Rabbi Janet Burden
13 December 2006
The New Statesman
What Jews believe and how the rules of Judaism get applied in practice.
Having been invited to write these pieces as a religious Jew, you may be wondering why I have said so little about Jewish beliefs in my previous blogs.
Historically, Jews have been far less concerned with what one should believe than with what one should do.
Only rarely throughout the centuries have there been concerted efforts to impose a theology, and even these have courted controversy.
Certainly today, not all believing Jews believe the same thing. For some, God is a being, for others, a life force, and for still others, a process. Nonetheless, some central points remain.
- Jews are radical monotheists. God is one, indivisible and eternal.
- The One God is our God, we acknowledge no other. We are called upon, individually and collectively as Jews, to love and serve God. We do this through the traditions of our people, and it is in this sense that Israel is ‘chosen’.
- Judaism has both its particularistic and universal aspects. We assume the universal validity of faith in the One God and the ethical and moral system of Judaism. The particular way in which we serve God is unique to Jews. It is open to converts, although Judaism is not a proselytising religion. It recognises the validity of other faiths for other people.
Although some delight in spending hours discussing the nature of God, what we have traditionally debated instead has been the practical application of Biblical teachings, as seen in our great interpretive works, such as the Talmud. Jews have developed a way of analysing texts that leads to the formulation of rules and guidelines.
For example, the Hebrew Bible commands us to keep the Sabbath. What, in practical terms, might that mean? Over the years, Jews have reasoned many ways in which we might fulfil this instruction. This can be as simple as having two loaves of braided bread in remembrance of God’s double portion of manna in the wilderness. It can also be as complex as not flicking on lights or driving a car, as both these acts can be understood as one of the forbidden types of ‘work,’ in this case, ‘kindling fire.’
Not all Jews follow all the guidelines, but most are at least familiar with this type of interpretation of texts. We have a complete system based upon it, called the halacha, literally meaning ‘the way to go’. The Halacha forms a binding legislation for traditionally observant Jews. Properly understood, it is far from a cold, legalistic code. It represents an expression of the Jews’ passionate desire to fulfil the will of the One.
Although the strand of Judaism to which I belong recognises individual conscience as the final arbiter of behaviour, committed Liberal Jews use both halacha and its sources as key decision-making tools. We take the wisdom of the past and reflect on it in the light of the insights from modernity. Our goal remains the same as that of the more traditionally observant: to honour our Maker and fulfil our task on earth as guardians of Creation.
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