I substituted reading for my Saturday afternoon nap. I selected another book about the transformation of American Jewish life. Whether warning of an apocalyptic end to Judaism or touting the innovations in Jewish life, these books are all searching for a core truth. Is there Judaism without an enforced Jewish legal system? Is there more to Judaism than its laws?
In Torah, Moses plainly lays out these choices for the Hebrews as they enter the Promised Land. God has set before them blessings and curses. How they behave will result in one or the other. Modern and progressive-leaning Jews are unlikely to believe that each decision we make will be answered by God with either a blessing or a curse.
In order to receive blessings is to obey the laws and rules set out by Moses. He cautions the people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 13, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, each of us as we please.” Torah speaks to the importance of adherence to rules. Subservience to Jewish law tracks to the establishment of a responsible and civil society.
The founding fathers built American democracy upon the advancement of individual rights and freedoms. This is where Judaism and American-ism differ. Judaism is a religion of responsibility to others. When we obey the laws, we give full effect to that responsibility. Reflecting on those ancient constructs from our modern perspective, we might be inclined to be dismissive of many mitzvoth. Outside of Orthodoxy, Jews have afforded themselves the freedom to select which, if any, of the laws to observe.
We are not afraid that our poor choices will be countered with curses from God. We are not feeling bound to those of the 613 laws which often have little relevance to our lives. And yet I know that anyone reading this will have a strong Jewish identity and is a proponent of Jewish values.
Clearly, Judaism endures despite the threat of curses or the rejection of its legal code. At its core, Judaism represents values that still speak to us today. Torah teaches us to care for each other. Dozens of times we are reminded to take care of the widow and the orphan and the stranger among us. Judaism has enough vitality to transform its practices. Jewish identity is strong even among those who don’t engage in Jewish rituals. American Jews are activists and philanthropic because of their Jewish identity. Stripped of the threat of curses or the strict observance of 613 mitzvoth, Judaism endures because Jewish identity has goodness at its core.
In America, we explore new ways to construct Judaism with modern sensibilities. What we need most is people willing to engage with each other in a process of reimagining how good Judaism can be.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame