"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

What Judaism Is: One Jew’s View

January 24, 2012

in Judaism vs. Christianity,Noahide - The Ancient Path

by C Norman
In the spirit of providing information, I thought I would here attempt to explain, as I understand them, some of the basic beliefs of Judaism that distinguish it from other faiths. My intention is not to provoke argument or debate, but to provide information only.

Nothing here should be construed as an effort to “win” others to my faith or convince them of its truth. Jews don’t go there, and I most certainly don’t either. JEWS DO NOT PROSELYTIZE, and have not done so since approximately the time of the fall of Rome.

I would emphasize most strongly here, then, that nothing I say should be taken as advocating that anyone take up Judaism or even agree with it or any aspect of it. I am here attempting to describe Judaism in positive terms; no more. There is no further significance to my words; no “hidden messages”, nor any intent to disparage anyone who does not share, or might even be hostile to, any belief or practice that I describe here. I do not see how I can be any clearer than that.

To begin, then: It is tempting to begin and end the matter with the words of the great first-century sage Hillel, who was famously asked to explain the whole of Judaism while standing on one foot. Though other authorities had thrown the questioner out on his ear after hearing such an inquiry, Hillel lifted his foot and said: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Tempting, as I said, but in the present context a bit fatuous. Such a principle is shared by every religion of which I have ever heard, and so hardly distinguishes Judaism from any of them.

Still, it ought to be noted that that IS the supreme ethic of Judaism–and in Judaism, ethics are more important than “doctrine”. To Jews, no “doctrine”, no belief, no principle, no ritual practice, no custom, and no law is ever to be placed above the worth and welfare of the individual human being. It would be well to bear that in mind as one reads what follows.

It would be difficult, nay, impossible in a single post to adequately even summarize the content of the Jewish religion, let alone the distinctive Jewish culture that is so interwoven with it; but perhaps a synopsis of why that is so, with some appended remarks, will serve for the moment. I shall borrow and edit the following few paragraphs from Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s fine book, Basic Judaism–one of the best short works available on the subject today. For those who wish to understand or learn more about our faith, it is highly recommended. I shall not always use quotes, because I am largely paraphrasing and restating the rabbi’s thoughts in my own words. Quoted material is given verbatim.

The Jewish religion is made up of seven “strands”:
(1) A body of teachings about God, the Universe, and human beings;
(2) A system of moral principles for the individual and society;
(3) A collection of rites, customs, and ceremonies;
(4) A body of law;
(5) A sacred literature;
(6) Institutions for the preservation and expression of the above; and
(7) The Jewish people.

I would add

(8) The dimension of time, in that ALL of the above have been revised and adapted to changing circumstances and perceptions over the approximately 4,000 years of Jewish history. I am specifically including the sacred books; responsa, Midrashim, teaching tales and commentary are still being added to the corpus, and even our understanding of the Torah itself has changed, and that even in recent years.

Now it would seem to be possible to separate these threads–to discuss the teachings about God and the Universe separately from the ethic, or the teachings and ethics apart from the books, or any of those apart from the people; but such separation is, in practical terms, impossible. “First, because, where the cords are actually distinct, they have knotted so tightly under the wear and tear of centuries that no amount of picking can pull them apart.”

And second, because the unity of Judaism is more than that of a knot. Most of these seemingly distinct threads are in reality different organs of the same creature, animated by a common spirit, reaching into and penetrating one another, no more to be isolated than the parts of a body. “For–and this is the crux of the matter–Judaism is an organism; the fabric of its weaving is alive.”

This may sound like mere poetry or a facile metaphor. Stay tuned. It is literally true.

(Here ends my borrowing of material from the good rabbi. The rest of what follows is my own, and he ought not be blamed for it.)

