I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I’m swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I’m not sure any of this is for me!
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call “the all or nothing” syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there’s no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what’s the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!
That’s not the Jewish way!
Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what’s the matter? He says, I’m in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that’s going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
You say, that’s fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What’s the problem?
He says, you just don’t get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what’s out there?
You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven’t found yet? What you’ve got now is a gold mine!
That’s the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you’re not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you’ve still struck eternal gold.
The best advice: Relax.
Performing mitzvot or “Torah commandments” as such isn’t really the focus of most Christians. And on top of that, what the Rabbi seems to be saying in the above-quoted passage appears to contradict this:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. –James 2:8-11 (ESV)
According to the traditional interpretation of this passage, to violate one commandment in the law is to violate them all. But since we are all human, sooner or later, we are all going to make a mistake. How could anyone obey all of the laws all of the time?
Christianity’s answer is to replace behavioral obedience to the law with the grace of Jesus Christ and thus, any of our mistakes are forgiven, as long as we repent, turn away from wrongdoing, and return to God.
Of course, if you keep reading James 2, you discover verses 14-17 in which he says that faith without works is dead, so it’s not a matter of doing away with the behaviors that are associated with a life of holiness.
So what is it? If we commit to the law but cannot keep all of it are we perpetually doomed to failure or are we commanded to perpetually try?
The Rabbi isn’t responding to a Christian’s question, though. There are scores of Jewish people who haven’t lived religious lives but who desire to come closer to God, especially in the month of Elul. But as the questioner admits, the number of mitzvot to learn is dizzying and the details associated with proper observance is beyond intimidating. How could anyone not only learn all of the commandments, but additionally, how modern halachah defines proper observance?
The Rabbi has a simple and surprising answer:
The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either “observant,” or “non-observant.” But that’s not true. In fact, here’s a secret:
Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.
That’s because certain mitzvot only women usually do – like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill – like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the “fast of the first-born” on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.
Actually, it’s not that surprising but then again, I don’t think it adequately answers the original question.
I have an answer of my own. Here’s a story.
Many years ago, I was at my local Reform shul. One of the Jewish members was telling his own story about observance. He had been an atheist for most of his life. He was also an educator and took annual trips to Israel for scholarly purposes. It was on one of those trips that he told a Rabbi that he wanted to live as a religious Jew. Just one problem. It was the same problem the questioner above has. There’s just so much to learn.
Here’s the Rabbi’s answer.
Pick just one mitzvot. It doesn’t matter which one. Let’s say it’s lighting the Shabbos candles. Get a siddur and learn the blessing. Every Erev Shabbat, say the blessing and light the candles. Do nothing else. Keep doing that on every Shabbat until you have learned the mitzvot well and are very comfortable performing it. Once you have achieved that level of competence, pick another mitzvot. It doesn’t matter which one. Learn to perform it until you are comfortable and competent at it. Continue adding mitzvot in this manner. It will take time, but as the months and years past, you will progressively learn to perform a great number of the mitzvot.
I reconstructed all that from memory, so I’m sure it’s not “word-for-word” accurate. But you get the idea.
But what does that have to do with James and with Christians. We don’t obey the mitzvot of Moses. We weren’t called to do so. After all, when Jesus gave his Jewish disciples the “great commission” to make disciples of the people of the nations, here’s what he said:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” –Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
Notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say to teach the disciples from the nations “to observe all that Moses has commanded you.” If Jesus wanted to have the Gentile disciples observe the Torah in an identical manner and for an identical purpose as the Jewish disciples, his message would have been different. It would have been much easier for him to tell the Jewish disciples to convert all Gentiles everywhere into Jews.
Galatians is Paul’s great cautionary tale against Gentile disciples converting to Judaism as a means to be justified before God. He said it would make the bloody, sacrificial death of the Master a waste of time and effort if they did so (see Galatians 2:21).
Paul went on in chapter 3 of his letter to explain that it is by faith and not merely the mechanical observance to the law that we Gentiles received the Spirit. In fact, everyone, Jew and Gentile, received the Spirit by faith, not by the law.
At Sinai, the Israelites agreed to do all that God would tell them to do (at the point when they agreed, the specifics of the Torah had not yet been given). They accepted God’s rule by faith and subsequently, God, through Moses, gave the Israelites the Torah. By faith, we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and through him, we can come to God in a covenant relationship. But since we Gentiles among the body of believers were not at Sinai as were our Jewish brothers, what do we receive from God?
The Jews have the Spirit, just as we have, but they also have the Torah. Do we have the Torah?
Yes and no.
Naturally, this is just my opinion, but the “Torah” we have isn’t all that dissimilar from that of the Jews (and I know some Jewish and Christian readers may balk at this part). But consider the following.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)
I know I tend to revisit this particular scripture with an almost annoying frequency, but it is one of the core teachings of our Master. He emphasizes that we are to love God and love other human beings above all other considerations. The process by which we do so may vary from person to person, but Matthew 25:31-46 gives us a pretty good idea of what Jesus is looking for in how we follow him.
Within myself, I have long since resolved the meaning of what Jesus intended for the disciples of the nations to learn. That’s a personal resolution, and I don’t expect anyone else to particularly agree with my conclusions. On the other hand, we have just a ton of examples of obedience to God as chronicled in the Bible. If you were a new Christian, what would you tackle first? Feeding a hungry person? Going to church every Sunday morning? Praying every night? There’s a lot to consider.
On the other hand, maybe even for we Christians, it’s just as simple as picking one thing, practicing it over and over, and getting good at it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s say it’s praying to God every night before going to bed. Once you’re good at that, you can pick something else. Let’s say it’s donating to a charity. How about collecting canned goods in your home and every month, taking your collection down to the local food bank. Seems simple enough.
There are so many people out there who seem to think that serving God and obeying the mitzvot is this long, complicated, list of actions and behaviors. Maybe it is for them. I know it seems that way when we look at observant Jews. But no one obeys God perfectly or completely. No one performs literally every act of obedience that they can. I’m not suggesting that we should be lazy or to neglect doing what God wants us to do, but we can also give ourselves some time to adjust our lives and learn to be better people, better servants, and better adopted sons and daughters of the Most High God.
For Jews, the month of Elul is a time to prepare for the High Holidays and particularly for the day of judgment. It’s a time of deep spiritual introspection, repentance, and study. Jews renew old friendships, repair broken relationships, and perform many acts of kindness and charity. Maybe it’s a good month for the rest of us, the Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah King, to reconsider our own lives, to see where we have gotten things right and where we’ve fallen down face first in the mud.
If your life of faith has become cumbersome, complicated, and even overwhelming, maybe it’s time to step back and see what’s really important to do, and what you could set aside. Just decide what God thinks is important, maybe volunteering to visit sick people in the hospital, for example. Then arrange to do that (or something like that). Keep performing that mitzvot regularly. Learn to get good at it. Love God. Serve His purposes. Help other people.
If you do that, the rest will probably take care of itself.
Learn to live.