Judaism is my essence; I love being a Jew. I know I am biased; I was raised in Israel in the 1930 +, in the formative years of its creation. That period has a lot of meaning for me: the fighting in the underground for liberty, the building of the country, the gathering of the survivors, and the return of many from around the world. But I believe Judaism fits my soul far more than just because I was born and raised a Jew. I love Judaism because its goal is to make this world a better place for all humankind. This makes a lot of sense to me, both emotionally and intellectually. We Jews volunteered 3400 years ago to help guide humanity towards a more moral, and a just world. This philosophy of life is logical, clear, and easy to understand, but hard to practice. Judaism requires action, not mere faith, and is not based on any hard to comprehend mythology.
The key goal of Judaism, as I see it, is Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world under the rule of God. (Communism also wanted to perfect the world, but under the rule of man). As Rabbi David Wolpe said: “Judaism is a SYSTEM of Tikkun Olam.” The Torah, Mitzvot, Talmud, the vast rabbinical writings, the synagogue, family traditions, are part of this system. To me Judaism’s essence is: there is one supreme being that expects us to lead a moral, and a just life and treat other people with the same high level of justice and morality that we want to be treated. Also, we should work for peace and harmony between all human kind and treat nature gently to sustain life.
Fortunately we are not alone and many others adopted the same goal. And I do NOT think that Judaism’s beliefs are the only right ones. Everyone needs to follow his/her own moral convictions. Obviously there are millions of outstanding people world wide working to improve the world that are not Jews, in fact Mother Teresa is one of my role models.
No one is telling us in Judaism (ignoring extremists) what views to hold, nor to believe in God. Your beliefs are up to you. What is important is how you treat your fellow human beings. That is real life, that is beautiful. That makes sense to me. Words of love do not mean very much to me. Loving action means a lot. Judaism has a very rich, moral and wise heritage developed over the ages, and this rich heritage is given to us on a silver platter. Yet, most of us Jews know very little about it and shy away from learning it. Even fewer are leading their lives according the moral principles of Judaism. I know I have a long way to go in these areas.
We live in a real world with immense amounts of injustice and suffering. People need to work together to make this a better world for all humankind. Dreaming about a rewarding afterlife, in part, I believe, is an escape, a way to reduce our responsibility to our fellow humans. Afterlife and the idea of original sin can create unnecessary pain. Long ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington I was walking with a beautiful, healthy, young non Jewish lady discussing afterlife. After I explained to her why I couldn’t believe in it, she told me something I never forget: “There had better be heaven and an afterlife, otherwise why am I suffering so much?” Unbelievable!
IT TAKES A LONG TIME TO GRASP JUDAISM’S BEAUTY.
It took me a long time to comprehend the real meaning and beauty of Judaism despite having a reasonable exposure to it. I was raised in an observant family in Israel, and went to a modern religious school. My mother was my key example of how to practice Judaism on a daily basis, while my father guided us by his own actions and high morality. Mother kept kosher meticulously, gave to the poor on every opportunity and explained to me how important it was. She lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night and prayed with her soul, one-to-one with God. She would put the two candles in their long silver candlestick holders, put her white, handmade shawl, on her head, lighted the candles, and started to pray. What a marvelous sight it was. When she started to pray her face was tired and lined with deep lines of concern. She prayed quietly, I could not hear the words, but I could not miss the impact. Slowly, slowly, as she told God her troubles, her concerns, her fears, her face would clear up from the agony and the deep lines. It was a miraculous transformation. And it happened again and again just in front of my eyes. She became younger and her face so peaceful, as she finished her prayers and said, with a smile to me: “Shabbat Shalom.”
Father resigned and was unemployed for some time during the depression rather than accept immorality in his company. He was the company financial controller and management asked him to cover up their illegal activities. He said: “Over my dead body.” He helped the undergrounds against the British and taught us to love Israel. We celebrated all the holidays and our family’s Friday night and Saturday meals were some of the most enriching and warm times of my life. Shabbat was a beautiful, weekly holiday in our home. We talked about justice and morality, never about money.