An example of the futility of any attempt to separate the strands:

#1, the teachings about God, the Universe, and humans, are probably of the most interest in the present discussion. However, they do not stand alone. They cannot be expressed without reference to the sacred books (5), especially the Torah; and even there, they are virtually never stated directly. They must be inferred from those documents by the Jewish people (7), who collectively determine their meaning in and through various institutions of learning and study (6), express and symbolize them in liturgy and ritual (3), and revise them over time (8) in relation to the moral code (2) and the laws (4) derived from it. All these are a single entity.

If these relationships, and this structure, seem overly complicated, it might be well to remember that this “system”, so to speak, was not conceived and designed by any human agency–no man or committee ever thought this up or drew a master diagram or flowchart that spelled out these related areas and their interaction. Before you assume that I am speaking of God, I will say that He didn’t do it, either.

Judaism grew and developed on its own over the centuries; rather like a living thing, as Rabbi Steinberg indicated. It has adapted and changed according to its environment and nurture, and grown more complex and varied in its parts. Like a living tree, it remains flexible in the wind, and, also like a tree, that flexibility has built-in limits. Too, parts of it occasionally die or are destroyed, but the whole continues to live and grow.

And, though it is a complicated and ever-changing organism, it remains recognizable and essentially a simple thing: a tree. Judaism. The same as it was and will be, ever changing and somehow always the same. (It is no accident that the Torah, and the Jewish faith itself, is often called the Etz Chayim–the Tree of Life.)

Your own appearance and circumstances have changed over the years, and will continue to do so; yet you remain you, and those who know you still know who you are, and love you–or hate you–just the same.

Very well, then; all these “strands” are inextricably intertwined. Beliefs, ethics, laws, ritual, books, institutions, and the people; all one, living organism, ever changing yet ever the same, yada yada yada.

What is there that does NOT change? What makes Judaism, Judaism? What teachings or principles or whatever distinguish it from all other faiths?

Here we go. I shall now break all the rules and ignore all the principles I just laid down as immutable and impossible to ignore, and tell you what Jews believe. Here goes…

First, Jews believe in God.


We believe that God is One.

Now, that is a bit more than just “one God.” it means that God is absolutely unique, impossible to compare to any other force or being. He is no Grandfather in the Sky with an avuncular smile and a long white beard; such a conception is blasphemous. He is without body or form, incorporeal, and unaffected by any force or power; He is other than any part or any attribute of the Universe which we inhabit, and which He made. He shares His power and essence with no one and nothing; He is indivisible, eternally One.

He is the Ein Sof, the Totally Other, the Unknowable. No man can understand or judge Him, nor begin to apprehend His nature. Whatever we may conceive Him to be, He is beyond it. As Arthur C. Clarke once said of the Universe, He is not only stranger than we think, He is stranger than we CAN think. Anyone who claims to “know God,” or claims to speak for Him, is ipso facto either a fraud or insane.

(The quite reasonable objection that the Biblical prophets did just that may be answered by merely reading their books. Every one of them–every single one–was absolutely compelled to do what he did and say what he said, very much against his will. Moses himself protested that he was incapable and unworthy to the point that God grew angry with him. Jonah tried to get out of Dodge by taking ship for parts unknown, and we all know what happened after that. The attitude of every one of them was, “Why ME? I don’t want to DO this!” The pattern is consistent–and NONE of them claimed to be holy themselves, or to be perfect role models, or demanded money–or appeared on TV in a $4,000 suit with blowdried hair.)

God is Sovereign. That means He is beyond our manipulation. When He spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush, He gave his Name as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, usually translated as “I am that I am”–but the Hebrew is in a kind of “eternal tense”. The real meaning is closer to, “I was What I was, I am What I am, and I will be What I will be.” Clear implication: You cannot change Me or determine what I will do. (It was commonly believed in the ancient world that if you knew the true name of a thing, you could control it; God was making it quite clear that that notion did not apply to Him.)

TV evangelists who claim to be able to deliver miracles on demand, “faith healers,” and those who assure you that if you will only send them money, pray their specified prayers, and/or follow their program of guaranteed spiritual enlightenment, that God will bless you, heal you, or make you rich are engaging in blasphemy and arrogance of the highest order. They are essentially claiming to be able to give orders to God Himself.

