“The Essence of Judaism”
I have been asked questions about my Jewish faith since I was a very young boy. Back then, it was the tow-headed children of the Irish family in whose large summer home we spent our summers who pestered me with questions about the yarmulke on my head and the tzitzit dangling from underneath my shirt . Later, the questions were addressed to me by college classmates, mostly non-Jewish, but sometimes Jews who had little knowledge of our mutual religion and its beliefs and practices.
To this very day I find myself confronted daily with questions about Judaism. These questions generally fall into one of two distinct categories. There are those who are curious about specific ritual practices, like the Irish children of my childhood. “Why do you wear those black boxes on your head every morning?” “Why do you not eat shellfish?” “What is the symbolic meaning of the menorah that you light every year around Christmas time?”
Then there are those whose questions are much more abstract and philosophical. “Does Judaism believe in the concept of a ‘just war’?” “Do you believe, as we Christians do, that one should ‘turn the other cheek’ and forgive the person who offends you?” “Does your religion believe in resorting to heroic medical efforts to save the life of a senile, demented aged person, who has no apparent quality of life worth preserving?”
In the world we live in, brief and uncomplicated answers are expected to these questions. I find that it is usually futile to try to explain that all of these questions, both those that pertain to specific ritual behaviors and those that inquire about theological principles, require background and context in order to be properly understood. It is even more difficult to explain that often there is no one single answer to these questions, but that much depends on situational circumstances.
Nevertheless, I generally try my best to “give it all I got” and provide lengthy and complex explanations that are typically unappreciated. What can I do? People want simple answers, and simple answers are in short supply when it comes to matters of religion.
Occasionally, I encounter individuals who pose a different sort of question entirely. They neither ask about specific rituals, nor do they seek answers for philosophical quandaries. Rather, they wonder about the essence of Judaism, and ask, “What’s it all about anyway? What does it boil down to?”
In a sense, this type of question is no easier to answer than the others I have described. How can I take the entire Jewish Bible, the Mishnah and Talmud and codes, and all the many oral teachings I have received from parents and grandparents and teachers and distill it into one “essential” statement?
Yet, throughout Jewish history, various sages have attempted to do just that. Most famous among them, of course, was Maimonides, who delineated 13 basic principles of the Jewish faith. Interestingly, the Talmud itself provides precedent for Maimonides’ reductive approach, and, toward the very end of the tractate of Makkot, reduces the number of basic principles of Judaism from 10, to seven, to 3, and eventually, unbelievably, to just one: Faith in God.
Other sages have taken issue with Maimonides and have found alternative interpretations to the passage in the Talmud that seems to support his strategy. They maintain that it is almost blasphemous to try to reduce the rich complexity of the Torah to several simple precepts. “After all,” they argue, “the Torah is compared to the sea — broad and deep and impenetrable. It cannot be condensed into a summary version.”
This week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), perhaps more than any other, stimulates the kind of questions I have been describing, and one of the major commentaries, Ramban or Nachmanides, provides a startling, brief, but highly spiritual answer to them.
Ramban’s credentials as a commentary on the Bible are second only to those of Rashi. Yet, despite his stature, he is concerned with the very same questions that were directed to me by children and chance acquaintances throughout my life.
“What is the purpose of all these mitzvot to which we are suddenly being introduced in this week’s Torah portion?”
“What is this mezuzah that I must hang upon my door post?”
“Why may I not break the bones of the Passover sacrificial offering?”
“And what do all of these practices have to do with the major themes of this week’s Torah portion: the existence of God, His concern for the Jewish people, His ability to intervene into the affairs of men, His ability to change the natural order at His will?”
Ramban presents a framework, linking the ritual practices to the major philosophical beliefs. But then he concludes with a statement which can be described as his notion about the “essence of Judaism,” “what it all boils down to.” And here is what he says:
“The purpose of all the mitzvot is that we believe in God and are grateful to Him for creating us… We realize that the Exalted One desires only one thing from those of us on earth… That we come together in one specific place… And say to him: We are Your creatures, briyosecha anachnu…”
“We are your creatures!” This phrase captures the essence of Jewish spirituality and asserts the ideal nature of our relationship to the divine. It is what has been termed “kreaturgefuhl”, the profound feeling that one is but a mass of clay in the hands of He who has the whole world in his hands.
When I first studied this passage in the Ramban’s commentary, which was quite long ago, I decided to use it if and when I was ever again asked to define “the essence of Judaism”.
I have had that opportunity numerous times now, and my response invariably gets a two-stage reaction: First, surprise, perhaps even disappointment, at being told that the essence of Judaism is simply the ability to sincerely say to God, “We are Your creatures.”
But after a moment’s reflection a second stage kicks in. That is when the questioner realize that in that simple phrase lies the profound secret of the relationship between the human and divine, the consciousness of creaturehood, the awareness of being in the hands of the Almighty.
Ponder it well. “Briyosecha anachnu… We are Your creatures!” In Hebrew just two words, and no more than four in English translation. That is what it all boils down to. That is the essence of Judaism.