As an adult living in the US, a minister introduced me to another important aspect of Judaism: progress. He invited my family to his Sunday sermon about the contribution of Judaism to the western world. He said that until the Jews came, people went through their difficult life with no expectation of improvement. Judaism introduced the concept of progress and hope in human life. The Jews said that people do not have to live a life of hopelessness, where most people were subjugated and lived a slave-like existence. We could work together to make this a better world, a peaceful, a just, and a moral world for all humanity, a world governed by a single, moral, and just God. Remember what the world was like 3400 years ago. Justice did not exist. Pharaohs and kings, with absolute power on life and death, were siphoning their people’s wealth and killing them in their quest for power and glory.
WE CAN NOT GRASP JUDAISM WITHOUT LEARNING JUDAISM.
My experience tells me that to do anything well I have to learn it. We cannot have understanding and appreciation of Judaism from a superficial exposure. We have to learn Judaism to grasp its beauty. We can see it in the wise “Golden Rule” of Rabbi Hillel, who was a kind Rabbi in Israel some two thousand years ago. The story is that a non-Jew came to Rabbi Shammai, a strict Rabbi, and asked him: “Teach me Judaism while I am standing on one leg.” Rabbi Shammai dismissed him. When the man asked Rabbi Hillel the same question, Hillel told him: “Do unto others as you wish they would do unto you. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go LEARN.”
I am emphasizing LEARN since it is very important and is usually neglected when this story is told. It would be so much more satisfying to be a Jew in the U.S. if we knew our own religion. The exposure to Judaism among most secular Jews is extremely limited. Most of the Jews I know spent a small amount of time studying Judaism as kids and rarely added to it in later life. I studied considerably more, and I know how little I know about our highly developed, well thought out, religion. Yet, without real knowledge, too many of us have a lot of reservations and complaints and do not understand the majority of Judaism’s teaching.
From my observations most Jews are not aware, just as I was not, of much of the magnificence of Judaism. For example, we think that many of our Mitzvot are old fashioned and dictated for obsolete reasons. No. They are here to teach us morality and holiness. So many of the Mitzvot are such an essential core of Western civilization that we forget where they came from. I urge you to study the short book: Nine questions people ask about Judaism. I found in it considerable insight into Judaism with clarity and wisdom too.
Yes, there is tremendous richness and wisdom in our religion. Many of our laws were developed and codified over long periods. It took several hundred years to develop and write down the Mishnah. It took several hundred years more to settle on the next set of interpretive books, the Talmud. Just think about it. How rich is our heritage! The wisest Rabbis who were highly respected for their learning, depth of thinking, wisdom, and honesty developed these books. This very long deliberation by many Rabbis did not allow the imposition of a central dogma, but brought forth the wisdom of the ages. Just think how fortunate we are to have the benefits of this accumulated wisdom. I have sometime wondered where I got the drive and the courage to strive for a higher goal after great difficulties. What was the force that encouraged me to continue and find better solutions, rather than take the easy way out? I believe that a lot of this drive was instilled in me by my heritage, by the accumulated wisdom that those Rabbis gave us so long ago.
JUDAISM ENCOURAGES DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT
Judaism encourages diversity of beliefs, and diversity of thoughts. Judaism does not have a central organization that dictates a set of beliefs. The organization of the Talmud is a good example. The Talmud is printed with the original Mishnah text in the center of the page, occupying a quarter of the page. The rest of the page contains interpretations by several Rabbis, each with his own way of understanding the text. There is no single, strict interpretation of the text; you are left to make your own conclusion.
Let’s look briefly at how sensible traditional Jewish religious learning is. The Talmud starts without any preamble and goes directly into analysis of a certain religious text; there are arguments and counter arguments attempting to arrive at the most logical understanding of the text. Sometimes people and places are mentioned, but it is clear that the principle emphasis in the Talmud is on the discussion, the rational, the logic, the thinking, the reasoning used. I believe this is a unique Jewish contribution to clear thinking that is seldom practiced in the U.S., possibly not elsewhere, except, maybe, Israel. Throughout my professional career in the U.S., in universities, private industry, government, social justice, and politics, if you look carefully you find that personal considerations were paramount. When we attempted to solve a problem the discussion rarely concentrated on the true merit of the potential solution. The participants paid more attention to their own ego, to how potential solutions may affect their own wellbeing, rather than attempt to solve the problem. I believe that the method developed to study in the Yeshiva, the in-depth analysis of all sides of a problem, is a more effective way of finding viable solutions.
A hundred years ago Mark Twain said the following about Judaism’s survival:
“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew: all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Mark Twain, Harper’s Magazine, September, 1899.
