If you’ve ever been called a nickname you will know that they often stick because it becomes so closely identified with who you are that two eventually become synonymous. These names though are supplied by others who are attempting to summarise who or what you are. In other words they are not words or phrases used by you to self-identify, but used by others to classify. So it is with the phrase ‘People of the Book’, a term used by Islam to denote all religious people who had a revealed text by which they lived, but in particular used of monotheistic religions and their adherents. Yet it begs the question as applied to Judaism and Jewish people, is it true? When outsiders look in to Judaism and the Jewish community, is this what they see? Are we people ‘just following the text’? As reductionist and, in extremis, absurd as this sounds, we may hesitate before wiping it from the table. We surely ARE known as being a people who ‘follow the commandments’. Judaism is in most people’s eyes, a religion of Law. We are a textual people, framed by words and driven by meanings. But was it meant to be so? Have our ‘labellers’ got it wrong?
As the Torah unfolds it is immediately clear that large sections of it are not about Law. Many column widths are given to life, history, events connecting to create a national narrative; in short a record of our community lives lived out in dedication to G-d, real people in real situations forming reality through a G-d who is real. The commandments as given at Sinai were an addition to our already existent lives with G-d, our calling and role in this world already fixed long before we were commanded to establish our national definition through Law. Yet all this seems to have been forgotten. We are known as ‘the People of the Book’ not as ‘the People of the Living G-d’. We have become so ‘good’ at following the instruction manual that we have forgotten the One who gave it to us in the first place. If we are to renew Judaism once more then we must re-focus on the Giver of the Gift and not just the Gift itself. We must win back the driving force of faith that Avraham had if we are to truly live out the commandments, and that means a return to our G-d who called us in the first place.