What is Torah Judaism? (in 500 words or less) – Volume #3

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!

22 comments on “What is Torah Judaism? (in 500 words or less) – Volume #3

  1. Steve, part of the reason the challenge of defining Judaism in 500 words or less, and not five words or less, is that the endeavor is entirely different from how you seem to conceive it. The idea is to explicate, not to obscure.

    Hence, the problem with your formulation is twofold. Not even counting the other fold, namely the use of the term “rabbinics” which has no meaning to the vast majority of people and almost no one outside the world of YU-style scholarship. Including me.

    One issue I have is that it could be claimed, and is, that every “branch” of Judaism, and pretty much every other religion, is also based on some equivalent of — let me be the first here, and ironically you missed this opportunity — TAGC. There is very little unique about saying one’s religion is based on Kindness, Devotion and Scripture.

    You see I have altered the order, because it brings me to the second point. The words “Torah” and “Avodah” are amenable to limitless definitions. Your formulation addresses neither what they might mean or how they are related. And when I suggested before that it reveals less than it obscures, I wasn’t merely being snippy about the dismissive nature of your initial comment. Someone given this definition might only not find it illuminating, but could be downright resentful when they realized the full scope of moral, practical and ritual commitment buried in each of those three loaded words.

    Indeed, your suggestion that the essential experience of chesed is Shabbos is hashkofically fascinating, but the novelty of it — to me — also seems to support my point. I would think of Shabbos in terms of Avodah first, and perhaps Torah second, and Chesed — well, the suggestion is compelling, with the idea, I guess, of Shabbos not only constituting Chesed for Shabbos guests but also a Chesed that Hashem did for klal yisroel. But while it’s philosophically fascinating to contemplate this, it seems way off track from the concept of the challenge of “explaining Torah Judaism” and not necessarily all that related to conceptually to TAGC except on a very sophisticated philosophical level.

    On the other hand, if you did not mean this at all, but only meant the narrower idea of “how nice it is to experience Shabbos and be the recipient of Chesed,” fine, but, again, the concept as I understood it was not to say, “Instead of defining Torah Judaism in 500 words or less, here’s some gefilte fish,” but to make an attempt to define Torah Judaism in 500 words or less.

    More: I would expect you, in particular, considering your cerebral and intellectual approach to things, to do better than throw up your hands and say, “No sense in writing it; if you don’t hear the zemiros and smell the cholent, you’ll never get it.” What happened to our Litvak?!

  2. Let me follow up to that response. A “nearly assimilated college student” may have never experienced Shabbos, Tefilah or any of the too many to enumerate examples of Chesed that are unique to our communities.

  3. Ron Coleman-I firmly believe that Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are the only keys to defining Judaism and that the rest is simply supplementary rabbinics of the hashkafic camp within the Mesorah that one is attracted to.

  4. Bob, I don’t think it’s obvious because people chose to focus on different things and if you don’t have any Loshon Hora & Benefit of the Doubt training, there is a tendency to focus on the negative.

    So even if the conduct is generally above the rest, which I think it is, the negative sticks out like a sore thumb.

  5. Despite the above, Mark, shouldn’t it at least be obvious to outsiders that our general conduct is a cut above the rest?

  6. The answer to the question “why not?” is that there is a difference between the instructions and the results produced by those who follow them.

    The instructions are fine, but we are not following them properly.

    The Agaddah and the prayers of Tisha B’av (and other places) gives us some reasons why we don’t follow them properly:

    1) Persecution by the nations leading to the need to defend ourselves
    2) The fact that we are created as part physical beings
    3) Not having the intense experience of Hashem’s presence as we did prior to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash

  7. I agree, Mark. However, to constantly remind people not to grade our religion based on our actual behavior begs the question of “why not?”

  8. Bob

    Perhaps we can reconcile as follows:

    1) If we were living a proper Torah life people would sit up and take notice and want to emulate it. That’s clear from the Gemora and it’s where we need to go with our Judaism. Perhaps we as BTs have more of responsibility in this area.

    2) Just because a given person or even group of Observant Jews is not living at this exalted level does not mean that the Torah itself is not capable of raising a person to that level.

    So perhaps the lesson is one we need to learn rather than teach. We need to work a lot harder on *our* Judaism and raise ourselves to at least the level that people will consider the possibility that a Torah life style leads to a more exalted person.

  9. Reading Steve’s Comment #12. I hear a lot of that, but isn’t an outside observer of the Orthodox scene supposed to see something more exalted than general society? If it’s not apparent, hasn’t something gone wrong with the application of Torah values to everyday life, the very thing we take pride in?

