Judaism is a way of life, a philosophy, a discipline, and the cultural expression of the Jewish people throughout the ages. An embodiment of faithfulness and robust hope, Judaism encompasses the communal act of transforming Torah, the Five Books of Moses, from literature into lives well-lived. One of the world’s oldest ways of being human, Judaism is at once a portal into a universal perspective on the cosmos, life, God, humanity, and justice, and a love affair with a particular people, otherwise obscure and small except for the spiritual light they shine on humanity out of all proportion to their numbers. These elements are burnished to a lustrous shine when illumined with the light of a Process perspective.
A Way of Life
Judaism is not a conglomeration of distilled ideas, but a spiritual-ethical discipline that retains the capacity to elevate consciousness, heighten compassion, and inspire righteousness.
A pathway for living an abundant Jewish life is the observance of mitzvot, the sacred deeds of Jewish practice. Some Jews practice these more literally and others more metaphorically, some more strictly and others more existentially, but at the heart of all contemporary expressions of Judaism are the many ways Jews translate these imperatives in their lives and communities. These mitzvot—613 in the Torah—span the range of what some would label ritual, psychological, and ethical. Mitzvot energize a Jew while waking in the morning. They guide a Jew throughout the day, mandating use of just weights, fair business practices, compassion for others, giving charity, offering words of greeting to strangers, engaging in honest relationships, practicing mindful eating, and avoiding gossip or malicious speech. They encourage us to recite prayers three times each day and even when we go to sleep, with particular blessings for the evening, including a prayer forgiving those who wronged us during the day and another asking guardian angels to surround us in our slumber.
Being a Jew means embracing the opportunity of the next mitzvah.
Being a seeking Jew means enacting religion with one’s entire body; for some that includes wrapping oneself in a tallit and tefillin; for men, being circumcised; for many women, monthly ritual immersion; and on and on. Judaism is the diversity of what different Jews do, creating a fusion of body, heart, mind, and emotion into a single unity that is greater than any of its parts. That unity is a Jew. That dynamic harmony is Judaism.
Judaism is a way of life not only for each individual, but for the community as a whole. Every occasion of the life cycle is a celebration of the brit (covenant) embracing God and Am Yisrael (the Jewish people), birth and brit milah (for boys) or simhat bat (for girls), commencing young adulthood as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, marriage, illness, and death are all contextualized as expressions of the life of the Jewish people as a whole, an event of significance for our ancient covenant. Even the cycle of days, months, and years are illumined by the prism of the Jewish calendar. Shabbat (the Sabbath) sanctifies the seventh day each week as a day of rest and renewal, and the sequence of Jewish holy days and festivals mark the seasons and moments in the cosmos and the relationship between God and Israel that continue to frame our connection to the present.
These strings of sacred deeds are given coherence and life by a process known as halakhah, which literally means “walking,” or the way. Often translated as “law,” it is far different than some brittle set of rules or a nitpicking obsession with detail. Halakhah, the way, is communal choreography—Jews dancing across the generations and around the globe. Our halachah roots us in the ways our ancestors and Sages have worked Torah in every aspect of our lives, communal and individual. By molding our behavior to express Torah, we Jews take on the role of God’s hands, reaching out to bring healing to the world, and inspiring gratitude that allows us all to breathe in the giftedness of life and to share it with each other.
Halakhah, the way, begins in study. Those born into Judaism start their study at an early age, and those who choose Judaism engage in a lengthy study process prior to conversion. Historically, we read the Torah three times a week, completing the full reading each calendar year. We study the Mishnah, Talmud, and codes of law that began in antiquity and continue to this very day to trace how others before us have brought God’s presence into the rhythms and practices of their waking moments and communal observance. Contemporary sages continue to apply halachah to new situations, either unprecedented novelty or circumstances made new by fresh insights and ethical advancement. Halachah, like the process that is Torah, is alive and continues to produce new branches, new foliage. It remains, as it has been called for centuries, an etz hayyim, a tree of life.
