Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
The Unprincipled Nature of Judaism
by Gershon Winkler
The most important principle in Judaism is the awareness that there is no such thing as "the most important principle" in Judaism. All of its teachings are equally as vital, and if you fulfill any one of them, taught the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, you have fulfilled all of them (Midrash Mishlei 1:17). It is an ancient body of wisdom that helps you to really know that you really don't know. This way, you remain in the dark all your life, by virtue of which you are encouraged to dare yourself to move beyond your defined illusory self toward an encounter with your undefinable true self. It is a spiritual path based on vagueness -- it is so vague, in fact, that you are left with very little to go on other than what is truly the most important, albeit most neglected, factor in your life walk: you. Enoch walked alongside God (Genesis 5:22, 5:24) and Noah walked with God (Genesis 6:9). Abraham, on the other hand, was challenged to walk in front of God (Genesis 17:1), implying very little divine guidance, very little clarity, very little direction, and a terrifying injunction to seek all of these on his own: "Go to Yourself," he was told (Genesis 12:1 and 22:2).
The Torah of Judaism, you see, is a deliberately confounding, deeply encrypted, intentionally self-contradicting body of mystery wisdom that defies linear thinking and blocks every attempt to fathom her. Even her numerous mitzvot fall short of bringing you to her essence: "They do not even come close to representing so much as an iota of what the Torah is all about" taught the fourth-century Rabbi Berachyah (Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe'ah 1:1 [3b]). There is nothing principled about her; no absolutes. Her promises and her threats only play with your mind, pulling and pushing you until you either lose your sense of Self or discover it. "One who rejects God is not struck down by lightning; one who elects God does not find hidden treasures," noted Martin Buber in Israel and the World. "Everything seems to remain just as it was."
Certainly, there were those who insisted on presenting Torah as a clearly delineated absolute code. Yet, they were challenged by others who immediately murmured their opposing opinions in the margins of every folio. Codifying Jewish law and practice, the ancient rabbis taught, "is like burning a Torah Scroll" (Talmud Bav'li, T'murah 14b). Because, again, the Torah is unfathomable and well-guarded by alluring Cherubim wielding whirling swords of fire (Genesis 3:24). She offers nothing other than the dare to step into the quadrant of uncertainty; the inspiration to engage the unknown; the space to err and grow; and the priceless opportunity to participate in re-creating yourself from a product of your environment to an original creation by God.
So the next time someone asks you, "What is the most important and most fundamental principle of Judaism?" say, "You're looking at it."
Gershon Winkler is the author of Daily Kabbalah: Wisdom from the Tree of Life, and fourteen other books on Jewish law, lore, history, and mysticism. He teaches around the country on any subject except the Principles of Judaism.
Source Citation: Winkler, Gershon. 2011. The Unprincipled Nature of Judaism. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.