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Judaism’s unique proposition

Always particularly inspired by the Torah readings at this time of the year, it reminds me that Judaism has a very distinct view of the world, a very distinct view about what being Jewish means, and about what doing Jewish things achieve.

In a nutshell, Judaism in its most un-stultified form offers a life with radical freedom and complete intentionality – the promise that you need never do anything ever again by default.

If Judaism engages you, and you really understand it, this brings a life that is full, vibrant, profound, replete with meaning and impact.

In every aspect of life, Jews – whether Jews by birth or Jews by choice – have been granted the opportunity to connect with the Divine (Proverbs 3:6 – ‘know Him in all your ways and He will direct your paths’).

Judaism conceives a world in which G-d is here, but constricted (hidden and withdrawn, or ‘tzimtzum’) – this is how Jewish mysticism understands the state of the earth described as ‘tohu v’bohu’ (often translated as empty and desolate, per Genesis 1:2).

G-d’s constriction allows for the appearance of an imperfect world. It creates the ‘space’ for free human action to perfect this imperfect world – this is the meaning of ‘to do’ in the phrase ‘all of His work that G-d created to do’ (Genesis 2:3).

If G-d was not concealed, we would not – in the face of the Lord in His fully revealed perfect state – have any choice. There would be no space for imperfection. There would be no space for independent existence. We would have no room left for faith or for autonomy.

But behind this imperfect world is an underlying unity – G-d’s presence is still here in the world but in a hidden and withdrawn state, and it needs free agents to freely choose to draw Him in and reveal His presence.

This is a kindness G-d does for us as His created beings, to allow us a partnership with Him to perfect His creation, freely entered into and freely carried out.

Given the responsibility to fulfil this partnership, to carry out the tasks requested of us by the Divine, grants us a sense of purpose, a mission, the capacity to value, to find meaning and to experience love – the things that make life worth living.

Now we can understand the metaphor, found in Judaism’s midrashic literature, of the world as a ‘palace in flames’. Avraham sees a palace in flames. He calls out, ‘who is the owner of the palace?’. G-d says, ‘Here I am’.

Torah is a ‘manual of actions’ (i.e. mitzvot) granted to Avraham’s descendants that they may freely choose to perform in order to reveal G’d’s concealed presence, thereby putting out the flames and fixing up the ‘palace’ (i.e. the world) – in other words, tikkun olam.

When we follow the manual (i.e. perform the mitzvot), we perform a ‘reverse tzimtzum’ by suspending our will in order to ‘create space’ for Him in the material world.

Connecting with the Divine means to go beyond constraints of nature or logic, to go beyond the deterministic forces of sociology, biology and psychology – this is how we can understand Hashem’s commandment to Avraham, ‘go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house’ (Genesis 12:1)

For a Jew that is conscious and accepting of their Judaism, every aspect of life involves a choice – to connect with G-d beyond nature or to remain limited by deterministic forces within nature.

This is how we can understand a passage from the rebuke towards the end of Leviticus – ‘if you treat Me with happenstance (‘keri’), I will treat you with happenstance’ (Leviticus 26:23-24), in which happenstance means accidental, without intention. If we, G-d forbid, exclude by our actions G-d from this world, we do not benefit from His protection against the deterministic forces in nature.

Every choice, if performed sincerely and intentionally for the sake of Heaven, will create a flow and a revelation of Divine goodness in the world, and will take us a step further to that ultimate revelation of cosmic unity – ‘and the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one’ (Zechariah 14:9).

We talk this walk every day in our prayers, which is why it is no accident that the final prayer of every service – Aleinu – ends with this very line from Zechariah.

Therefore, the worldview of a fresh, un-stultified Judaism is a worldview of radical freedom, absolute responsibility, humble leadership, partnership with G-d, the ultimate revelation of underlying unity.

Which brings us to the Torah readings at this time of year which illustrate the mechanics of how Judaism works.

The prototype for this is the building of the tabernacle in the desert by the Children of Israel, in the latter parts of the Book of Exodus, and for the performance of the rituals at the tabernacle, at the start of the Book of Leviticus .

When the Children of Israel ‘followed the manual’ to build the tabernacle and perform the rituals, according to G-d’s very precise instructions, Torah tells us how it caused the flow and revelation of G-dliness in the world – ‘and the Glory of the Lord was revealed to all the people’ (Leviticus 9:23).

G-d’s kindness knows no bounds. Therefore, through his Manual (i.e. Torah), He provides us ways (i.e. mitzvot) of bringing His G-dliness into the world with every activity we perform in every aspect of our lives (again, as per Proverbs 3:6, ‘know Him in all your ways and He shall direct your paths’).

  • what we eat
  • how we structure family life
  • how we dress
  • how we treat other people
  • the way we use our time
  • the way we do business
  • the way we use our money, etc, etc.

These actions are laid out throughout Torah, but they are crystallized in the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus, starting with the laws of kosher foods in Leviticus 11.

In other words, in every activity we perform, no matter how mundane or otherwise apparently meaningless (even the act of putting on our shoes), there is always a choice we have, if done sincerely and with intentionality, that can draw G-dliness into the world and reveal His presence.

This may help to explain the sequencing of what many find to be the most ‘boring’ parts of Torah – i.e. after the exodus from Egypt but before the journey to the Land of Israel.

