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What is Judaism?


Written by Gil Student

Is Judaim as religion or a race? This question is frequently asked and is a misleading one. You must choose between one or the other. The truth is that it is neither. In fact, there is no word in the English language that adequately expresses the nature of Judaism and to limit one's ideas to those words that are available in English is to commit a grave error. Analytic philosophers spend a great deal of time understanding how language affects thought. It is our duty to avoid allowing the English language force us into a particular thought pattern.

Most Jews share common racial characteristics. However, that is not an absolute rule because Judaism accepts converts and therefore even one without those racial characteristics is still very much a Jew. Even someone as gentile as Haman, an Amalekite [Esther 3:1; 1 Samuel 15:8], had descendants who converted to Judaism and became respected scholars [Talmud Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b].

Judaism is a religion in that there are basic beliefs and practices that are incumbent on each Jew. However, even those who fail to practice or to believe are still Jews [Talmud Yevamot 47b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:12].

The Jewish People

A Jew is someone, or a descendant of someone, who willingly accepted the obligation to fulfill G-d's commandments as explained in the Written and Oral Torah. The acceptance may have been at Mt. Sinai or anytime since as an act of conversion. However, as a result of his accepting, he and his descendants must fulfill these commandments. That is on a personal level.

Additionally, by accepting these commandments he has joined the Jewish people. What is the Jewish people? Is it a semi-secret nation out for its own political and economic power? No. It is a group of people united in their spiritual quest who, through a metaphysical union, are joined together in destiny. Jews are obligated to care for each other's spiritual welfare and, by extension, physical welfare also. We distribute funds to help the indigent and teach each other G-d's word.

However, we are not just a group of individuals with the same goal. We are one people and, as such, we must treat each other as if we were part of the same whole.

Consider the case of revenge. On a small scale, revenge is not only natural it is fair. If you jump in front of me in line it is only fair that another time I jump in front of you. In that way I recover what you took from me. If you refuse to lend me your lawn mower it is only fair that I be allowed to refuse to lend you my rake. However, the Bible tells us it is forbidden to take revenge or bear a grudge against other Jews [see Midrash Sifra ad. loc.]. Why does the Bible prohibit acting towards a fellow Jew fairly and require treatment better than fair?

Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4 (30a-b)

It say [Leviticus 19:18] "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people." How could this be? [If the Bible was coming to tell us not to get used to acting with bad character traits it should apply even to those outside of your people - Korban Ha'Eidah commentary] It is as if you were cutting meat and the knife slipped and cut your hand. Would that hand cut your other hand [in revenge]?

 

The Jewish people are one organic unit and each Jew is spiritually connected with his fellow. To take vengeance on a fellow Jew is like the left hand taking vengeance on the right hand. They are two parts of the same whole.

For this reason, while Jews must treat everyone with respect, they must treat each other better. They are different parts of the same nation and must treat each other as one self [see the end of Leviticus 19:18].

The tochachah, the discussion of divine retribution, is said twice in the Pentateuch - Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. An astute reader will note that in Leviticus the Hebrew grammar is strictly plural while in Deuteronomy the Hebrew grammar is strictly singular. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (the famous Vilna Gaon) explains that Leviticus is referring to the nation as a group of individuals and is, as such, a warning to all individuals to follow the laws. Deuteronomy, however, is a warning to the nation as a whole. The Jewish people are a single nation who are punished as a whole even when the whole is not to blame [Aderet Eliyahu to Deut. 28]. When a person's hand becomes infected the entire body suffers pain. Similarly, when one Jew sins the entire nation is punished. Thus, as one nation we are united in our destiny whether we like it or not.

What we will show in this site is that Jews must treat all gentiles fairly. However, because of their connection they treat each other as family, as part of the same nation.

 

See R. Meir Simcha HaCohen, Meshech Chochmah, Haftorah for Parshat Devarim; R. Yosef Engel, Otzrot Yosef, 2; R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hagut Vaha'arachah, pp. 223-237; R. Hershel Schachter, Eretz HaTzvi, 17; R. Yonason Sacks, The Torah U-Madda Journal (Yeshiva University:1990), vol. 2 pp. 70-75, R. Mayer Twersky, TorahWeb, Shavuot 1999.

 

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