Five brilliant things about Judaism (that we sometimes forget)

Five brilliant things about Judaism (that we sometimes forget) July 14, 2015

Here’s five brilliant things about Judaism that Jews (and others) sometimes forget.

1. Strangers

What kind of theology and communal politics would you expect to emerge from a people enslaved for centuries, forced to work in the hardest of conditions and finally subjected to an imperial order that their male children be murdered at birth?

You’d think the phrase ‘Never Again’ would have turned up in the Book of Exodus and then been repeated time and time again throughout the rest of the Torah, showing up in the psalms and prayer book liturgy for thousands of years to come. You’d think an outlook based on a need for constant vigilance and communal strength would have dominated that people’s development.

But it didn’t happen.

With a “strong hand and an outstretched arm” the Almighty frees the Hebrew slaves from captivity and attempted genocide and then He tells them this:

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

An entire system of ethics is built upon the formative (and very negative) experience of slavery in ancient Egypt.

Empathy and altruism towards the most marginalised and vulnerable, epitomised biblically by “the stranger”, “the widow”, and “the orphan” become foundational to the creation of the God-centred just society that the Hebrews are called to create as they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai.

I sometimes think we have lost sight of the ‘big picture’ for Judaism, the thinking that turned us from a slave rabble to a Holy Nation. Our 21st century ‘communal theology’, as acted out in the public sphere, has become one of victimhood and defensiveness. Jewish history provides an explanation for why that has happened. But it’s a poor substitute for a brilliant, galvanising and inspiring religious vision.

Star of David. Source:
Star of David. Source:

2. Love

Judaism has as reputation (especially among some Christians) for being a legalistic religion obsessed by what is and isn’t permissible in every day life. It’s a description that has a point but also misses the point. They may be commandments but they are commandments that sanctify the daily routine of life and keep us Holy. And despite all of the do’s and don’t’s, ‘Love’ (in the sense of profound concern rather than romantic attachment) is very much front and centre for Judaism.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

And, as already called out:

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a strange land” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Some like to claim that all of this profound concern only applies to Jews in relation to other Jews.

To me that makes no sense. And what an impoverished religion Judaism would be if it were true.

There are certainly both tribal and universal strains within Jewish thought but these commandments are surely outward looking.

If we are all made in the image of God then that spark of holiness that rests within each of us must extend our morality beyond the family, or the tribe or the nation. (See also no. 4 below).

In the first century CE, Rabbi Hillel was challenged to sum up the entire Torah (while standing on one leg). He managed to not only keep his balance but say something brilliantly quotable and universally true:

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

When I was writing about the United Nation’s report on last year’s Gaza War, this was a thought that kept coming back to me.

3. Trouble Makers

Having set some frighteningly high standards for ourselves, we then chose to build in to Judaism a powerful tradition of self-criticism. Much of the Hebrew bible reads as a chronicle of chronic back sliding which reveals a people with a healthy, and perhaps unique, pre-occupation with self-understanding. But there’s one group of people within Jewish tradition who turned self-criticism into outstanding poetic wisdom.

If you are looking for archetypes of the ‘self-hating Jew’ you can find them happily canonised within our scripture. Of course the Hebrew Prophets are not self-hating at all. They are the guardians of our heritage and values, and as a result, the sternest of our internal critics. They call out the iniquity of our own leaders, they condemn legalised injustice and pour out their wrath against the exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Here’s a flavour:

“They sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way.” (Amos 2:6-7)

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6)

” Crime follows crime. For that the earth is withered. Everything that dwells on it languishes – Beasts of the filed and birds of the sky – Even the fish of the sea perish.” (Hosea 4:1-3)

Just like in the time of the ancient Prophets, internal Jewish critics today are not popular and are condemned and sidelined as ‘self-hating’ or at best misguided trouble makers.

But we need them more than ever.

I would include in this category Marc Ellis author of Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation, the Chicago Rabbi, Brant Rosen, and my fellow Patheos writer Mark Braverman. For good measure, I’ll also include the tens of thousands of individuals supporting Jewish Voice for Peace.

More brilliant trouble makers please!

A page from the Hebrew Bible. Source:
A page from the Hebrew Bible. Source:

4. Jonah

I’m a big fan of the Book of Jonah. And not because of the giant fish that usually gets all of the attention. The giant fish is probably the least interesting part of the fable.

It’s a prophetic story that illustrates that God’s love and concern encompasses all of His creation, even the sworn enemies of the Jewish People. It demonstrates that anyone can find forgiveness and redemption in the eyes of God, a God who much prefers forgiveness to punishment.

“…should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)

Jonah himself is comical as the tetchy, irritable and highly reluctant messenger of God. I love the idea that Jonah thinks he can run away from his mission to the Ninevites by jumping on a boat and sailing in the opposite direction, as if God only looks down on Israel and can see no further.

When I was growing up my Hebrew teacher had the annual honour of reading the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services at our synagogue. His musings on the tale each year always involved a dialogue with Jonah himself that brought out the prophet’s struggle to see Judaism’s big picture. I’ve borrowed this technique myself a couple of times.

Once a year may not be enough for the brilliant Book of Jonah.

5. Rabbis

The development of Judaism did not end with the book of Malachi, the final text of the library we call the Hebrew Bible. And it certainly didn’t end with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Actually, Judaism as we understand and live it today only gets going after the Temple is no longer there, indeed, because it is no longer there.

The genius of rabbinic Judaism was, and still is, twofold.

First it made Judaism globally portable. The rabbis replaced the holiness of land with the sanctity of time. They took our focus from one Temple to many synagogues. And they exchanged spiritual commitment through animal sacrifice with spiritual commitment through prayer and righteous acts.

Secondly, the rabbis made our ancient scripture holy and unchangeable but without putting a stop on interpretation and evolving application. Revelation may only happen once but interpretation goes on forever. God is constant but the world keeps turning. How to apply commandments, first given in an Iron Age desert, to life in every time and place became a thriving rabbinic industry (thank God).

What’s brilliant about our rabbis is that they taught us how to live among the nations and adapt to changing circumstances. It’s what’s kept Judaism alive and vibrant, timeless and modern.

Having said that there are plenty of rabbis that I would disagree with and that would certainly disagree with much of my writing. But that’s the brilliance of Judaism too. Or as another rabbi probably said: two Jews, three opinions!

So that’s my list of Jewish brilliance. If we lose sight of this stuff, I’m quite certain we are done for…and deservedly so.

Feel free to comment or add your own suggestions.

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