Monday, September 5, 2011

Response to Penn Jilette and his new book "G-d, no!"

For those of you who may not know, Penn Jillette is one of the greatest magicians alive today. Along with Teller (yes, that IS his full legal name), Penn performs in Las Vegas several times a week, usually to a packed house.

Penn is famous for his personal views as well as his professional acumen. He advocates for Libertarian politics, including free-market capitalism and a repeal of laws against "victimless crimes".

Penn is also an atheist. This is the topic of his most recent book "G-d, no!"

[He doesn't use the hyphen in his book title. It is our policy not to write the Creator's name, in any language, in this forum, because of a prohibition to casually use Hebrew names for G-d]

I have great respect for Mr. Jillette. He does not attack religious people, and in fact encourages them to continue dialogue with the rest of the world. He has said things like (not an exact quote), "Please, pray for me, if you think it will help!"

It is only because Mr. Jillette seems to be sincere in his quest for knowledge, (including religious knowledge), that I care to respond to the opening of his book. He starts out by asking:

"If G-d... ...told you to kill your child, would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you're an atheist"

First I will answer Penn's question. Then I will challenge his assertion, according to a basic tenet of Judaism.

If G-d told me to kill someone, first I would check existing Jewish law and see what it says.

Jewish law says that I must kill someone if he/she is an immediate threat to my own life or the life of another. It also has provisions for war. The Bible mentions capital punishment for certain deeds, but capital cases can only be judged by a specific type of Jewish court that does not currently exist.

So if G-d told me to kill someone, but Jewish law says I can't, I wouldn't do it.

This certainly does NOT make me an atheist. Here's why.

G-d revealed His Law to our people, the Israelites, on Mount Sinai. We received the Written Law (The Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament), and the Oral Law, (later codified as the Mishnah, expounded upon in the Talmud, and clarified in volumes upon volumes of rabbinic discourse)

Before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, if a person received some kind of Heavenly communication, the proper response was to listen. If that dream or vision included a command from On High, then one was supposed to follow that command.

Once the Law was given, it takes precedence over all other sources of information. In fact, G-d even warned us about this, after we received the Law.

"If a prophet arises in your midst, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, and then he speaks to you, saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them' - you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your G-d is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Deuteronomy 13:2-4)

It is easy to love G-d and follow the Law when you're standing at Mount Sinai, witnessing the greatest event in human history.

When the excitement fades, and you're back to normal, everyday living, and then someone comes along with an amazing "sign" or "wonder"; then what are you going to do? Will you stick to the Law that you know came from G-d, or will you be lead astray?

This is THE ultimate test of life. Every moral dilemma that we face comes down to this: Follow G-d, or follow something else.

So you see, Mr. Jillette, I strive everyday to develop a deep, close, personal relationship with my Creator. Understanding G-d's Infinity means realizing that, unlike us mortals, G-d has no need for the backspace button. The all-powerful, all-knowing King of the Universe never makes a mistake, and certainly doesn't need to appear to me in a dream, or a vision, and tell me to violate the Law.

Please comment below - I would love to get a conversation going here.


  1. I also have a great deal of respect for Penn Jilette because of his respect for others' views. I read his book and after doing so give him the benefit of the doubt that his work is more a search than an accusation, as is so often the case with other authors questioning the existence of G-d.

    I applaud you response to him and hope he adds the wisdom you've imparted to other evidence he happens upon in his quest.

    Thanks for imparting some of that wisdom in my direction!


  2. Al,

    I agree that sincere investigation and mutual respect for people (attacking & defending ideas, not individuals) will bring us all closer to each other, and the Truth. Thanks for being part of that.

  3. You seem to be avoiding Penn's actual question. If G-d said directly to you as an individual, "I am revising my laws (I am, after all, omnipotent and can do that), kill your child," would you do it?

    To suggest that G-d's previous laws trump anything He might do in the future, seems silly at best, but deliberately avoiding the hard question, at worse.

    btw, I use your G-d nomenclature out of respect to your blog, but do you really think spelling with a "-" or an "o" makes a difference?

