Exterminating the native nations in the Land of Israel down to their babies, killing Jews over trivial violations of Shabbat, prosecution of alleged sexual immorality, slaughtering animals to expiate for human sins… Why would we do such horrible things? Is it not better to live as decent human beings rather than Jewish brutes?

A cynical atheist would answer that people created God in their image, and put in his mouth the words they wanted to hear. According to this view, Jews needed to exterminate the natives for political reasons. They observe otherwise unreasonable rules in order to build a tightly bound society, much like army companies and fraternities do. Psychologists say that the harsher and less reasonable are the procedures, the more strongly they bind the group. In the cynic’s world, commandments may be immoral in much the same way that hazing rites are, but they are useful for that very reason. Jews bring sacrifices to do away with their feelings of guilt for transgressing those harsh ritual rules. People prefer to shift responsibility for necessary but unsavory actions to God.

A religious person sees the problem differently. His choice is between pursuing his own moral code and submitting to the Creator, regardless of how evil the commandments may seem to him. Submission to an evil ruler is a bad thing. Can the submission to God’s evil plans be good, then? Possibly, yes: a ruler is evil when compared to more benevolent princes, and God’s commandments may seem evil on the background of our own good thoughts, but in monotheism God has no contrasting background. There is never a nicer alternative to his plan. Abraham failed to avert the destruction of Sodom. Moses implored God on behalf of the Jews after the Golden Calf incident, but scores were killed nevertheless. Divine plans cannot be altered by human actions, though sometimes, as in Nineveh, these plans allow for different outcomes. Opposing God’s evil commandments is as futile like decrying nature itself.

Even when we refuse to participate in divinely established evil, a lot of evil happens in the world. People die in car accidents, and from illnesses and hunger. We could alleviate much of that evil by sharing our fortune with poorer countries, but we do not. It is one thing to do evil, and quite another to refuse to do good. A similar logic may apply to God: he created a reasonable world, but not a blissful one. He refuses to abrogate al of its evil just as we refuse to do significant economic harm to ourselves by subsidizing Africans. God’s refusal to bestow Edenic happiness on the world is not exactly evil.

We must oppose evil that comes from human rulers, but not from the absolute ruler. We may pretend that we make our own way of goodness and refuse to tread God’s path of evil, but in the end his path will triumph, and our delusions will be exposed.

Can God be called evil? Evil, falsehood, and violence have all existed since the Creation, and like other matters were commended with, “It was very good.” What we see as God’s evil may still be good on his scale.

Many prefer to see God as like Santa Claus, nice and kind. That is far from the truth. The Torah calls him a jealous God. No violence is alien to him. He rewards us for compliance, but also punishes disobedience even to the remotest generations: forget the Amalek, think how the Jews were punished with nineteen centuries of exile. It defies the human sense of goodness to call good the God of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Great Leap Forward.

Can we rebel against the perceived divine injustice? We certainly can, albeit unsuccessfully. At the very least, we can refuse “the power of consent.” Let him do whatever he wishes; we won’t cooperate in evil. But this position is decidedly unreligious. It accepts God’s omnipotence but defies him as a source of knowledge, particularly the knowledge of good and evil. Our opposition to him can be compared to the rebellion of a rook against the rules of chess. Submission to God and trust in him dictate acceptance of his most bizarre commandments, just as soldiers obey orders they disagree with.

Does God consciously do evil? The answer to that hinges on whether human and divine morals are alike. We were created in his image, which presumably includes a common morality. But just as our abilities are narrower than his in every other sense, so in the sense of morality. We generally accept that actions can be immoral in the short term but moral in the long term: spanking a child is definitely a bad thing until we realize that it may do him good in the long run. Since the divine time horizon is infinitely wider than ours, actions which look terrible to us might be okay in his mega-perception of things. Exterminating the Canaanite nations, a horrendous thing to us, may be just a ripple on his highly moral plan for the world. Or, to make a personal point, the Holocaust happened for a reason, perhaps for the same reason that the generation of bondage was not allowed into the Promised Land.

Those who refuse to observe evil commandments see God as a junior partner: if his rules conformed to their morality, they would observe them, but since they do not, they disregard them. Such people are not religious: they observe their own system of values. But we, who believe in God as this world’s reason for existence, we have to observe even the commandments which run against our consciences.

This is the only way to build a Jewish state.