What IS Judaism?

We ALL know what Judaism is don’t we? After all, if we didn’t we wouldn’t be in the middle of keeping Pesach right now, we wouldn’t have cleaned all our homes out, removed the chametz, and be still enjoying the cosy glow of our Seder. Everyone knows what Judaism is, right? Judaism is what Jewish people do! But that only throws up yet further questions of who IS a Jew, questions of identity and community markers and borders, ethnicity and conversion. How can such a simple question be so contentious? And would you know a Jewish person if you met one? How? By what they wear, what they say, how they pray, what synagogue they go to (or would never go to!)? Is Judaism only to be understood and recognised in its Rabbinic form (and its later extensions)? Is this what Judaism IS? Certainly those in the more modern forms of Rabbinic Judaism would strongly wish to self-identify with this core concept of singular validity and authenticity. But Is this what the Torah tells us that Judaism is? Maybe Judaism is wider, maybe we should include other forms: Reform, Liberal, Masorti, Reconstructionist or Modern Orthodox. Each one of these forms has its own value base, interpretational paradigms and intellectual structures that it functions within, but then so does Rabbinic Judaism too… It is precisely at times of national, cultural and spiritual renewal that it is vital to examine exactly what makes us tick, what drives us, motivates us, what makes us actually Jewish, and whether what we are actually doing IS Judaism.

It would of course be a challenge to define Judaism in even one sentence let alone a paragraph, but the Prophet Jeremiah (7:22-23) creates a tension in one of his many words to us that should help us to begin that formulation. Adonai, through Jeremiah, says ‘I did not speak to your fathers or command them in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them saying ‘Obey my voice and I will be your G-d, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the ways I have commanded you.’ ‘. The obvious tension and deliberate contradiction is to highlight something we are meant to think about, to be challenged about. Clearly G-d DID command us concerning sacrifice and offerings, yet we seemed to have missed something: the command to obey His voice. As a nation we set about doing things, fulfilling the commandments and yet we are reminded by the Prophet that listening to G-d’s voice in all this was/is missing. The contradiction points to a sad condition of spiritual deafness that even today should cause us concern. Doing is not the same as listening and obeying. If Jewish renewal is going to mean anything then it has to be a return to a focus on listening to G-d, hearing His voice through Torah and tradition, knowing how through the application of His righteousness alone we are to live out the mitzvot. We can, and should take this analogy even further: to listen implies two parties who are alive and understand each other, in fact, to have a living relationship where communication is not impeded. Judaism surely stands on the reality of the G-d of Israel’s existence and His ability to communicate to us even today as He has in the past through our Fathers, the Prophets and Mashiach. It stands on relationship.

Ask most people outside the borders of Judaism what Jewish people are defined by and you will get the comment ‘they do X, or Y’. It is highly unlikely that we would ever hear the comment ‘Jewish people are people who listen to G-d, have a relationship with Him and obey Him.’ In whatever form of Judaism we are, and however we may self-define that Judaism, surely we should allow G-d to speak to us through Torah once more and challenge us to submit to its teachings alone.

Ethical monotheism in a noisy world.

We live in a noisy world. Have you noticed that it is almost impossible to go somewhere and experience complete quiet? As technology has increased and the ability to communicate has expanded, we are bombarded by voices and messages from all angles. And in this post-modern age one voice seems to be equal to any other. Who can tell what website to believe? What book worth reading? And in all this, wisdom and knowledge has not abounded, but confusion. If Torah teaches us anything it is that this scenario should not be so. Again and again we find that G-d speaks, says and even calls to Moshe and our people to listen to HIM and to Him alone. Some may say of course (as our people did in the wilderness according to the Sages) that Moshe only ever spoke for himself, that it was his voice we heard and not that of our G-d who had brought us out of Egypt. However, the internal testimnoy of the Torah reveals a G-d who not only desires to speak and communicate with us, but has done so, par excellence in the revelation given at Sinai: Torah. It is incumbent upon us as Jews to therefore LISTEN to Him. Why is this so important for our renewal and revival? Because unless we refocus upon our G-d and His acts of redemption for us, listen to His voice alone, we shall not rise up fully to our national call to be a light to the nations. That calling has always been to serve G-d and deliver the message of ethical monotheism to the world.

And what does that mean? In the Torah we were given commandments which, if carried out, would separate us from the ways of the nations around us. The intrinsic, deep seated sense of social justice and relational righteousness sits at the heart of Torah, and when it was given, put clear blue water between us and the nations around us at the time. Today, because of multiple source inputs, people listen to all kinds of philosophies, traditions and various alternative spiritualities to find this sense of justice and righteousness. If we paused for a moment and listened to G-d and examined afresh His revelation to us, we would find His voice, know His voice and obey, finding His righteousness and nothing else.

The words ethical monotheism are meant to be read together. Some want ethics but without the baggage of believing in G-d, some just want to the spirituality of believing in G-d but aren’t so strong on the social and communal obligations of an ethical life. But our calling has been to combine these two words together to be a light. G-d is our source of ethics, the One true G-d of Israel. Without His revelation we would have no ethics, or at least only a man-made copy and invention, an ethics of human expediency.

So we must listen to His voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, and we have the guarantee that His Spirit will lead us into all truth, if we submit to Him. What we discover as Jews is that the truth sets free, and that must come from our G-d alone. Being set free becomes not only the motif of Pesach but the bedrock of what true ethical monotheism is all about.

The beginnings of a Jewish dialogue, thoughts on Jewish renewal and revival, why we need it, how to get it and what it means for this modern world.

I am hoping to create a space here on this blog for some radical thinking, challenging ideas that will interrogate received ideas and wisdom. In a ‘western’ world increasingly dominated by secularism and humanist, post-modern ideology, just how do we as Jews present the message of hope, renewal and redemption? How can we begin to formulate strategies to help others if our own intellectual and spiritualĀ  environment is in need of revival too? If you are interested in Jewish renewal, community refreshing, a connection with Israel and a refocus on our national call to be a light to the nations around us, then this blog will interest you.