  4. Shaun,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I don't know how familiar you are with Judaism. We have a holiday called (in English) Passover. This is a celebration of our ancestors' Exodus from Egypt.

    Part of the holiday is to learn about the events of the Exodus, to the point where we personally feel that we were there as well.

    G-d told them (and by extension, me) that the Law revealed on Mount Sinai would not change.

    So to your answer your specific question, if G-d said directly to me what you wrote, my answer would be "G-d, I'm already under orders to follow your original revealed Law"

    The all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the Universe doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't say "oops, that didn't work". He KNOWS already what works / worked because G-d exists outside of all time and space.

    I welcome your contributions to this discussion, and all others in this forum. If you still think I'm avoiding anything, please let me know.

  5. Thanks for the discussion. I am familiar enough with Judaism to know that there are either differing interpretations or at least differing applications of the interpretation of the laws.

    I do believe you are avoiding the question because I think you can easily imagine a scenario within the application you subscribe to where G-d could command you to do some awful thing to another person -- including your child (for example, your child converts to an ideology and activity that can fit within the "war exception").

    So either you believe there is no awful thing G-d can ask of you within the laws HE has defined -- or you are avoiding the question.

  6. Penn, in the opening to his book, asks if G-d told you to kill your child, would you do it?

    My answer, as stated above, is that it depends what Jewish Law has to say about it. I explain why existing Jewish Law trumps any Divine communication today.

    I didn't avoid Penn's question.

    You are now asking a different question.

    You are asking, if Jewish Law requires me to do something that the ever-changing secular progressive morality currently deems "bad" (or, as you say, "awful"), would I choose to follow Jewish law, or secular progressive morality.

    Fortunately, since the basic constructs of Western morality are based on the Torah, this is almost never a practical issue.

    However, if I had to choose, I would certainly choose to follow Jewish Law.

    What does happen more often is the opposite dilemma - secular progressive morality allows something that Jewish Law forbids.

    Every time a Jew chooses to eat kosher food, celebrate the holy sabbath, or remain celibate until marriage - he/she eschews current popular definitions of "morality", in favor of serving the Creator.

    While our laws are only applicable to Jews - and therefore we don't try to convince Gentiles to follow Jewish Law - it is a severe challenge for our brethren living in the Diaspora to adhere to Jewish Law, while being surrounded by a different definition of what is "right" and what is "wrong".

    Even here in Israel, general Western culture is pervasive, and which set of values to follow is a constant decision that all Jews must make.

  7. Using "G-d" instead of the version with the "o" in the middle accomplished nothing. There are certains words which are bona fida names (such as those which appear in the Torah and which we pronounce differently than they are spelled, such as elokim, etc.) and terms which refer to the creator, but are not bona fide names. The "dashed" version has become so commonplace that it refers to the creator every bit as much as the "o'ed" version does.

  8. Yoni,

    I completely agree that there are rabbinic authorities who permit writing out G-d in English.

    I find that using the hyphen in English is fantastic for teaching others about the concept of sacred names.

    It also reminds us who already know about this concept to approach discussions about our Heavenly Father with appropriate reverence.

  9. I do appreciate your willingness to engage in this polite exchange and your more direct answer to my question.

    My concern is that you open the door to belief trumping all else. If you can take whatever action is deemed appropriate based on your beliefs regardless of secular constraints, then why can't others -- as long as they are genuine in their belief?

    I have no doubt that many who commit atrocities carried under G-d's name carry their beliefs as genuinely as you do.

    This is not meant to be inflammatory, but my understanding of your answer would suggest that the Hijackers of 9/11 would have carried out a genuine and justified duty (presuming they were completely genuine in their belief that it was G-d's will).

    Back to Penn's point -- those who would not carry out G-d's will regardless how awful (admittedly by my secular definition) are not true believers, and those that would, worry me.