Tag Archives: Jewish values

The Torah Without Judaism?

The article got me thinking; why don’t we create a 30-Day Challenge for Jewish things like mitzvot to help Jewish people undertake a new level of commitment? After all, Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. Whatever steps a person takes to follow the mitzvot, no matter what level or station of life they are at, that is always a plus and to be applauded and celebrated. If you don’t observe Shabbat but decide to light candles, then good for you! That’s a great positive step. Doing that one thing is better than doing nothing. Judaism is a journey that is taken one step at a time.

-Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
“The 30-Day Jewish Challenge”

It’s Friday afternoon at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City, and students from the third through fifth grades are gathered for the weekly Shabbat celebration.

They read and discuss a passage about humility by former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Then a blond girl with braided hair prepares to light the candles. A hush falls over the room as the flames are kindled, and the students recite the practiced benediction in unison:

“As we bless this source of light, the warmth these candles bring reminds us of times we gave light and received light,” they sing, followed by a recitation of the traditional Shabbat candle-lighting blessing in Hebrew.

The ceremony is not dissimilar from weekly Shabbat celebrations held in Jewish schools across America.

Except for one thing: The student lighting the candles isn’t Jewish. Nor is the one who follows her to recite the kiddush blessing over grape juice. Nor the one after that who recites Hamotzi over the challah bread.

-Uriel Heilman
“With 75% non-Jewish students, Utah’s Jewish school seeks to universalize Judaism”
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over coffee last Sunday. However, things became a bit “pointed” when the discussion turned to “Judaism vs. Torah.” I know that’s a strange thing to say, but bear with me.

I actually haven’t talked with anyone on this topic in quite some time…maybe for years. It’s the same old saw I used to see wheeled out when I was active in the Hebrew Roots movement; the idea that one can be obedient, or subservient, or compliant to the written Torah without having any sort of involvement with the Talmud or otherwise, the “oral Law”.

My friend referenced two groups of Jews in Israel he has some familiarity with…well, he’s familiar with one group more than the other.

synagogueHe says one group is active in encouraging Messianic Jews in the Land to start attending synagogue services within normative (probably Orthodox) Judaism as opposed to meeting with Messianic Jewish congregations. I don’t know how true this is since I’m getting it third hand, but it’s something to consider.

The other group (I’m purposely not naming names), the one my friend is more familiar with, are Messianic Jews who live their lives observing the written Torah and only the written Torah as they understand it.

Granted, from an outsider’s point of view, many of the customs of say, the Breslovers may seem archaic and odd, but I just don’t see how one can observe the mitzvot without consulting the Rabbis, at least to some degree. This is because the written portion of the Torah doesn’t always describe how to perform the mitzvot. Apart from the Karaites, all religious Jews rely on Rabbinic rulings and traditions to help them navigate the Torah, although according to the Wikipedia page I just referenced:

Karaite Jews do not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of non-Rabbinic Halakha (Jewish law) that strives to adhere to the Tanakh’s straightforward meaning. Several hundred such books have been written by various Karaite Ḥakhamim (sages) throughout the movement’s history, although most are lost today.

This begs the question of whether or not modern Rabbinic Judaism is an absolute requirement for Jewish (or non-Jewish) Torah observance. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

My friend has certain problems with modern Judaism, such as why the majority of religious Jews aren’t trying to be a light to the nations.

He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6 (NASB)

I did mention that The Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, actively promoted Noahidism among the Gentiles. Granted, this probably isn’t what my friend meant when he said Israel is commanded to be a light to the nations, but from the Rebbe’s point of view, that’s exactly what he was doing.

The RebbeOn the other hand, the article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency shows at least one Jewish school being that light:

“We have Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and LDS students,” said head of school Matt Culberson, using the acronym for Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. “But this school takes Jewish culture as its foundational point. We start with Judaism first.”

The outgrowth of a JCC early childhood program that morphed into an independent K-8 school about 15 years ago, McGillis may be the only American Jewish school of its kind. The vast majority of its students – 75 percent – are not Jewish, by the administration’s reckoning. And though McGillis teaches Jewish values, Jewish holidays and Hebrew, it does not teach Judaism as a religion.

And what are Jewish values without the Jewish religion as such?

Practically everywhere you turn, identical blue posters advertise the school’s guiding Jewish values: tzedakah (translated as “giving to others”); tikkun olam (“repairing the world”); gemilut hasadim (“doing good and kind deeds”); derech eretz (“having respect for all”); limud l’shma (“learning for the sake of learning”), and kehillah (“our community”). Students, teachers and administrators constantly reference these values, albeit sometimes straining to pronounce the Hebrew.