Like any way of life, Judaism surfaces in the deeds and actions of Jewish bodies, it breathes an embodied way of life. Like all embodiments, it dynamically expresses and generates ideas that can only be fully experienced in the doing. This “knowing” bubbles up from our experiences, an almost intuitive harvest from our doing: hitbonenut in Hebrew. Process philosopher Alfred Whitehead called it prehension.
Those intuited ideas are not less important because they emerge from experience, but more so. At the heart of Jewish doing is the conviction that there is a unifying Oneness that undergirds everything and makes openness possible. That Oneness exceeds all human description or definition, but permeates all being and invites us continuously to surpass our previous limits. It is because of that Oneness that the cosmos is not a mechanical repetition of the same events endlessly, pointlessly. The cosmos blossoms into increasing complexity, connection, relationship, and consciousness because, Jews insist, the cosmos has been and still is beckoned toward greater becoming, greater liberation. We call that Oneness God and encounter the presence of the Ancient One in our holy deeds. We see the continuing lure, toward cosmos as the divine flowering of redemption. Through participation in creation, we connect to the Divine.
For Judaism, then, God is author of creation, an intuition that bids us to decipher the world’s wonder in order to reveal aspects of its Maker, our Maker. For that reason, Judaism is enthusiastic about scientific research, both theoretical and practical. We welcome any new tools or insights that allow us to peek behind the curtain of superficiality to understand cosmos at a deeper level.
Another pathway toward the Divine is the texts of revelation. We perceive the Blessing One not only through the ongoing process of creation, but also, perhaps more intensely, through the distillation of human listening into words. Scripture—Hebrew scripture in particular—is an extraordinary cumulative process of engagement, as generation after generation of priest, prophet, and sage listened with an inner attentiveness and distilled divine bounty into words. Those words coalesced into stories and laws, compiled by disparate schools of ancient Israelites and woven together into a sturdy tapestry of Torah across millennia of collaborative effort. Jews believe that when we join in that process of attentive listening, straining to hear the Living Voice among the words of scripture and aided by the reverberations of our own attentive soul echoes, we too can harvest unprecedented Torah anew. We stand again at Sinai each time we draw new Torah into the world. In that sense, Torah is both a product (a collection of books) and a process (the act of distilling God’s presence / will / invitation into words). Judaism uniquely portrays the Divine as a teacher, paradise as a school. Our continuing reading, learning, and commenting splash an ongoing cascade of Torah into the world, mekor hayim, a fountain of life.
We have been harvesting Torah from the moment of our birth as a nation. The great medieval sage Rabbi Saadia Gaon teaches that “the Jews are a people by virtue of Torah.”1 We tell the tale of our emergence as a people in response to the bounty of God’s outpouring, through the inspired gift of the prophetic insight of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher.
Our Teacher, Our Rabbi
Moses was great in a way that few are great. Having been raised among the abusive power and ostentatious wealth of Pharaoh, he nevertheless identified with outcast Hebrew slaves. Fleeing the deadening trap of court and caste, Moses found a freedom surpassing imagination in the wilderness, a voice calling him to mobilize the people for freedom. From the start, the Hebrew mind has heard the Compassionate in a call for human liberation, for justice and empathy. It was God working in, with, and through Moses who gave us hope that we might break the chains of generations of habit and hurt, who forced us to surpass ourselves and march into the unknown promise. It was God in, with, and through Moses who brought us to Mount Sinai and launched the process of Torah that has nourished us for the last three thousand years. That Torah—in a very real sense the Torah of Moses—powerfully locates the service of God in an expanding ethical circle, first a couple, then a family, then a tribe, then a people, then humanity, then a planet, finally a cosmos. God and Moses gave us the only real universalism, the kind that honors particularity and celebrates diversity. It was God working in, with, and through Moses who insisted that the fruit of faith is moral rigor, persistent love, and abiding justice: “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18); “You shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19); “You shall lift the burden with your neighbor” (Exodus 23:5).
Of course, no one can live forever at the base of a thundering mountain; nor can we remain on a peak in direct communion with the Sublime. At some point we all return to life as it is lived, to imperfect humanity and to flawed societies in need of our service, vision, and work. To survive in the world, an ancient way of life and philosophy must forge a way to thrive in reality, in the everyday. For Judaism, that mode of survival has been the cultures of Jewish people in every age.
