This blog and other author’s blogs before it have been exploring the intellectual interpretation of Judaism for a long time.
I began exploring the intellectual interpretation of Judaism after I realized that the traditional interpretation of Judaism was not helping me understand many things in the real life surrounding me such as for example the true meaning and roots of anti-Semitism or how to be proudly and openly Jewish in my professional and public activities.
The difference between intellectual and traditional interpretations of Judaism may be defined in the following way.
The intellectual interpretation is based on (almost scientific) exploration of the image of All-Mighty One God along the lines of His image in the Torah – God as the Creator, God as the Unique Individual, and God as the Eternity – the God whose designs (intentions, goals, objectives, laws, …) for the entire world, for us the humans and for us the Jewish humans we have to discover and obey in order to create a better world for everybody. The Torah was given by God to all humans through the Jewish humans as “The Chosen” with their mission as The Chosen to help the others understand God’s guidance in the Torah. The Jewish people were freed from the Egypt’s slavery by God, and the Jewish people have an obligation to help the others to free themselves from their own “egypts” to live in freedom – the “egypts” may be oppressive governments, dictatorial regimes, oppressive community leaders … Since we the humans are created in the image of God, we are unique individuals who are doing creative work by competing with each other for better creative designs hopefully to live in eternity.
The traditional interpretation is based on specifying another image of God in the Torah – God as the All-Mighty personal caregiver we the humans have to love and to fear, and our love and fear are demonstrated by performing traditional rituals codified by the Jewish humans in Talmud and by judgments of religious authorities. The Torah was given by God to the Jewish people as “The Chosen” for an exclusive use, and such an exclusive use can be practiced only in spiritual isolation minimizing the relationships with the others. The Jews are building a better world in their own isolated communities, and that’s up to the non-Jews to build their own better world if they can. The traditional interpretation of Judaism is easier to understand since it is based on applying well known human characteristics to God’s image. Here should be one God’s approved set of moral principles and deviation from this set has to be discouraged; individuals should not develop their own competing ideas – they have to obey religious authority.
An interview conducted by David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel, with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of the outstanding Rabbis of our times, demonstrates the importance of intellectual interpretation of Judaism.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Let me take you back into more customary territory, and a semi-scandalous question about the Jews as the chosen people. Judaism has taught the world and can give the world a moral compass, but why do the Jews themselves need to maintain their separation, and the egotistical sense of being the chosen people? Doesn’t that make everybody else not the chosen people?
Look at the first recorded syllables of Jewish time. God says to Abraham, leave your land, your birthplace, your father’s house. Travel to a land which I will show you. And you ask yourself, you know, there’s something strange here. Why a land? Why not the whole universe. Why not go and conquer the world? Or why not just have an individual, personal relationship with God?
God says to Abraham, You go and be different, to show the world the importance of difference. Without difference you cannot have a free society.
You’re very small. Here’s a group of believers. Or it could be huge. One God, one way, one truth.
And somehow Judaism chose neither of these. Christianity and Islam both developed the one God, one way, one truth [approach]: You can’t find salvation outside of us. But Judaism never went down that road. That was the one bit of Judaism that Christianity and Islam did not borrow.
At the same time, Bereshit (Genesis) is followed by Shemot (Exodus). Not just a family relationship with God, it’s a national relationship with God. And the best way I have been able to explain this is that Judaism is a sustained protest against empire.
Hence the true great beginnings of Judaism. The first empire of Sargon in Mesopotamia and the neo-Assyrian empire — and Abraham’s journey away from that. And the second great empire, the Egypt of the Pharaohs, which was, after all, the longest-lived empire of the lot… This is the world’s superpower. Everyone’s trying to get in. And the Israelites are trying to get out. I only understand this as protest against empire.
The way I put it in my book, “The Dignity of Difference,” is that the truth at the heart of monotheism is not one God, one way, one truth, but unity up there creates diversity down here. Just as today we understand the importance of bio-diversity, so right at the beginning the Torah understood the importance of human cultural diversity. God says to Abraham, You go and be different, to show the world the importance of difference.
Without difference you cannot have a free society. That was Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s “The Republic.” Plato eliminated the poets from The Republic because they encouraged people to think for themselves. And Aristotle said, no, politics is about difference. Essentially, that was the Netziv’s (19th Century sage Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) reading of the Tower of Babel: The whole land was of one speech in the same words. He calls that, in effect, though he doesn’t use the word, the first totalitarianism.
So Judaism is protest in the name of the sanctity of the individual, in the image of God, and the equal dignity of all of us, under the sovereignty of God. And the task of Judaism — which was a very challenging one, for which we paid a very high price historically — is to show that a small nation can still teach humanity what human dignity is all about, what human freedom is all about.
And that comes from the fact that Judaism itself is a questioning religion?
Most faiths are born in some kind of certainty or some kind of salvation. Judaism is born in cognitive dissonance. It’s born in the dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be. So Jews are pretty restless.
What I’m saying really is how is it that when, for the first time in 4,000 years of history, you have sovereignty and statehood in Israel, equality and dignity in the Diaspora, have we suddenly forgotten what we’re all about — which is bringing spiritual and moral values into the heart of society? We’re seeing the Jewish world split between those who are in the heart of society but a long way from their Judaism, and those who are in the heart of Judaism but a long way from the mainstream of society. We seem to have been split in two; we’re kind of a schizophrenic people. I want to heal that a little bit just by being a very humble presence on the sidelines, a kind of scholar in residence for the people who are trying to make a better Jewish future.
If you were to ask anyone what are the five major problems facing humanity in the 21st Century, by more or less universal consent they would be: climate change, global warming; the problem of the growing gap between first and third world economies; asylum seekers; terror, and creating democracies in parts of the world that have no tradition of it.
I see Israel as a symbol of hope for every country in the world. Israel has shown what a small nation can achieve under the most adverse conditions
In all those areas Israel has led the world. It is the only country that had more trees at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. It was the first country to plant forests rather than tear them down. It is the world’s leading example of a third world economy that became a cutting edge first world economy. Together with the United States it is the only country in the world which is made out of asylum seekers. The last time I looked they came from 103 different countries speaking 82 different languages — probably more than that by now. Somehow out of it, it’s forged an incredibly dynamic nation. It is the country that has developed all the effective measures against terror, and any country in the world that wants to fight terror has to come to Israel or study Israel’s methods. And finally, Israel brought democracy to the Middle East. I call Israel a hyper-democracy. It has the most politically engaged electorate in the world. It is and has remained a democracy with an independent judiciary and a free press.