Speaking for myself, I would be reluctant to give orders to a child that was not my own. One shudders

Jews further believe that God–this sovereign, eternal, omnipotent and unknowable God–spoke to us.

And that’s not outrageous enough; He didn’t just speak to us through some individual holy man, through Abraham or Moses or whoever. That could be doubted, and rightly so; holy men who spoke for God, or claimed to, were ten cents a hundred in the ancient world, just like today. No, that wasn’t certain enough, not striking enough, too likely to be shrugged off or forgotten.

God spoke to us all, all at once, amid smoke and fire and the deafening blare of ram’s horns, from a mountaintop around which we had all gathered to listen. And we all heard Him, each in his own tongue, all at once, and His voice was far beyond thunder. We fell on our faces and begged Him to stop before we died from hearing Him speak to us directly, and pleaded with Him to speak to us only through Moses.

(Some may object to my use of the word “we,” since I obviously wasn’t there–and especially since I am a convert and was not born Jewish. Suffice it to say that the Torah itself states that we were ALL, in some sense, there. The truth of that symbolic statement might become clear in what follows.)

Let’s stop and clarify a few points. First, it is not important, and never was, whether or not this tale is literally true in an objective, historical sense. Most liberal Jews today don’t believe that it is, but we tell the story anyway; as an aid to memory and a way to fix the principle in one’s mind, it’s a pretty hard story to beat. Whether God gave us His Laws by burning letters into slabs of red granite right in front of Charlton Heston’s face, or through the collective, cumulative wisdom of the best and wisest of our people–who began the process by cribbing from the laws of Hammurabi and then slowly refined and humanized them over a span of centuries–does not matter. The Laws, and the principles behind them, stand on their own.

From the very beginning, the laws and practices of Judaism have been judged, altered, adapted and modified by human beings, explicitly independently of any Supreme Being. God’s opinion no longer matters, and–according to Jewish tradition–has not mattered since Sinai.

Do you doubt this? Can you believe that our religion does NOT invoke the authority of the Almighty when discussing any question of ethics, “doctrine”, ritual, or anything else, but that all such matters are ONLY decided by the logical arguments of humans, acknowledged by the whole community to be good and wise?

It is true beyond question.

One of the most famous stories in the literature is that of an argument among the sages of old. The subject does not matter; it concerned a dispute over the dietary laws, and a minor dispute at that.

As the story goes, the council had agreed on a conclusion–but one man, a particularly wise and pious sage, Rabbi Eliezer, disagreed. He attempted to change the council’s decision by producing various miracles; “If I am right, let that tree move from its place to another a hundred cubits away”–and so it did.

(For those not paying attention, this is a teaching story, a parable. Its historicity is not asserted and is a trivial point. Observe the principle taught.)

Even after several such displays, each more astonishing than the last, the council refused to budge. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called upon God Himself to confirm his judgment–and God did just that. A Voice from the sky proclaimed the rabbi’s decision to be the correct one.

The leader of the council then stood and REBUKED GOD, with the remarkable words, “The Torah is not in Heaven!” – and the decision of the council stood.

The principle is simple and important: Now that God has entrusted His laws and principles to humans, by whatever means, it is now OUR responsibility to understand and interpret them; we may depend on miraculous displays and supernatural events no longer. We are to grow up and figure out for ourselves what is just and right, and the Torah itself is subject to human judgment.

And what, according to the story, was God’s reaction to this?

He is said to have laughed. “My children have defeated Me!” God was pleased at the development of humans standing on their own, needing His guidance no longer. That is apparently what He intended.

This is not a matter of human arrogance; Jews believe that we were, and are, commanded to do this in the Torah itself. We are to work out the meaning of the Law in every generation, while never turning our backs on the tradition–the cumulative wisdom and judgment of the generations of the Wise who came before us.

