The answer to the question “What Is Judaism?” would be different for a student of comparative religion, a Sephardic resident of an Israeli development town, or someone who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in America, just to give a few disparate examples. I will address the last one of these, because of course I have the most familiarity with his mindset.
Ethics are of fundamental interest to anyone who cares about anything, but the idea that there are no ethics for the Jew other than those that emanate from the Torah distinguishes Judaism from all that came before and all that comes after.
Judaism is, of course, objectively identifiable as an essential source of guidelines for ethical living. Because of the richness of Judaism’s intellectual tradition, and because that richness has the quality of being both ancient and in constant scholarly and practical agitation, Judaism is probably the best developed system of ethics in the world in both its scope and its depth.
But while all that matters to every searching person, every person of conscience, it is not the heart of Judaism. It is necessary but not sufficient. Rather, the central concept is that while our ethics, as well as our laws regarding how people interact with each other even in non-ethical spheres, are completely open to intellectual probing, challenge and debate, they are absolute. They are based on the Torah given at Mt. Sinai, which we can only understand through the received tradition.
That is why between each chapter of Pirkei Avos we find the recitation, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, etc.”: It reminds us that although we are talking about ethics, regarding which everyone feels qualified to opine, ultimately all our hypotheses, speculations and gut feelings bow to the revealed truth of Torah.
One fundamental corollary of this double-barreled premise – that Truth only comes via Torah, which only comes via Mesorah [“received tradition“] – is that the Truth may conflict with our personal sensibilities, which non-Jewish culture teaches should be supreme.
But our idea of what is right and true and good is necessarily flawed. We are imperfect because of our distance from God, which is axiomatic in being creatures of flesh and blood. We cannot know and understand all, and our capacities for reasoning, empathy, objectivity and foresight are only human. Even at our best, we are tainted by a lifetime of interaction with other imperfect creatures and their ideas, most of whom do not acknowledge the Truth of Torah at all.
The bombshell corollary of this core concept is that not only ethics, but actions – all actions – are governed by the Truth of Torah. This not only separates Judaism from most world religions and moral systems, but presents a fundamental challenge to every possible concept of what my posited non-religious American Jew can have thought about his life, why it matters, and what he does with it. This Truth defines our relationship and responsibility to the rest of Creation. Now sit and learn!