Jews carried their Torah with them wherever they journeyed. First we wandered from Mount Sinai in the wilderness to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, there creating what the ancient historian Josephus called “one Temple for the one God.” That Temple stood as a symbol of unity and uniqueness, the visible representation of the human aspiration to fulfill God’s will perfectly and completely. It was an attempt to step, as it were, out of the messy welter of life. That Temple and its vision succumbed to human violence, jealousy, and conquest, assaulted by Assyrians, destroyed by Babylonians the first time and by Romans the second. In the wake of its destruction, the Jews discovered galut (exile), the wandering that means one is never fully at home, nowhere finally at rest. We learned that the pursuit of empire is a delusional security; the seeds of its own demise are sown in violence and reaped in blood.
As a result, we Jews are always on the way, always in process. There is no place to live in stasis, no way to be complete while we’re alive. Galut is now a universal condition for everyone.
But we do not travel alone. Everywhere we go, we still bring our Torah with us. We live our mitzvot and whirl the ancient dance of halakhah—observance, study, commentary, life. Our ancient Torah has blossomed in ways we would never have expected: Jews learned from the cultures in which they lived and gave back—poetry, philosophy, and medicine with the Arabs; history, science, and commerce with the Europeans; film, journalism, humor, and scholarship with the Americans; art, literature, nationalism, drama, statecraft, and war with modernity. The range of Jewish culture is truly a microcosm of the world’s influence, a gift of our hosts (willing and unwilling) to the evolving, conflicting meaning of what it is to be a Jew.
Today there are vibrant Jewish communities across Canada, Latin America, Europe, and even parts of Africa and Asia. There are two great centers of Jewish life: the Jewish people have returned to their homeland in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, to work toward forging a society of democratic values and the flourishing of a broadly Jewish culture. Through the autonomy and self-determination that a Jewish state makes possible, we are developing an equitable relationship with the other religious and ethnic groups within Israel and secure peaceful relations with Palestinian and other Middle Eastern neighbors. Jews everywhere find a part of their heart bound up in the State of Israel and its flourishing. Jewish communities in America are also exploring what it means to be full participants in a robust democracy, in which separation of religion and state creates the space for a rich religious diversity and a flourishing cultural identity. In both centers of contemporary Jewish life, questions of exercising power, ethics, inclusion, and justice in accord with the highest values of Judaism remain an ongoing challenge and opportunity. In both centers, deciphering how to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world remains challenging.
Yet amid all that diversity, one simple standard remains: a Jew is someone who resonates personally with the history of the Jewish past and who identifies in aspiration with Judaism’s destiny yet to be. We speak almost every language and look like all of humanity. We still read the ancient words of Torah in their original language, still pray to the same universal God our father Abraham encountered, still walk the way shown us by our rabbi, Moses. We still question and discuss, as we learned from the ancient rabbinic Sages of the Talmud, and we throw ourselves into social causes with the indefatigable desperation of a people who refuse to be taught to despair.
And yes, we are still occasionally “stiff-necked and stubborn,” as Moses told us we were. Sometimes our stubbornness is for the good. We continue to hope.
We are an ancient people, ever young. We possess a wise and encompassing tradition, ever supple and open. Our mother city, Jerusalem, is the home of three monotheistic faiths, and our scriptures tell a tale of unearned love that resulted in creation, and a passion for justice that resulted in the liberation of slaves. We have been commanded to love and to liberate ever since. Many human liberation movements share our story—that of Moses and the Hebrew slaves—as their inspiration as well. Our story begins in the particular—a people wandering toward its land—and culminates in the universal—a day when God reigns supreme and all peoples find a home in our home, in which the Holy Temple, renewed symbol of a glorious human unity, is truly “a house of prayer for all peoples.”
On that day, the world will know shalom (peace). We must join hands to make it so.
Excerpted from God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology, by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99). © 2013 Bradley Shavit Artson. Permission granted by Jewish Lights www.jewishlights.com.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2014 print issue: Thinking Anew About God. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/god-anew to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)