Once again, let me begin by arguing the opposite point - that belief in God can help improve a person's character. One who is predisposed to violence, thievery, or other behavior which is destructive to others or themselves, can utilize faith in (and fear of) God as a catalyst for self-correction, teshuvah, for "turning over a new leaf." Of course this also applies to people who are not "criminally" predisposed per se, but are simply susceptible to the many weaknesses which naturally afflict human character, such as the propensity to get angry, speak harshly, act selfishly, become jealous, adopt unhealthy behaviors, get involved in shady dealings in pursuit of honor, glory, money and power, and so forth. The belief that God detests/punishes such traits and loves/rewards higher, more noble traits, is often a motivating factor for people to "work on themselves," whether in a Mussar framework or otherwise.
However, belief in God, and particularly the God of the Torah and Orthodox tradition, comes with a flip side - it has the capacity to bring out darker character traits in people as well. These traits stem in large part from elitism. This is connected to the notion of "chosenness," the belief that God holds the Jewish people in "higher" regard than other nations, due to our accepting/keeping the Torah. It is the belief that learning Torah and doing mitzvot are the only things that truly matter, and that all other people, pursuits, things - and not merely on Earth but in fact all things in the entire universe - are simply "props" on the stage which revolve around Jews keeping and learning God's law. Yes, the Torah teaches that all human beings are created in "God's image" and therefore possess a certain sanctity, but that notion is largely placed on the back burner, and what comes to the fore in the religious mentality too often are attitudes of condescension and pity, apathy, antipathy and disgust, toward non-Jews and commonly toward non-religious Jews as well. It is a belief that religious Jews "know better" and therefore need to "fix" non-religious Jews. It is a feeling that non-Jews are "in the way," busy creating distractions, "stumbling blocks" from which Torah Jews must guard themselves. They are a "tamei" (impure) influence, tainting the holiness of Torah and Torah Jewry, an affront to God's mission, to Creation itself. These are the goyim, the shiktzes and sheigetzes of the world, who one day will find out the "real truth" and beg forgiveness from God and the Jewish people, and will fall over themselves just to be able to serve us... That is sadly the kind of thinking that persists in many religious circles.
One wonders how walking around with a sense of contempt for the non-Orthodox world, looking down one's nose and thinking, We're better than them, can possibly be indicative of a "holy" people. Without a doubt, sensitive and conscientious religious Jews would say that such an attitude comprises quite the opposite - a truly unholy and loathsome brand of character, and a corruption of true Torah. It is that last part with which I disagree. Sensitive religious Jews must come to recognize that such attitudes are unfortunately not a "corruption" of Torah - they can be learned out of the Torah itself, and are aided and abetted by standard Orthodox theology and metaphysics. For instance, if the Jewish people are the only people possessed of God's true
teachings, does this not imply that everyone else is "wrong,"
of second-order status, or at the very least "less connected" to God? If the Jewish people are the only people possessed of neshamot/souls (or at least "higher souls"), does this not imply that everyone else is somehow "lesser," "lower"? This is where Orthodox theology and triumphalism brings us.
It pains me to have to say all this, because there are a great many religious Jews in the world who possess a wonderfully developed sensitivity toward others, highly refined character traits, and would not hurt a fly, let alone disparage or harm another human being in any way. And in fact the same people who hold these objectionable beliefs are often otherwise decent people, even sometimes extraordinary people, individuals involved in chesed (charitable work), people who are kind, gentle and giving. The Orthodox world is an odd phenomenon in this way - it places much emphasis on personal refinement and self-development, discussing certain areas of the human psyche with a great deal of sensitivity and sophistication, and at the same time it also abounds in glaring omissions, where either little or no self-development is taking place, or development of a negative or destructive type is being perpetuated based on traditions handed down.
But the time has come for all of us to own up to the traditions and attitudes in Judaism's own backyard which help to cultivate what has become a superiority complex of the most obnoxious kind, which dehumanize or otherwise breed antagonism for other peoples and cultures, or for Jews who do not "conform to God's will." The time has come to strongly, loudly and unequivocally repudiate these attitudes, expunge them once and for all from our hearts and minds. It is time for Orthodox Judaism to "clean house." And a critical step in doing this is to remove the transcendental/theological justifications which underlie these pernicious attitudes. Once we renounce the belief that we have been chosen by God as the very pinnacle and purpose of His creation, that we are inherently "higher," "better" or "more important" than others, then the sense of arrogance and superiority will dissolve away. If we purge ourselves of metaphysical beliefs, we will recognize what should be patently obvious: A person is only as "good" as their character and their treatment of others, period.
The Orthodox belief in God leads to other "darker" character traits as well. One is selfishness - on the individual level, manifested in the constant pursuit of "my mitzvah" - worrying about me being "yotzei" (satisfying my mitzvah obligation), me davening on time, me hearing every word of the Megillah, removing every crumb of my chametz, picking out my lulav, or protecting/securing "my Olam Habah" (the reward of the "World to Come"), for instance in asking someone for forgiveness not out of genuine regret for having harmed them, but so I myself don't incur the wrath of Heaven... On the communal level, selfishness manifests as apathy about what goes on outside the four cubits of the frum community, an attitude that unless it impacts the religious world, "it's not my problem."
Another negative trait which (counterintuitively, one might say) is propagated by Orthodox theology, is the nearly relentless focus on externals. Is there another community in the Jewish world so obsessed with measuring sleeve length and skirt length, so focused on knees, elbows and collar bones, watching for closed-toed shoes vs. open-toed, sheitels vs. snoods (vs. God forbid no hair covering at all)? Is there another denomination of Judaism which so scrutinizes and prejudges people based on beard length, shirt color, jacket length and hat style, kippah color and material (or again, God forbid no kippah)? The award for religiously-based neurotic attention to externals clearly goes to Orthodoxy. Is there is a role for modesty, or a place for a culture to retain a certain style of dress as a part of self-identification? Of course there is, but again the sense of transcendent/theological importance which is attached to dress, the sense that God is watching and cares (and judges) whether a handsbreadth of a woman's hair is showing, turns it from a potentially benign cultural norm into an obsession on externals - not exactly a noble (or particularly "religious") character trait.
Without question, the non-Orthodox world is rife with its own brand of selfishness, lack of concern for others, and excessive focus on externals. And indeed, within the Torah tradition can be found countless teachings which combat such attitudes and promote higher character traits. As we discussed above, belief in God can be a motivator for people to work through such issues and develop more refined modes of thinking and conduct. The Orthodox world in fact excels in utilizing belief toward these ends. But that same belief in God can also corrupt people's character, causing them to cultivate attitudes which are truly ugly and demeaning of other human beings. The suggested remedy? Emphasize and cull from those teachings in Judaism which bring out the best in our character - but do so completely "lishma" (for its own sake), without attaching to it any metaphysical or theological justifications whatsoever, but simply because that is the kind of people we choose to be, that we seek to become.
The best way to develop a "lev tahor," to be truly pure of heart and mind, is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character, and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits. If we do, there is abundant and beautiful material within Torah to glean from and to help inspire us along the way.