only God judges who is saved, and Catholics cannot declare who they are.

Historically, the thrust of Church teachings has not been that cruelty or unethical behavior is the greatest sin. As historian Norman Cohn wrote:

The sins to which the Devil of Christian tradition has tempted human beings are varied indeed: apostasy, idolatry, heresy, fornication, gluttony, vanity, using cosmetics, dressing luxuriously, going to the theater, gambling, avarice, quarreling, spiritual sloth have all, at times, figured in the list.... I have looked in vain for a single instance . . . of the Devil tempting a human being to cruelty.1

Some statements attributed to Jesus can lead a Christian to abandon the fight against evil: "Resist not evil" is the prime example. Others include: "Pray for those who persecute you," "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44), and Jesus' prayer on the cross beseeching God to forgive his murderers. Christians can interpret each of these verses in a way that does not detract from a Christian's duty to fight evil. For example, the verses can be explained as applying only to an individual—i.e., the ideal individual Christian will not resist evil done to him, will love those who hurt her, etc., but this shouldn't be taken to mean that believers won't resist evil done to others. Such interpretations are certainly welcome. But it is difficult to imagine that the ideal Christian will lead a life of nonresistance to evil directed to self, and then strongly resist evil when it is done to others.

These verses of Jesus may explain why as prominent and personally fine a Christian as the Reverend Billy Graham, the most widely listened to Protestant in the world, failed to call evil by its name when he visited the Soviet Union in 1982. Indeed, true to Martin Luther's teachings, Graham called on Soviet Christians to obey the Soviet authorities, and did not publicly side with perse cuted Christians. Rather than refer to the Soviet Union as an enemy of Christianity, the Reverend Graham only referred to "the common enemy" of nuclear war. At the time of the visit, George Will wrote:

Graham's delicacy [about the Soviet Union] is less interesting than his "common enemy" formulation.... His language suggests a moral symmetry between his country and the soviet Union.

The Washington Post reports that when Graham spoke in two churches, both "were heavily guarded, with police sealing off all roads leading to them. Hundreds of KGB security agents . . . were in the congregation." Graham told one congregation that God "gives you the power to be a better worker, a more loyal citizen because in Romans 13 we are told to obey the authorities." How is that for a message from America;

Graham is America's most famous Christian. Solzhenitsyn is Russia's The contrast is instructive.2

Another area of Christian theology that undermines ethical monotheism is the belief that God saves human beings irrespective of how they act toward one another, just as long as they have the right faith. Millions of Protestants hold that believers in Jesus, no matter how many cruel acts they may perform, attain salvation, while nonbelievers in Jesus, no matter how much good they do and how much they may love God, are doomed to eternal damnation.

In spite of these teachings, two points need to be emphasized.

First, it is Christianity, more than any other religion, including Judaism, that has carried the message of the Jewish prophets, the clearest voices of ethical monotheism, to the world.

Second, Christianity, though not theologically pure in its ethical monotheism, can and does lead millions of people to more ethical lives. People do not live by theology alone. Theological teachings aside, the kindness and selflessness often associated with religious Christians and with charitable Christian institutions are rarely paralleled anywhere in the secular world—and infrequently in the religious world, either.

I yearn for the day when Christians will emphasize ethical monotheism as the most important part of their commitment to Christianity. I know from years of work and friendship with Christians of all persuasions that ethical monotheism is a value that many of them can easily and passionately affirm.

Muslims and Ethical Monotheism

During some of the Western world's darkest periods, Islam was a religious light in the monotheistic world. The seeds of ethical monotheism are deeply rooted in Islam. For whatever reason, however, the soil for their nourishment has, over the last several hundred years, been depleted of necessary nutrients. Islam could be a world force for ethical monotheism, but in its present state, the outlook is problematic.

The Quran has numerous verses that emphasize belief in the one universal God who judges people according to their behavior. Like all religions, however, Islam contains xenophobic elements and doctrines that are incompatible with ethical monotheism. Unlike some other religions today, however, within Islam, xenophobia and hostility to ethical monotheism too often seem to prevail. For example, though the Quran states explicitly that in matters of faith there shall be no coercion, almost everywhere Islam dominates there is considerable religious coercion, whether by the state or by the community.

An example of such state sponsored coercion is Saudi Arabia, where religious police monitor what Muslims drink and reduce women to childlike status by forbidding them, for example, to drive cars. Saudi Arabia also severely restricts the religious freedom of other faiths.

The Sudan, too, is ruled by devout Muslims, and it is one of the most cruel states in the world, especially to its large black non Muslim minority.

Muslims need what most Christians and Jews have experienced - separation of church and state; interaction with other faiths and with modernity; and reform. Islam needs to compete with secularism, not outlaw it, and to allow competing ideologies within Islam. In religion, as in politics, when there is no competition, there is corruption and intolerance.

There are some Muslim voices crying for reform and for ethical monotheism, such as that of Dr. Fathi Osman, the former Princeton historian of Islam and editor of Arabia. When their influence increases, Islam will be a world force for ethical monotheism.


In his essay "The Hebrews" in the seminal 1947 work The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East, Professor William A. Irwin writes:

Israel's great achievement, so apparent that mention of it is almost trite, was monotheism. It was an achievement that transformed subsequent history.

One may raise the question whether any other single contribution from whatever source since human culture emerged from the stone ages has had the far reaching effect upon history that Israel in this regard has exerted both through the mediums of Christianity and Islam and directly through the world of Jewish thinkers themselves.

The nations are condemned [by the Prophets] for the depravity of their morals. And here is the point: they are so condemned by the God of Israel! It is His righteousness, be it observed, not His might or His glory or any other of the divine qualities prized at the time, which provides the ground of his supremacy. Here we see the meaning of that phrase so commonly employed in the study of Hebrew history: Israel's monotheism was an ethical monotheism.

As the twentieth century ends, most people have still not learned its most obvious lesson—that attempts to change the world that do not place God and goodness at their center will make this world worse. Is it not time to try ethical monotheism?

It is the only truly effective answer to moral relativism, to racism, to nationalism, to worshipping art or law or success. All one needs to do is live by the simple and revolutionary message of Micah, "to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with your God."

Sources: Dennis Prager

1The New York Review of Books, April 25,1985.
2 George Will, "Churches in Politics Pray for Skepticism," Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1982.