  10. Steve, do you think your precise and accurate “referral” would be particularly compelling, inspiring or illuminating to a nearly assimilated college junior who is somehow compelled to ask the question, “What is Torah Judaism”?

  11. As far as DK’s comments are concerned, R B Wein and many others have stated that Judaism should never be confused with or judged by those who claim to be its practitioners.

  12. I would simply refer anyone to the Mishnah in Avos that sets forth Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim as the key elements and state that hashkafic differences are essentially supplementary rabbinics that fade in and out as one hashkafa fades in and out as it lacks a subsequent leader to compell future aderents.

  13. Ron (13:52):

    With truth serum, DK’s reply might come out like this:

    1. He does not accept any religious approach, halachic or otherwise. He is anti-teshuvah in the most basic way.
    2. He typically does not want to say that in so many words, so he takes comfort in going after what he perceives as a weak link, namely, right-wing Orthodoxy. Any reported shortcoming of any member or subgroup of that group is made out to be representative of the whole.
    3. Now and then, he’ll hold up a Modern Orthodox figure here as a role model, but personally would never follow him, either

  14. Headline skimming has not yet given DK any insight into the heart and soul of the Jewish nation, and never will. Will he now investigate this civilization as a scholar might?

  15. 1. Do you believe that there exists a Mesorah that Jews are capable of understanding and transmitting faithfully? Yes. But I believe that there are 70 faces to the Torah – not 150, and not 5. And I believe the gedolim, like the rest of us, have free will and thus may err in deciding which of the 70 faces to apply to a given problem.

    2) If truth only comes from Torah, which only comes from Mesorah, how can a statement that one must go beyond what is required be implemented? And if it is implemented, then wouldn’t those extensions, whatever they may be, have a chance of being mistaken?

    3) I regularly override my own feeling about what is right and proper to follow the mesorah an/or the rulings of contemporary rabbonim. I feel terribly conflicted about doing so. I regard feeling that conflict as a good thing.

    I do not believe that the interpreters of the mesorah can correctly tell me who to vote for in secular election, or rule for me about other issues which require nevuah rather than scholarship to settle.

  16. he 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.

    I actually was thinking about this earlier as well, and would note that many of the defenses offered (or not publicly offered) to those of us in the secular world who in our inferior secular paradigms, becoming outraged over slaughterhouses that employ illegal and underage labor; Rebbes who embezzle and tax evade; or organizational leaders that protect underlings that do not penetrate Jewish law — we need to respect that these so-called “criminals” are in fact operating according to their own understanding of a law they consider holy.

    And put them away regardless.

  17. Larry Lennhoff,

    1. Do you believe that there exists a Mesorah that Jews are capable of understanding and transmitting faithfully?

    2. Don’t Ramban’s interpretation of Kedoshim Tihiyu, and the general concept of acting beyond the letter of the law, themselves fall within the Mesorah?

    3. What value do you place on the Mesorah as a guide to your direction in life?

  18. How can we tell what is a truth of our mesorah, and what is not? For example, during the debate in the US over slavery many religious people, including Jews, cited the Curse of Ham as described in Parshat Noach to justify slavery. Was this the mesorah, or simply apologetics? How do we know?

    Ramban’s interpretation of Kedoshim Tihiyu (you shall be Holy) implies one may act immorally while still being within the mesorah. This leads directly to Rav YB Soleveitchik’s assertion that Torah morality is a floor, not a ceiling.

    For a practical example, a woman found that the local gentile supermarket had accidentally delivered a box of food to her that was meant for someone else. She called her rabbi to ask whether she had to return the food. The rabbi said ‘by the letter of the Shulchan Aruch you are not obligated, but I couldn’t say a blessing over that food’. Were both the woman and the rabbi following Torah morality? If not, which of them was?

  19. Ron’s model can be used regarding the issue of embryonic stem cell research. Here are two links that I found very useful in analyzing this matter. Should a scientist conduct research in this area? Should a patient or family member benefit from this type of research? (In any particular case, the scientist/patient/family member should consult an appropriate rabbi to determine the applicable halachah and ethics)

    Both links were viewed on March 16, 2009.

    Quicksilver: Stem cell research and cloning: Jewish law and Judeo-Christian bioethics?

    Fifth Avenue Synagogue:Halacha and Science:The Case of Stem Cell Research

  20. I think the following, which I sent in on an earlier discussion thread, fits into Ron’s approach in the above article:

    Bob Miller
    January 13th, 2009 13:28

    Torah Judaism is that Judaism which takes the Torah (Written and Oral) to be true and binding, and not subject to the type of reinterpretation that would make it conform to other ideologies or human desires.

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