I may know some of the reasons why Judaism not only survived but continued to be vital, and important to humanity. Over three thousand years ago, Jews adopted (with tremendous and repeated internal struggles) the belief in one God, a moral way of life based on justice, the desire for peace, and the brotherhood of all humankind. This is an unbelievable, inspiring goal even today, so many years later. This is a goal to strive for. It is so much larger than we are, and thus, it is a powerful impetus for endurance. Millions of Jews throughout the ages were willing to die rather than renounce their Judaism. Is there a more powerful example than that? We know that people live with greater health and to a greater age when they have a goal, a purpose larger than themselves. It is the same for a community.
Here is a little personal example. One the most meaningful and satisfying times of my life was when I was twenty and a founding member of Kibbutz Nve-Yair in the upper Negev, shortly after Israel’s War of Independence. Fifty of us started this kibbutz near the dangerous Gaza strip. We barely had the basic necessities of life. We did not have enough water to drink, nor to bathe. Every week, when the water was nearly gone we dipped our cups, literally, in the brackish-brown, corroded, water in the steel water tank and were happy to drink it. It was dangerous to get more water. It entailed a trip through risky, sometimes mined dirt roads. A mine killed one of our members on these roads. We received one bucket of water to wash a week. On Friday afternoons we used one half to soap ourselves and the rest to rinse. I was so dirty with grease most of the time maintaining and repairing our tractors that I often immersed myself in the diesel oil tank, up to my neck, without water afterward. It was not available. We had a gun at the head of our beds ready to defend ourselves; Arabs murdered three of our members in the first six months. And we worked very hard. Despite these superficially difficult conditions, and missing my girlfriend who remained in the city, I was happy. I was giving my time and energy to the protection of my beloved country. There was no higher goal that I could wish for, a goal larger than any one of us.
This kind of feeling might have been similar to the feelings and convictions of Jews throughout the millennia who lived and died with the belief that their lives were dedicated to a moral goal that could benefit all humankind. They died with the declaration: “Shma Israel, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad!” Hear O’ Israel, our God is One!” I have tears in my eyes when I write this. It brings up in me deep sadness and anger about the tremendous sacrifice of my people for thousands of years. A sacrifice of innocent people who were murdered just because they were Jews.
The Holocaust was not the only time Jews were persecuted on a mass scale; it was a regular occurrence. Jews suffered thousands of pogroms throughout Europe by Christians. Remember the Crusaders? They were just a bunch of murderers who killed one third of innocent European Jews in the name of their God. In 1648 one third of the Jews in Europe (most of the Jews in the world) were killed during the Khmelnitsky pogroms. This Cossack and Ukrainian leader wiped out seven hundred forty four Jewish communities. During the Nazi Holocaust more than one-third of the world’s Jews were killed by a government, supported by most of its people. They were not casualties of war. This was a deliberate, well-planned, long-term project to eliminate a people. Demographers estimated that if the Jews had not been massacred in large numbers throughout the ages, there would now be some two hundred million Jews in the world. Despite all of these murders Jews continued to believe and refused conversion.
Consider, for example, the Maranos. Or their better name: Conversos. During the fifteen century the Church of Spain declared that Jews must either convert to Christianity or leave the country, leaving all their belongings behind for the Church and the monarchy. A large number left for Italy and Holland, a smaller number converted under the pressure. But most of these were false conversions. The Maranos lived like Christians during the day, while practicing Judaism underground at night. They interconnected their houses with tunnels, celebrated the Jewish holidays, and developed an intricate hidden life as Jews with a tremendous risk to themselves. In the last few decades thousands of Maranos have been seeking a return to Judaism. For 500 years their families practiced some forms of Judaism despite the danger. With a more tolerant world they are now eager to renew their lives as free Jews. It is amazing to me that people would continue to risk their lives for 500 years to keep their Jewish faith even under extreme danger. This is the power of conviction, of a deep belief.
Yes, it was extremely hard to be a Jew in the past. Now, in the US, the danger is mostly internal. We are facing the question to what extent do we want to carry forth the essence of Judaism, practicing and working for a moral and just world, or do we just want to enjoy the camaraderie, the food, and the exterior customs we personally like.
I believe our resiliency is strong and Judaism will continue to be a light to the world, and that we Jews will continue to work with people of different faiths to help make this world a much better place for all humankind.
Sacramento, California, 1995