Yes, I can certainly see those values being universal in scope and not restricted to the Torah, the Jewish people, and Judaism, although these values are exemplified in Judaism.

They probably are in Christianity as well, at least most of them, but I’m sure Christians would have different names for those values and activities.

And I did tell my friend that if he believes Judaism is a poor reflection of the Torah as it was originally understood and lived out by the ancient Israelites, then Christianity is just as poor a reflection of the teachings of Rav Yeshua (Jesus) and his emissary to the people of the nations, Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul).

So should we attempt to reconstruct the Torah observance of the ancient Israelites and the devotion to Rav Yeshua of the very early non-Jewish disciples? I’m not sure how we could do it with any hope of accuracy. Too many Hebrew Roots people who think they have done so marshal a whole lot of chutzpah and much too little respect, and occasionally march into synagogues to tell the Rabbi that he is doing it all wrong.

I have a rather unique view of my local Jewish community through the eyes of my wife, so I’m quite aware of how Jewish people take to such bold intrusions into their space.

PogromI tried to explain to my friend that after nearly two-thousand years of persecution, pogroms, maimings, and murder committed upon the Jewish people by their non-Jewish neighbors (most often Christians), I can see why Jews aren’t falling all over themselves to share their version of the “good news” of the Torah with the rest of the world. Jewish insularity and Talmud have gone a long way to preserve the Jewish people and Judaism, when the rest of us were trying to wipe both from the face of the Earth.

He reminded me that there have been groups of Christian missionaries who have been wiped out by indigenous people in far off corners of the world, at least historically, who have then been followed by more missionaries, risking their own lives, who eventually did share the salvation of Christ with the folks who had butchered their predecessors.

And while I admire the courage of these missionaries, and do not in the slightest demean their accomplishments, it’s one thing for a single, isolated people group to kill one party of missionaries, and another thing entirely for the vast majority of this planet’s population to continually attempt genocide against the Jewish people as a religion and a race.

And if God intends on judging the Jewish people along with the rest of us, that’s God’s privilege, not mine.

Apart from small groups of Messianic Jews (or non-Jews) who believe they can disregard Rabbinic Judaism out of hand and practice a greater fidelity to the Torah and to God by doing so, the majority of religious Jews, Messianic and otherwise, observe the mitzvot and serve Hashem within the religious, cultural, social, and historical context of Judaism.

As we saw in the JTA article, Judaism can successfully transmit universal moral values to non-Jews without necessarily transmitting Judaism as a religious construct.

When brings me back to Rabbi Nightingale’s 30-Day Jewish Challenge, as well as to the idea of a Torah observance without Judaism.

Whether you care to admit it or not, your worship of God operates within a specific religious, social, cultural, and community context. Even if you are alone in your faith as I am, you get your understanding and interpretation of the Bible from somewhere, and your praxis was probably not invented just by you.

Some sort of organized body or bodies imparted all that upon you, and you continue with it because it makes sense to you, even if your religion and practices don’t always make sense to others.

Within the various streams of mainstream Judaism, Judaism makes sense to religious Jews. The same can be said for the numerous denominations of Christianity. That an outside observer can criticize and point to portions of the Bible that seem to contradict the activities within those branches and denominations, doesn’t mean it’s seen the same way from the inside.

McGillis School
Head of School Matt Culberson says the McGillis School tries to inculcate the school’s guiding Jewish principles across the curriculum. (Uriel Heilman)

No system is perfect, and a lot of systems are dysfunctional, but when you say that Judaism is broken because it treats the Talmud as more authoritative than the Torah, you are making that statement from inside some system, not from a 100% objective understanding of the Torah.

If you say that Judaism is biased in a particular way, so are you. We all are. No one exists without bias, without a perspective, without an interpretation.

I’m not in any shape to be tilting at windmills. I’ve got enough to deal with in my own life. Sure, sometimes I take a stab at religious criticism, but I don’t like to make a habit of it.

If I have to judge, I guess I’ll start with myself. If, in any sense, I can be successful in practicing charity, repairing the world, doing good and kind deeds, having respect for all, and learning for the sake of learning (I don’t have a kehillah or community, so that one’s out), then maybe I’m not doing so bad (although a 30-day challenge or some other form of “upping my game” wouldn’t hurt).

If I look at other communities and they’re doing the same thing, maybe they’re not doing so bad either.

Final word. In case you’re wondering, I’m not trying to bang away at my friend. We don’t always agree on everything, but we do get along, and I cherish our relationship. He’s a kind, intelligent person who I believe is close to the Spirit of God and who walks in the footsteps of our Rav.

May it be that way for all of us.