Vezot Haberachah (Deuteronomy 33, 1 – 34, 12) – the nature of traditional Judaism as a religion

In the Torah reading of Vezot Haberachah, there is a remarkable verse that in my eyes stands out in the Hebrew Bible in terms of importance and captures the nature of traditional Judaism as a religion (Deuteronomy 33, 4) – “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob” (תורה ציווה לנו משה מורשה קהילת יעקב). I want to examine here 3 terms that are crucial in the verse, each of which reveals something unique about traditional Judaism as a religion – Torah, heritage and community.

 

Before I examine these 3 terms, I want to point out that conspicuously absent from the verse is any mention of God. Traditional Judaism based upon the Hebrew Bible and Talmudic literature does not presuppose the existence of God or belief in the existence of God. There is no binding theological dogma or set of theological beliefs that must be accepted in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature.

 

The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is not faith in God, or law or ritual practice, but a moral life of righteous and goodness, as reflected in the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”.  The previous verse (Deuteronomy 6, 17) speaks of observance of commandments in a legal sense so that the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” is a moral demand above and beyond law. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel (ישראל), in Hebrew contains the word God (אל) as well as the word righteous (ישר), the very same word righteous as in the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” – and, if the name Israel is divided in the middle, it means righteous of God (ישר אל). The people Israel then are to be a people devoted to righteousness and right living as the essence of Judaism. Also, Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out as a person who “will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19) – and, even though the term righteousness regarding Abraham is not the same word righteous that is found in the Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel, it is a synonym. In the Biblical conception, “the way of the Lord” is a moral life of righteousness and goodness as the essence of religion.

 

The two greatest Talmudic rabbis were Hillel and Rabbi Akiva who both formulated the essence of Judaism not as faith in God, and not as observance of law and ritual, but as universal, moral decency – faithful to the Biblical conception of religion. As the essence of Judaism, Hillel pointed to the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cited the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”. It is simply astounding to me that people whether of a religious or secular background do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations of what it means to be religious are completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. This is even more striking in the case of Rabbi Akiva because the continuation of the Biblical verse that he cites is “I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva quotes only the beginning of the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” in arguing that the essence of Judaism is universal, moral decency. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is universal moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”.

 

The term Torah (תורה) in the verse “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob” is the central concept of traditional Judaism based upon the Bible and the Talmudic literature. The term Judaism is not found in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature, and in speaking about Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis use the term Torah – a term from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from law, the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible (Judaism), to wisdom of a universal nature.

 

According to the Jewish tradition, there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible, forbidden and obligatory. Such material establishes permissible, forbidden and obligatory behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.

 

Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.

 

In traditional Judaism, based upon the Bible and the Talmudic literature, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture. That is, we live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish rabbinic tradition – the foundation of which is the Talmudic literature. The implications here are enormous – in principle, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash (commentary) was one of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, and the method of midrash allowed Judaism to evolve and develop. An important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.

 

The term heritage (מורשה) in the verse in the verse “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob” is from the same root as the Hebrew word inheritance (ירושה) – and, in many translations to English the term is translated as inheritance rather than heritage. In my view, this is a completely mistaken translation. What is the difference between a heritage and inheritance? There are, in my mind, two fundamental differences. First, a heritage is received by reason of birth, while an inheritance is received by reason of death. Second, a heritage generally refers to something spiritual such as a culture and tradition including ideas and ideals transmitted from generation to generation, while an inheritance generally refers to something physical such as money or property transmitted from one generation to the next.

 

Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah. What defines one as a Christian, and unites Christians is the fundamental faith in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers, and one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents (and even if believing in God). That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular, non-believing Christian.

 

By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but in the sense of a heritage – a culture and way of life of the Jewish people. Not faith in God nor any other faith commitment defines one as a Jew, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being part of a people with a common heritage – a shared history, language (Hebrew), national homeland (Israel) and culture or way of life (and in speaking of Judaism as a culture I am not speaking of a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but of a larger Jewish culture including secular elements, such as Israeli folk dancing, which is not a part of traditional Jewish law or ritual but is an expression of a larger Jewish culture).

 

Thus, there are two elements of Judaism as a religion – Judaism as a way of life (religion-culture) and Jewish peoplehood. These two elements are reflected in the Biblical conception in two religious covenants between God and the Jewish people, according to the Biblical account. The first is the covenant between God and Abraham. There are two important features characteristic of the covenant with Abraham – Abraham is to be the spiritual father of the people Israel (the Jewish people), and the Jewish people are to inherit the land of Israel. The sign of the covenant of Abraham is circumcision – “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your seed after you…every male child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17, 7-11).