Jews do not believe that God gave us a Book that would be an infallible guide to history, science, or even ethics, and that we can stop using our brains and just look up all the answers in its pages. We believe that He gave us brains to use, and to the very best of our ability.

(One of the corollaries of that belief is that Jews, by and large, do not resist science but revere it. To one who believes in a real God, all facts are God’s facts and we need not fear them. That is why Jews regard ALL learning as sacred, and also why Jews are so heavily overrepresented in the sciences–and why Jews generally have no problem with evolution.)

Now that the process that has formed, and is still forming, the body of Jewish teaching and practice is clear (I hope), the rest is anticlimactic. For Jews, ethics are above doctrine or theology; the enormous mass of discussions and arguments in the Talmud and later works have to do with proper and righteous actions, and very rarely indeed with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (There is much of that sort of thing in the folk literature, and it’s regarded as fun and interesting, but ultimately trivial.)

The core of the Torah, and of Judaism generally, is the laws–moral laws–that we believe God gave us. Initially, of course, there were ten; though there are conceded to be many others in the Books, most of the other 603 laws for Jews (613 is a traditional and symbolic number; no one has ever produced a definitive list) are derived from the Ten Words, as Jews call them.

And those Words are really nothing very special. They basically boil down to two principles: “I am God, the real deal; accept no substitutes and don’t be suckered by phonies,” and, as outlined at the beginning here, “If you don’t like it, don’t lay it on anybody else.” (Corollary to that would be, “Hey, don’t forget to treat YOURSELF right, too; take a day off once a week. I did.”) Everything else in Judaism–everything–is derived from those two rather reasonable ideas.

So why didn’t God just give us two Commandments instead of ten? Moses would only have had to carry one little rock instead of two big ones. My guess is that God was very aware of the capacity of humans for hypocrisy and rationalization. “Hey, I don’t care if you mess with MY wife…” “Well, he doesn’t really need it, and I do, so I’m gonna take it…” And so on. We need specifics.

The sages of old had even less faith in human nature than God did; they tried to spell out every conceivable detail of what is right and not right in every field of human endeavor–for Jews, anyway. 613 Commandments, and one heckuva lot of customs beyond those.

Gentiles have it easier. In Jewish tradition, they are subject to only seven laws, and some of them aren’t in the Ten. As far as figuring out what other laws ought to be derived from those, you guys are on your own, just like we are (and we profess to know nothing about what happens if they aren’t followed, either. Not our business).

If your objection to religion is the bare belief in a God, well, that can’t be helped. But if you’re hostile toward the supernatural in general, you won’t get much disagreement from us. So are we.

You won’t catch a rabbi telling anyone to throw away his insulin, cancel his surgery, and jump out of his wheelchair and dance. Oh, we pray for healing, to be sure; but we expect to receive it–if we do–at the hands of a physician and not through a parting of the clouds. So God has nothing to do with it? Well, no; He made that doctor’s brain and hands, and those of the other doctors who taught him his trade.

In my opinion, Judaism is not really comparable with any other religion. It is sui generis, unique. Does that mean it is the One True Faith? Do we Jews hold The Truth, and those who hold all other faiths, or none, are ignorant, benighted and doomed?

Some Jews might feel that way, but the voice of the tradition, which is in this matter authoritative, is clear. Again, we know only how God chose to speak to US. How He may choose to deal with others is no business of ours, and we have no warrant to either endorse or reject any other faith, or to judge those with none.

Some will no doubt notice that I have not mentioned the issue of “salvation” at all. That is because for Jews, it is not an issue. The focus of our religion is this life, not the next. God is the true Judge, and both His justice and His mercy are perfect; we are content to trust Him with whatever may happen after death, if anything does. We don’t claim to know.

This may be because when we were delivered from slavery in Egypt, we left a culture that was obsessed with death and the afterlife. We do not regard such an obsession to be the proper focus of a people who profess to serve God and their fellow humans. This world is where we have been placed to serve, not the next.

Thanks for reading.

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