I have often been asked if Judaism has an essence, a central doctrine that runs through from Orthodox to Liberal?” The answer is yes and is spelled out in a text from the Babylonian Talmud: In the hour when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, he is asked:
- Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?
- Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
- Did you involve yourself in your children’s upbringing?
- Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?
Note that the first question on “arriving in heaven” is not “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you observe the ritual commandments?” but “Were you honest in your conduct of business?” In other words, the essence of Judaism is behaviouristic and, specifically, the primacy of ethical action. Our Jewish understanding of religion is that without the quest for moral life, a Jew cannot truly be “religious”. We are defined not solely by our synagogue attendance or observance of Shabbat or kashrut. Commitment to the core values those rituals represent is indeed important but ultimately they prod us towards a more sanctified and ethical life. The goal is decency, as I have stressed many times from the bimah, quoting the great psychologist, Dr Viktor Frankl, who taught that the world is divided into just two groups, “decent” and “indecent”.
The second question asks about our commitment to Jewish study. Rabbinic wisdom holds that study is critical because it leads us to greater selfawareness and a more moral life. Two recent books well worth reading are Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism and Simon Schama’s Belonging, the second part of his trilogy on the Jewish people. Study, learn, come to our Sunday morning and Monday evening classes and our four-part series in March with St Peter’s Church and our Muslim neighbours.
The third question asks whether we have devoted our lives to children, fulfilling our covenantal obligation to pass on our Jewish values and dreams to the next generation. For those unable to have their own children, our tradition teaches that this duty can still be fulfilled by assisting the children of our community and beyond. Plant those seeds in the next generation. A Jew can never be oblivious to the need to pay attention to the future.
The fourth question challenges us in an extraordinary way, asking whether we worked and hoped for a better world than today’s world. In other words, a Jew is not allowed to stand aloof as the world bleeds. The world is fractured in so many ways and we must ask ourselves what we are doing to improve things. The threat of global terror, global warming, world hunger, crime on our streets, the struggle for Israel to survive, the challenge for freedom (the list goes on), is not “their” struggle, it is “our” struggle.
Rabbi Tarfon, of the 2nd century CE, taught: “It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world but neither are you free to desist from doing all you can.” We are also guided by Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE), who wrote that the greatest principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbour as yourself” and Moses Maimonides (12th century): “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”
I wish you all a good start to the new secular year 2018. May it be a time for growth, education, and goodness, the core of our Jewish commitments.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler