Judaism on One Foot

on one footMission Impossible.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to present a  15-minute “introduction to Judaism, including its rituals, festivals, holy days, family and community life, and central beliefs and scripture, and to incorporate an answer to ‘What is your religion’s position and approach to inter-religious dialogue and in promoting peace, justice and reconciliation?’”

Would you accept? I did — and here is what I said.

My favourite quick definition of Judaism comes from the 20th century scholar Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: Judaism is a civilization. We have languages, literature, religion, foods, arts, history, music and more. People identify as Jewish through any combination of the above. Our religion is an old one, at least 3,000 years old. It has existed in most countries of the world, and in many different time periods. Thus it is quite a diverse network of local communities.

The word Yisrael, Israel, an ancient name for the Jewish people, was the spiritual name of our ancestor, the Biblical character Jacob. As the story goes, Jacob spends a night wrestling with a mysterious stranger. Towards dawn, Jacob demands that the stranger bless him. The stranger says, “Your name will now be Yisrael, God-wrestler, because you wrestled with God and men and succeeded.” Wrestling with the meaning of faith, constantly questioning, is central in Jewish culture. When we identify as Jews by religion, we tend to wrestle with three things: God, Ethics, and the Torah (Bible). We might feel God’s presence or sometimes doubt God. We might have changing views about what are life’s most important ethical commitments. We might see the Torah as divine spiritual teaching or as an masterful anthology of history and myth. The point is not our conclusions, but the act of placing these things at the center of our lives.

The Torah, sometimes called the “Five books of Moses,” narrates the early history of the Israelite people. It was probably written down about 2500 years ago, crafted out of earlier oral teachings. The Torah is our earliest record of Jewish practice, and we base our own practice upon it. Of course, our ancestors’ bedouin shepherd lifestyle was quite different from ours. So, in addition to our written Torah, we have a constantly evolving body of knowledge we call the “oral Torah” — commentaries on the spiritual meaning of stories, and explanations of how we might bring forward the spirit of ancient practices in modern ways. Some say that Judaism is an orthopraxic religion – that it mandates behaviour rather than belief. In truth, Judaism involves both behavior and belief. But because we also transmit a culture, and culture is the way we live, we talk a lot about what we do, how we do it, and why.

Judaism is a really fun faith. We have a small holiday every week, and big holidays almost every month. Our festivals occur follow a seasonal calendar, reminders of the agricultural life of early Jews. Each holiday is also the season of a significant event in Jewish history. As a result, most Jews are very familiar with aspects of our history re-enacted in holiday rituals.

Our weekly holiday, Shabbat, is practiced primarily in the home, though many Jews also gather in synagogue. Shabbat, the Sabbath, is a day of rest, of sharing festive meals and conversation with family and friends. We say Shabbat reminds us that even God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. God’s rest teaches us that if we don’t take regular breaks from productive labor, we will wear out the earth. We also say Shabbat reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt. We know the devastating effects of overwork, and agree that every working person must have time off to heal and rejuvenate. Shabbat is also a reminder that to have a spiritual practice, you must make time for it. For busy people, Shabbat is that time.

Hands down, the most popular yearly holiday is Passover. Passover marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, and it celebrates the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, the liberation of early Jews from slavery, perhaps around 1200 BCE. Sometimes you will hear Jews will say, “We are a religion of questioning, so we don’t have a creed.” At Passover, however, Jews gather in groups of different sizes, at each other’s homes, in synagogues, or in community centres, for a ritual of food, music, prayer and conversation in which we declare: “I believe in the Exodus from Egypt. I believe that change, redemption, end to oppression is possible. I believe that every challenge in life, personal or political, is a mini-Exodus.” Passover is also a time of great grassroots creativity. Everyone has their own spin on the recipes for ritual foods; everyone makes poetic, artistic, and musical additions to the service to include children or just to enjoy creativity; everyone adds our own contemporary reflections on the meaning of Exodus for our time.

In our formal prayers — offered three times a day by the most observant Jews — we express gratitude to God; we reflect on our deeds and make resolutions for improvement; and we express our hopes for well-being. Our prayers and the Torah teach that “God is One.” Of course, we often debate the meaning of that subtle teaching. At this time in Jewish history, the most popular interpretation is the Kabbalistic or mystical view. “God is One” means that God’s energy runs through everything. No place in the universe is empty of God’s presence. In fact, there is nothing outside of God. Divine energy is all there is. When we pray our most central prayer, the Shema, and we say, “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might,” we understand it also means, “Learn to love all creation.” It takes us to the teaching that sits at the center of the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We don’t ask others to convert to Judaism, though many choose to. We don’t believe that there is or ought to be one religion for the whole world. People live in different locations, develop different cultures, ask different existential questions — and these result in different religious traditions. We do teach, however, that there is only one God, and each religion points to God in a different way. Our prophet Zechariah teaches that one day, the day of the Messiah, all will realize that a hidden unity has connected us all along.

One of the greatest values in Judaism is shalom, peace. To say “hello” or “goodbye” in Hebrew, we say “Shalom.” Our priestly blessing, a famous verse of Torah that is part of synagogue liturgy, teaches that peace is God’s face and God’s name. All of our prayer services close with prayers for peace. Our prophet Isaiah teaches that justice leads to peace. Our prophet Micah says justice is the number one practice God requires of us.

Yet, we live in a human world, where people are entrusted with responsibilities too demanding for their level of wisdom, and sometimes make terrible decisions. We live in a world in which trauma within and between nations can make it hard to reach out. Some Jews feel our best work is to strengthen the community from within; while others feel our strength comes from relationships with other communities. The state of Israel is a living example of this dynamic. Only 60 years ago, Jews knew Israel as a safe haven from genocide. But now we see the contentious history of the region bubbling up, causing some people to harm one another, and others to reach across divides with compassion. No one said that love, justice and peace would be easy. In the spirit of the Exodus, I do believe that change for the better is possible.

Image: “Balance,” collectionscanada.gc.ca. Event — commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate — hosted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.

  1. Thank you, Rabbi Laura. You accomplished this “mission”beautifully. “Judaism on One Foot” was so clear and easy to read.

  2. I appreciate how you have responded to such an enormous request.
    You mention Kabbala mysticism but not four others which have influenced your religion. I have heard elsewhere that Kabbala is translated more as tradition rather than devine through all things. But I like what you say. I think however I in my Christian beliefs and you in your Judaism struggle with some similar belief systems. We have our literalists/fundamentalists and you have the Malekaba (Torah focus)and Hasidic( ritual focus) re mysticism. You also have the messianic and we have the debate between Jesus humanity and divinity. It seems that our humane has some distinct ways of identifying the sacred that is not articulated by the religious nomenclature.
    What you say about questioning I like very much. Many years ago I spoke to Judith Plaskow and she referred to this as part of the midas tradition. It was the questioning and the discussion of other scholarly thoughts on Torah texts but then also the imaginative given the gaps and also changes in historical context. The imagine was the sacred at work and mystical presence in the development of midrash.
    It was not therefore questioning and imagining alone but framed with the tradition ( Kabbala).

    Thank you for your suscinct presentation and making me both remember and think some more.

    1. Thanks Shelagh, for noting those analogies, and some of the intellectual dimensions of the spiritual quest.

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