In fourth-century Babylon, a man came to Rabbi Rava and said: “The governor of my town has ordered me to murder someone [who is innocent], and has warned me that if I do not do so he will have me killed. [Can I murder the man to save my life?]” Rava refused him permission. “Let yourself be killed but do not kill him. Who says your blood is redder? Perhaps the blood of that man is redder.”
This simple and powerful moral dilemma represents an absolute fulcrum for our moral perspective. On any account of morality based upon enlightened self-interest or the power of rationality (e.g. Korsgaard) we will not reach the proper moral perspective represented by Rabbi Rava: self-sacrifice cannot be justified by reference to the self. So, unless we are prepared to accept these lower forms of morality, we must seek a stronger, even if more uncertain, form of justification.
The idea that his blood is redder is simply code for the fact that we are not worthy to judge. Only God can judge. So we must presume our own unworthiness: we must put ourselves last.
Hadrian Caesar asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, “Does the world have a master?”Rabbi
Joshua: “Can you possibly suppose that the world is ownerless?”
Hadrian: “And who created heaven and earth?”
Rabbi Joshua: “The Holy One as stated: ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’” (Genesis 1:1)
Hadrian: “Then why does He not reveal Himself twice a year, so that mortals may see Him and the awe of Him be upon them?”
Rabbi Joshua: “Because the world cannot endure His radiance, as is said, “No man shall see Me and live’” (Exodus 33:20)
Hadrian: “If you do not show Him to me, I will not believe you.”
At midday Rabbi Joshua had Hadrian stand facing the sun and said, “Look directly at the sun and you will see Him.”
Hadrian: “Who can possibly look directly at the sun, which is but one of the thousand thousands and myriad myriads of servitors who minister before Him, all the less can a creature look at Him, at the Holy One, whose radiance fills the world.”
Hadrian: “When will He reveal His glory?”
Rabbi Joshua: “When idols shall have perished from the world.”
From the Jewish Book of Legend
Hadrian thinks he wants to see God. But he cannot conceive of God as anything but the greatest of idols – something else in the world with power over us. God does not endanger our freedom like this. We are free to follow our idols. But we are also free to follow the path of faith.
He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor.
Why is it an insult to God to oppress the poor? It is because God made them and that if you try to justify your oppression by demeaning them in any way (“the underclass” “NEETs” etc.) then you imply that it is God who has failed. If you do not believe that each person has gifts, potential, a positive role to play then you are saying God does not know what He is doing.
Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only only no one were able to acquire material power over others. But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.
Of course the existence of the religious totalitarian seems to contradict Solzhenitsyn. We can certainly find plenty of religious people who are quite capable of believing that they know what God wants and that they are entitled to act out his wishes.
But even a religious maniac must – logically – recognise he could be wrong. He knows he is subject to another power – even if he has deceived himself that he is its agent.
Those who reject all moral authority outside themselves, the true existentialists, cannot be wrong. This is why the poison of power is so dangerous to them. Not because they are essentially any worse than the religious, but when you see no constraint other than what you are able to achieve with the power that you do have then the temptation to acquire more power, and to protect yourself with that power, can quickly become over-powering.
Logic impels each honest atheist to become a tin-pot dictator. What other choice can he have? Who else can he believe in than himself? When push comes to shove even ordinary standards of integrity and honesty must be sacrificed if they get in the way of success.