First, G-d sets out the prototype for the mitzvot with the building of the tabernacle (Exodus)…

…then G-d expands on this prototype by explaining the main rituals to be performed within this tabernacle (early Leviticus), showing how the performance of the rituals at the tabernacle leads to the ‘Glory of the Lord [being] revealed to all the people…’

…then (middle of Leviticus) G-d sets out the ways in which the Jewish people across all dimensions of their human existence can replicate this prototype in every place and in every era, to reveal the Glory of the Lord…

… and finally (end of Leviticus), in the portion of the blessings and curses, G-d tells us what is at stake.

So, what appears to the uninitiated in Judaism as a never-ending list of dos and don’ts is in fact the continuous opportunity that G-d provides to us to connect with Him and infuse His presence into the world as a means to help fix it up

The converse is also true. There are curses as well as blessings. The greater the extent to which the Jewish people ignore or contravene the mitzvot, and also importantly, the greater the extent to which the Jewish people take credit themselves for the flow of blessings that G-d provides as a result of mitzvah performance, the greater G-d’s subsequent withdrawal, G-d forbid, and the greater the exposure to danger the Jewish people – still small and powerless except for His grace – face from the larger and more powerful nations of the world.

G-d’s instructions to the Jewish people when building the tabernacle were incredibly precise. The more precision, the easier it was for the Children of Israel to nullify their will before His will.

And conversely, the less precision that G-d provides in the manual, the more gaps there are which provide scope for people to reimpose their own will at the expense of G-d’s.

This is why many of the mitzvot are ‘supra-rational’ (This does not mean they are irrational but rather, they are not subject to rationality). These are mitzvot like not eating pork, not mixing wool and linen, and not mixing meat and milk, which we cannot explain in ordinary ethical or scientific terms.

Building on the understanding explained above, the supra-rational mitzvot are the ‘easiest’ mitzvot to perform. Because we cannot apply our own understanding as to why, for example, we are not allowed to eat pork, we find it easier to nullify our will before His, and refrain from so doing.

By contrast, when it comes to the rational mitzvot – which are generally, but not always, the mitzvot involving obligations to other people – we think we understand why we should not murder, not steal, give charity, honor our parents, etc. Therefore, we apply our own understanding to define how we should carry out these mitzvot.

This provides more scope for us to reinsert our own will, rather than carrying out His will, when performing these mitzvot. This is where we can go wrong, as even King Solomon – proclaimed as the wisest of all men in scripture – demonstrated (1 Kings 11).

In this sense, at least in my understanding, G-d may have given us the supra-rational mitzvot, the cause today of so much doubt and derision, as a means of training.

G-d knows that left to our own devices with only the rational mitzvot, we will gradually subvert them to perform our own will, not His. Therefore, we train ourselves through the supra-rational mitzvot to nullify our will, and as we get better at it, more disciplined, we can perform the rational mitzvot with ever-greater nullification of our will to His.

The hardest of the inter-personal mitzvot is arguably the mitzvah to love our fellow as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). (Or alternatively, perhaps, a mitzvah a few verses later, to love the stranger as ourselves, Leviticus 19:34..)

As noted above, this mitzvah, which sits at the center of the holiness code of Leviticus, has been called by the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, the ‘great principle of the Torah’. Hillel, one of our greatest leaders, famously said about this mitzvah, ‘this is the whole of Torah, the rest is all commentary’.

Many have been confused by these comments. Given the many supra-rational mitzvot, including the many mitzvot which involve ritualistic obligations toward G-d, how can loving your fellow (or the stranger) be the ‘great principle’ or the ‘whole of Torah’?

With the understanding set out above, we can now better understand what Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are saying.

It is easier to nullify our will when we are given precise instructions.

And it is also easier to nullify our will when the matter is beyond our understanding.

However, when we are not given precise instructions, and when the matter is subject to our understanding, to perform the mitzvah according to the will of G-d, and not according to our own ego, this is the hardest of the mitzvot to perform.

Those that can perform this inter-personal mitzvah according to G-d’s will, by truly nullifying their own, these are the holiest among us who bring G-d’s divine presence into the world.

In other words, the pinnacle of, or perhaps the foundation for tikkun olam – loving our fellow as ourselves – is only possible when rooted to G-d’s will: it cannot be done on a standalone basis.

By way of addendum, given that zionism – which I use with a small ‘z’ and loosely define as the return of the Jewish people to become a free people again in our own Land – is the cause of so much misunderstanding and controversy, the explanation provided above can better help clarify the relationship between Judaism and the Land of Israel.

Our quest to resettle Eretz Yisrael in contemporary times, and our ultimate aspiration to rebuild the Temple on Mount Moriah in the days of Moshiach, is not – or should not be – motivated by a striving for colonial dominance or national self-glorification, but precisely the reverse – for the opportunity to nullify our individual and collective will before the will of G-d through the myriad additional mitzvot that can only be performed in our Land and at our Temple.

Thus, according to the great sage, the Chafetz Chaim (Concise Book of Mitzvot), it is possible to perform only 271 of the 613 total mitzvot while Israel is in exile and the Temple remains destroyed. 26 additional mitzvot can be performed in the Land which we now have the privilege to perform as we resettle it. This gives a total of 297 and leaves 316 mitzvot – the majority – dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple, i.e. 316 extra ways of bringing G-d’s presence into the world to fix it up.

The matter of the appropriate Torah-based approach concerning interaction with the Arab residents of this Land is an important matter, and worthy of separate examination. But whatever our rights and obligations towards the Arabs in the Land, whatever our track record in fulfilling them, and whatever their track record in their interactions with the Jewish people, based on the explanation above, it is important to assert that Judaism cannot be interpreted to be anything other than zionist (again with small c) – we need to be in our Land to perform those mitzvot.

About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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