 

By the way, Abraham was actually not a Jew having lived prior to the exodus (the first mass slave escape in recorded history) and birth of the Jewish people, in which according to the Biblical account Hebrew slaves escaped out of slavery and formed themselves into a people Israel (the Biblical name of the Jewish people). The Bible describes Abraham as a Hebrew, and not as a Jew. The patriarchs of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – were Hebrews, and not Jews. One explanation of the term Hebrew among historians is that the term is not a noun referring to a specific ethnic, national or racial group but an adjective describing a type of people (wanderers who did not belong to any particular society). Such wanderers were shepherds raising sheep and cattle, as the Bible describes the patriarchs and their families. They were not tied to any particular land, but wandered from area to area depending upon the availability of grazing land for their herds. According to this explanation, there were Hebrews from earliest times throughout the ancient near east (Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt).

 

The Bible describes Abraham as coming originally from Mesopotamia, wandering with his family to the land of Canaan and spending time in Egypt as well. Furthermore, according to this explanation, not all Hebrews became members of the Jewish people. Rather, according to the Biblical account, members of the families and clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became enslaved in Egypt, and escaped from slavery, joined by what the Bible (Exodus 12, 38) calls a mixed multitude (people of differing racial and ethnic background), marking the birth of the Jewish people not in a racial or ethnic sense but in a nationalistic sense (as there were Jews of differing racial and ethnic background, such as the mixed multitude, from the beginning of Jewish history, and anyone no matter racial or ethnic background can convert to the Jewish people).

 

The second covenant is between God and Moses. The characteristic feature of the covenant with Moses is the receiving of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) on Mount Sinai representing the birth of Judaism as a religion. To be accurate, the Five Books of Moses do not describe the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as being given on Mount Sinai. Rather, according to the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), the tablets containing the so called ten commandments (the Torah and the Talmudic rabbis use the term ten statements) and other mitzvot (commandments) were given on Mount Sinai. Yet, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is it written explicitly that the entire Torah as a written document came from Sinai. However, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded as given on Sinai; and is the legal constitution, and a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of the Jewish people. The main sign of the covenant of Moses is the Sabbath – “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the children of Israel saying, you shall surely keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31, 12-13).

 

The receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai does not represent the birth of the Jewish people, but the birth of the Jewish religion – and is celebrated on Shavuot. Although Abraham is the spiritual father of the Jewish people, the birth of the Jewish people occurs with the exodus of the people Israel from slavery in Egypt – and is celebrated on Passover. These two historical events, the exodus from slavery in Egypt and the receiving of the Torah (the tablets and other commandments) on Mount Sinai, are the two great and defining historical events of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Jewish tradition in representing the birth of the Jewish people (Passover) and the birth of the Jewish religion (Shavuot). Judaism as a religion in the sense of a heritage includes both of these elements of peoplehood and religion-culture.

 

The term community (קהילה) in the verse “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob” also reveals a fundamental difference between traditional Judaism and Christianity as religions. In Christianity, as a religion in the sense of a faith commitment, in which there is no notion of nationhood or peoplehood as in traditional Judaism, a human being stands alone as an individual before God as “a lonely man of faith”. Salvation of the human being is dependent on one’s faith in God and faith in Jesus as the messiah. By contrast, in traditional Judaism, which is a religion in the sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people, we as Jews stand before God not as “a lonely man of faith” but as a nation and community – and, we reach God only moving upward on the basis of family, community, nation and humanity. The emphasis in traditional Judaism is not upon salvation of a next world but upon repairing and redeeming this world.

 

The notion of repairing the world is a fundamental idea in the Jewish tradition, which is deeply rooted in the spirit of the Hebrew Bible. The concept of repair of the world implies an image of a world of broken, shattered glass, and that we, as human beings, must repair the broken glass of the world. That is, it is a world of hatred, injustice and cruelty, and we must repair the broken, shattered world that we live in (and the concept also implies the use of scientific knowledge and technology in order to improve the world in a physical or material sense as well).

 

In my view, the most important message of the Biblical account of the creation of the universe is the idea of the repair of the world, which is a fundamental idea of traditional Judaism having Biblical roots in the Biblical account of creation. After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect or even excellent but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the creative power to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread – and, the concept of the repair of the world implies a moral obligation not only to overcome hatred, injustice, violence and cruelty in the world but a moral obligation to use scientific knowledge and its practical application of technology in order to improve the quality of human life. After God creates the entire universe according to the Biblical account, God says (Genesis 2, 3) “because on it (the 7th day) He ceased from all His work which God created to do” – God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair in which there is what to do for the human being (the human being is to improve the quality of human life, and to overcome the hatred, injustice, violence and cruelty in the world).

 

In Christianity, as a religion in the sense of a faith commitment, faith is an end in and of itself as the very essence of religion. In traditional Judaism, which is a religion in the sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people, faith is a means in a psychological sense to achieve the moral end of repairing and redeeming this world – and, we are not to despair in our moral commitment to repair and redeem the world. There is a remarkable Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot 2, 10) – “it is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it”. Our salvation for Jews and human beings is not dependent upon individual faith but upon our repairing and redeeming this world – in the words of our traditional prayer Aleinu “to repair the world in the kingdom of God” (implying that the kingdom of God is not of another world but the repair and redemption of this world). In traditional Judaism we stand before God then not as “a lonely man of faith” but as a nation and community refusing to despair in our dedication and moral commitment to repairing and redeeming this world.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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