Ethical Judaism: A Statement of Faith

Judaism has no single universally accepted statement of faith. There are a thousand doors that lead into the house of the Jewish faith. This is the one I have walked through. I call it Ethical Judaism, and, unsurprisingly, I begin with God.

The Jewish revolution in history was to introduce the world to a unified God with a moral personality and a moral will. The existence of such a God provides transcendent meaning and an absolute morality, a magnetic north on a moral compass to guide our decisions and our deeds.

This moral God needs human partners to act in the material world. The Jewish religious consciousness perceived that the Jewish people’s relationship with God was one of human moral will in companionship with God’s. The visionary insight of such an apprehension of the Divine was that in pursuit of such moral companionship humans would elevate their own moral personalities.

Any satisfaction associated with our aspirations for moral growth is quickly tempered by the more sober realization that we have to do good whether we want to or not. Our personal feelings, our desires, our hopes and dreams don’t matter when they try to compel us to do wrong. Our intuition can be misleading. Our judgments can be cloudy. Our search is for our self’s best nature. It’s insufficient to intend to be moral. We must study because studying lets us rehearse for the moments when we will be tested. Our task is to shape our own character, to become reflexively good, to act rightly over and over until doing so defines our identity. Our developed moral character guards our desires to prevent them from misguiding us.

Judaism’s goal is to make people better. It is a system to enable us to choose the good and to understand the good. In choosing and understanding the good, we mend the world. Judaism is a world view and a way of life. Believing that truth can also come from places other than material reality, Jews orient their lives so they connect to the sacred reality. The traditional texts, institutions, and ritual obligations are meant to point us with ever greater precision toward that sacred reality. We can question how literal those texts are or how relevant and personally stirring are the institutions or rituals. It is precisely that wrestling that creates Jews. The word “Israel” does not mean one who believes in God but one who wrestles with God. The tradition is a gateway to study, reflection, and action. Judaism rallies the mind against passivity. It rallies the soul against accepting any yoke. It rallies the heart to venture forth valiantly into the world as a partner with God and as part of a wider community.

Judaism calls on us to join together as a community because we can do more good when joining others seeking to do good than we can alone. We learn to live with ourselves and with other people.

We face potential problems in desiring to do good. We might satisfy ourselves with just vague rhetoric, feel-good talk that we intend to do what’s right. That is where Judaism’s obligations help. We are required when we can to feed the hungry and help the homeless. We have an obligation to keep our community strong by joining Jewish religious institutions and organizations, providing children with a Jewish education, supporting Israel, and aiding those in distress.

We also need to be aware of the dangers in developing a moral temperament. Believing so intently in the good might become a blindfold blocking off a clear vision of the hatred and horrible acts that sometimes occur in the world. Morality is only good when it is understood in a complex enough way. Seeing all humans as moral can distort a realistic analysis of some people’s depravity and dangerous designs. It can make a person disappointed in others and therefore cynical. Our efforts to do good therefore must be realistic and cover not only the areas where people can do good but also how to react appropriately to the immoral behavior of others.

My statement of faith has other parts as well, but what I have written is its heart.

About the Author
I am the author of a variety of books about Jewish life including "The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America." My most recent book is "Converts to Judaism: Stories from Biblical Times to Today" published by Rowman & Littlefield.