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Does Judaism Have an Essense?
God's First Questions
In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked: Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Note that the first question asked in heaven is not "Did you believe in God?" or "Did you observe all the rituals?" but "Were you honest in business?" Unfortunately, despite many texts that insist on the primacy of ethics, most Jews associate being religious solely with observing rituals. Throughout the Jewish community, when one asks, "Is so-and-so a religious Jew?" the response invariably is based on the person's observance of ritual laws: "He (or she) keeps kosher, and observes the Sabbath; he is religious" or "She does not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath; she is not religious."
From such responses, one could easily conclude that Judaism regards ethical behavior as an "extracurricular activity," something desirable but not essential.
The above passage unequivocally asserts that ethics is at Judaism's core; God's first concern is with a person's decency.
The second question concerns Torah study, for Judaism teaches that through studying Torah, a person learns how to be fully moral (see Chapter 50), and how to be a part of the Jewish people.
Third comes having children (those who are childless can adopt). Rabbi Irving Greenberg notes that raising a family fulfills the "covenantal obligation to pass onthe dream and work of perfecting the world for another generation."
Fourth is hoping for and working toward this very perfection. The first three questions address "micro issues," matters that would be sufficient were Judaism exclusively addressed to the individual. But Jews also are part of a people and a broader world, and Judaism imposes upon the Jewish people the obligation to help bring about tikkun olam, the repair (or perfection) of the world. In a frequently quoted passage in the Ethics of the Fathers (2:21), Rabbi Tarfon teaches: "It is not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can]."
One final thought about this talmudic passage: When a Jewish baby is born, the prayer offered expresses the hope that the child will be able to respond affirmatively to the first three questions:
May the parents rear this child [son or daughter] to adulthood imbued with love of Torah and the performance of good deeds, and may they escort him [or her] to the wedding canopy.
This prayer is recited in the synagogue (or at another naming ceremony) for a girl, and at the boy's circumcision. My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula notes that the fourth question is alluded to through the kisei eliyahu, the chair of Elijah, that is set up at every circumcision. In Jewish tradition, Elijah is the prophet who will usher in the world's redemption.
Other Biblical and Rabbinic views of what matters most to God
Both the Bible's prophets and the greatest figures of talmudic Judaism have also expressed the view that ethical behavior is God's central demand of human beings:
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:
- Only to do justice,
- to love goodness,
- and to walk modestly with your God.
Thus said the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the strong man glory in his strength; Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; For in these I delight.
Jeremiah 9:22-23 (sixth century B.C.E.)
Jeremiah, like Micah, enumerates three types of behavior that give God pleasure: in his case, kindness, justice, and equity.
It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai [he and Hiltel were the two leading rabbis of their age] and said to him, "Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai chased him away with the builder's rod in his hand. When he came before Hillel, Hillel converted him and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go and study."
Babylonian Talmud, Sbabbat 31a (shortly before the beginning of the Common Era)
That Hillel, one of the greatest figures of talmudic Judaism, was willing to convert a non-Jew on the basis of his accepting this ethical principle surely proves that ethical behavior constitutes Judaism's essence (in the same way that Protestant fundamentalists would insist on a would-be convert's acceptance of what they see as Christianity's essence, that Jesus Christ was the son of God who died to atone for mankind's sins). As Hillel remarks of this ethical principle, "this is the whole Torah." Significantly, Hillel instructs the man to start learning Torah, for only by studying this "commentary" will he be able to carry out Judaism's teachings.
A century after Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest scholar and teacher of his age, reiterated the primacy of ethics in Judaism:
"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18)-this is the major principle of the Torah.
Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim 9:4 (second century C.E.)
While Micah, Jeremiah, Hillel, and Akiva were all concerned with finding the specific "way" that matters most to God, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was concerned with isolating the personality trait most apt to.guarantee that its practitioners lead a good life
Said he [Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] to them [his five preeminent students]: "Go out and see which is the best way a person should follow."