A common challenge to religion is the question as to whether it is possible to be an honest ethical human being without being a religious person. The question is very much based on the premise that man is inherently good, and he will use his inborn goodness to make
choices that will benefit mankind. Even with a minimum education, he will have a good sense of right and wrong.
A more serious problem arises when one looks at so called religious Jews who are supposed to represent the highest standards of morality and decency, and they are found to be lacking in scruples and integrity. Many use this as a justification for not practicing their religion as they see themselves as more upright in how they conduct their affairs than the Jew who observes the Sabbath and keeps Kosher, but cheats in business.
While such behavior from the religious Jew is entirely unacceptable and is a desecration of the name of G-d, it demonstrates a perversion of religion. Perhaps such people feel they are entitled to a free pass on certain laws that pertain to their fellow man, because they are so intensely exact on minute details of other laws. Whatever the case may be, this is wrong and is not representative of Judaism and its principles.
There are many individuals who feel that one need not believe in G-d in order to be a good person. And the desire to help others and feel the pain of the downtrodden, can come from using one’s intellect and common sense. This, too, may work in certain situations, but the reality is that man is very complex. He is made up of drives and habits that are difficult to overcome. There is also a very strong need for self gratification. Man clearly has the potential for good provided that he overcomes the numerous obstacles in his way.
If one were to truly examine how Judaism guides an individual towards trying to achieve human perfection, and gives the tools to be outstanding in interpersonal relationships, he might give our religion a second look. Forget about those who are a disgrace to our religion because of their hypocrisy. Let’s look at those who have allowed the teachings of the Torah to become their second nature. You will be amazed to see the level of sanctity that a human being is capable of achieving.
The key motivator at self improvement comes from fear of Heaven. When one attaches himself to G-d, he is constantly reminded that the Creator is with him at all times. He must bring honor to Him in the manner in which he conducts himself. He will not be able to hurt another individual with words or disrespect. He will be careful to be certain that any money that he earns will come through the highest level of integrity.
There are individuals who exude this goodness because they are constantly trying to improve themselves. If they even give in to anger or pride, they are disappointed with themselves. They will never go without making amends with someone they may have hurt even unintentionally.
There are so many books written describing human nature and man’s fragile make-up. A Jew is taught how to balance his nature so that he learns what his weaknesses are and what he needs to work on. For example, many of these books list pride and arrogance as the worst traits a person can have. Often what comes with this arrogance, is anger and self pity. This is followed by depression and sadness for this person thinks so highly of himself that he doesn’t deserve to be treated as he is.
On the other hand, humility is glorified. We are reminded that there is a direct correlation between greatness and humility. The greater the person, the more humble he is. the smaller he is, the more arrogant he is. Moses was the greatest man who ever lived and he was the most humble. It is obvious that the humble man will be the one that looks to the needs of others, while the arrogant man, sees only himself.
The Talmud in Tractate Yoma sums it up best when the following is pointed out: “An individual who handles his business affairs with integrity, and speaks kindly to all he meets, and he services the rabbis and scholars, such an individual is praised by G-d who says, ‘Through you, I will be glorified.”
Is it possible to be a good person without religion and fear of G-d? It certainly is. But when one delves into our sacred Torah and lives by the teachings of our sages, he will attain levels of greatness and holiness that will be the envy of all he meets. This is how the Jewish people truly become “a light unto the nations.”
There is no question that there are some exceptionally good people in this world coming from all kinds of backgrounds. They are special in their desire to give of themselves and bring a smile to the less fortunate. Most likely, those individuals who have religion in their lives will be more ethical than those who do not.