It is an astonishingly common delusion that Judaism is about morality. To my shame, I myself subscribed to that view many years ago. Such an interpretation is arrogant: do we presume gentiles immoral? Unethical? That’s clearly not true. Whatever their theological errors, there are many simple, humane people among the gentiles.

If Judaism is about morality, what is its religious value? Any philosophy major can lay down a system of morals; we do not need God for that. Even animals develop a sense of morality: dogs die defending their owners.

Just how moral are the commandments to kill the Midian babies, exterminate the native nations of Canaan, or kill our fellow Jews over seemingly trivial violations of the sacrificial system? Just how moral is the sacrificial system itself, which commands the killing of guiltless animals to expiate human guilt? Just how moral is a system that denies an individual private liberties—to practice homosexuality, work on Saturday, or cook meat in milk?

It may be argued that even those actions are moral when we take them in a larger context. The babies of Midian were killed so that Jews could persist as an isolated people, become a light to the nation, and in so doing save many more lives. Ritual purity laws encourage people to dwell on the sanctity of life. Many such explanations can be made, but they are convoluted. The problem is that they are untestable. Communists likewise claimed that their horrendous crimes were a shining path to a blissful future.

If Judaism is about morality, then how it is different from Pauline Christianity, which did away with all commandments and instituted a handful of arbitrary ethical prohibitions? Both Judaism and Christianity emphasize compassion, to a member of a tribe and an adherent to a confession, respectively. Both take it so far as to forgive adversaries (though not political enemies). Both prefer an apolitical existence—communities in Christianity, judges or theocracy in Judaism—and both make exceptions to that principle for the purposes of defense. Christians do not observe the Mosaic law, but it was not given to them in the first place. Even the Christian emphasis on Jesus has its parallels in Jewish excessive reliance on examples from the lives of their rabbis.

The difference between Judaism and Christianity is as follows: The founder of the Christian religion was human. His injunctions have to be consistent with human morality; otherwise he would be immoral. In Judaism, commandments came from God, who is beyond good and evil. The commandments need not be nice, good, or moral. Christians observe because they agree. We observe because we accept the yoke.

Speaking about the commandment to avoid killing the bird when taking eggs from its nest, the rabbis said this: if someone cites this commandment to praise God’s kindness, we shut him up. The reason is, if you praise God’s kindness, what do you do when you encounter a brutally immoral commandment? Judaism is about divine service, not morality. Whatever God says, we do, whether or not it squares with our conscience. If we are told to exterminate the natives upon returning to the Land of Israel, that is our religious duty. As people with a semblance of free will, we can dodge that duty, but we have no right to call the white black. We cannot say that such a religious duty does not exist or that it should not be carried out because it is immoral. Immoral it may be, but it is a religious duty nonetheless.