According to the dictionary, philosophy is defined as: the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. In other descriptions it is defined as a system of thought, or a created systematised paradigm of meaning attached to otherwise random events and situations. In other words, it is a human invention of creating meaning from apparent chaos, a way of looking at the world. Judaism fails this definition as a revelation from G-d, an absolute, a ‘given’, a revealed truth that is fundamentally not created nor invented by mankind. To be sure, there are Jewish philosophers (who can be failed to be moved by Abraham Heschel in his towering philosophical work ‘G-d in search of man’), and there are philosophies OF Judaism, drawn from its ethos and spirit. But fundamentally Judaism in its essence is not a philosophy.
The trap however is easy to fall into. Mankind constantly strives to better itself, to create ever better societal and cultural models of values and frameworks, be they political or moral. The more recent fad of the fashionable ‘self-help’ manuals is illustrative of not only the disillusionment of the corporate value system to be replaced by the individual, personal meaning-giving ‘lifestyle’, but also of the drive in us all to ‘understand’, to fill the G-d-shaped vacuum of life. It is easy to see Judaism in this way. Many celebrities (and others) do exactly this, for example chasing Kabbalah for its esoteric enlightenment and cognitive, quasi spiritual high that fixes the momentary need in a me-first generation. An easy trap, yes, and one that sadly even the esteemed departing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks failed to avoid just last week when he commented to a group of freshly ordained rabbis at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London ‘Never forget, if you lift (Torah) high it will lift you high’ (JC 12th July 2013, p12).
Seen this way, Torah is reduced to another of the ‘self-help’ manuals of our time. Follow the way of life laid out in this text and you will have success. These words, sadly, could be said of any text of our time written by any of the current plethora of modern ‘gurus’ trying to help mankind. Surely we should and must understand that Torah, in itself, has no power to change us or give us success in life. While some will undoubtedly argue (rightly) that the words contained therein are living and powerful, they are only this because of…. the fact that there is a living, speaking, powerful G-d behind them who continues to speak and change lives today. Words are cheap and plentiful, the question is who speaks them. If our G-d speaks then lives can be changed. It is this encounter with the G-d who IS, who is alive, that fundamentally can, will and must change things, lives, situations, not a reading however close of a text or philosophy. Beliefs, practices, theology and philosophy will shape and form your life and maybe even give it some substance, but only G-d can change it.
Judaism is not a philosophy. If it is, we reduce it to the mundane and human. It is not a ‘success manual’. It is the way of righteousness to all who would believe and embrace the encounter with the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov who is alive.