Judaism: Not a Belief System, A Way of Life
We call Jews "The People of the Book" for a reason. Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not rest upon faith. Along with the commandments (mitzvot) and prayers (tefilot), we rely upon the holiness of texts infusing the Jewish spirit to develop an immutable Jewish identity.
Separating us from other religious traditions, daily study of written Jewish texts has historically molded Jewish life for both the community and individuals, not simply the clergy. For hours daily I study Jewish writings. That process has changed my life. Let me tell you how.
You may think that as a rabbi I enjoyed an abundance of time to study the fruits of Judaism. That's what rabbis do, right? Actually, wrong. Modern rabbis run congregations, plan worship, officiate at brises and namings and funerals, teach b'nai mitzvah students, attend social justice and religious school events, counsel congregants, attend committee meetings and public gatherings, put out fires. Too often time for study must be stolen, or squirreled away like nuts for the winter.
But not since my retirement 8 years ago.
Now I read various Jewish thought provokers daily: Torah and prophets with their commentaries; biblical psalms which I discuss with friends; medieval art and liturgy from Catalonia and Provence, Northern Italy and Southern Germany. Swimming in the river of Jewish culture, I've melded with my milieu. I no longer need to consider the imponderables of Jewish existence: my belief in God and prayer. Swimming in Jewish textual culture enables me to wrestle with the God of Jewish Spain and Renaissance Italy without questioning my personal belief. They enlarge my comprehension of our world, extending my "experience" into centuries I never personally bodily encountered, but imbibed through their art. I relish my comprehension of the God they believed in, the words they spoke, the concepts they taught, the art they illustrated. Their river flows over and around me. The environment they created chills and warms me without coercing my beliefs. I marvel at the theologians of today and how they wrestle systematically with what remains of philosophical belief. My God and my prayers build upon the thoughts, convictions, doubts, struggles and triumphs of past generations as well as today. They don't require proof. They are pieces of the Garden of Judaism which I personally examine and wander through, while considering the life circumstances of their creators; and revel in the palace of beauty they generated to challenge me and to marvel at, constantly discovering new insights into life, theirs and mine.
Why do contemporary liberal Jews focus primarily on the imponderables of God and prayer? Since philosopher Renee DesCartes (remember him from college?) we can't prove God's existence, no matter how hard we try. The struggle is sisyphusian, frustrating and too often leading to a blank wall of agnostic disbelief. And because not every prayer experience works the way we'd like, we doubt whether any of them connect with the Awe Mighty, although we'd love it if they did. Some do and some don't. They may bring us closer to God temporarily, but our modernity-doubts gnaw at our faith and conviction even after we encounter the ineffable. We are too much like the biblical Generation of the Wilderness, who, after personally experiencing the Exodus, still rebelled against the God who brought them out of Egypt.
Modern Judaism cannot be proven. It can only be lived. It's a choice: like marriage or a home. It's a place we live, not a philosophy we ponder.
When you married, if you married, you fell in love without guarantees but with great hopes. If you shared as you lived and grew then unbeknowst to you, in some perhaps mysterious way, you grew not only with but into one another. You shared the fabric of one another, perhaps even adopting similar traits but certainly similar thoughts and emotions.
We can't prove Judaism, we marry it. When we study a Jewish text we don't learn it, we ingest it. The text becomes part of who we are, and it expresses itself through our personalities, our stories, our thoughts and feelings as we search for ways to express ourselves and our place in the world. Jewish history and the details of Jewish texts emerge from and gain new form in the world through the process of consumption, reemerging through us into the world renewed and adjusted to our realities. They are never exactly what we learned, what we discovered originally, anymore than we absolutely duplicate our marriage partners. We don't believe Judaism, we live Judaism in all aspects of our lives.
All of that results from the encounter with living, breathing Jewish texts.
As we embark on a new year, resolve to read a Jewish text daily, just 10 or 15 minutes. You can subscribe to MyJewishLearning.com
or the Union for Reform Judaism's Torah study site: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study
My plan is to offer BRIEF texts here several times a week, from Torah, prophets and rabbinics (Talmud, midrash, Jewish law and lore). We'll see how it goes. Please "like" on FB, so I'll know there's an audience. No sense in wasting valuable study time!
L'shana tovah tikateyvu,
My you be inscribed in the Book of Life!
During Elul, the month prior to Rosh HaShanah, we recite Psalm 27 daily:
https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2627.htm READ IN ENGLISH OR HEBREW
HERE'S the Psalm as it appears in the finest piece of medieval Jewish art: the Rothschild Miscellany, from the Israel Museum