Monday, April 11, 2011

Judaism's Mission Statement

[I was asked recently to articulate why Judaism matters. Here is my reply:]

Now HaShem said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. [As a consequence of your going] I will make of you a people vital to life, and I will bless you, and spread your reputation [as a people devoted to justice and compassion], so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse [those who follow the way of justice and compassion will be blessed with justice and compassion, those who do not will be cursed with injustice and cruelty]; and through you all the earth’s families [human and otherwise] shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, my rendering)

This is the mission statement of the Jewish people. The Hebrew translated here as “Go” is lech lecha, and literally means to walk to your self, implying both an external and an internal journey. To take this journey we are challenged to leave behind nationalism, tribalism, and family baggage. Judaism is not about conforming to the past, but about living God's command in the present. It isn't about fitting in, but about moving on.

Where we are to go, the “land” mentioned here, is not revealed. While some insist it is Israel, I suggest it is something more (which is not the same as saying it is something else): a state of mind. In either case, this is a journey based on radical trust. We will be shown our destination only when we arrive at it.

Our importance as a people depends on our taking this journey into the unknown. We are called to be the boundary–crossers (this may be the original meaning of Habiru/Hebrew); we are the ones who "boldly go where no one has gone before." But the purpose of the journey is not to become great, but to become a vehicle through which all of the earth’s families will be blessed. Our goal isn't to conquer or convert, but to bless and bring blessings to the entire world, every family of every species. We do this by embodying compassion: engaging the world justly, lovingly, and humbly (Micah 6:8).

When asked to articulate the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study it.” (Tractate Shabbat 32a).

I take Hillel literally. The entire Torah, the entirety of Judaism, is a guide to compassion when we read and live it as such. If your reading of Torah and/or your living of Judaism does not make you more just, loving, and humble then you are misreading Torah and not living Judaism.

This is why I am a Jew: At its best Judaism challenges me to drop the known and step into the unknown; to be a blessing and a vehicle for blessing so that all life benefits from my life; and to embody a specific level of consciousness that embraces the world with justice, love, and humility. True, Judaism is often not at its best, but I can find enough examples past and present to keep me loyal to the mission.


Paul Kipnes said...

Love it. Bravo.

Mary Ingmire said...

Interesting. This is how I'm coming to understand the mission of Christianity.

Kineret WillowGreene said...

Yes this is wonderful! This is why I read your books and blog. Your Judaism is my Judaism.

Steven Maimes said...

Thought provoking post - I would like you to address (in a blog or comment) "justice" sometime OR refer me to a good resource that discusses justice... Thanks.

Tricia Datené said...


Tricia Datené said...


Unknown said...

L'chayim, Rabbi! I pretty much agree with these high points of Judaism, here that I try to hit on my everyday practice as Jew. Thanks for being one of my guides in helping me reintegrate that into my every day life.

Rabbi Rami said...

Steve asks that I address the idea of justice. There are two kinds of justice: justice as punishment and justice as fairness. While I think punishment is often necessary for society's safety, I was thinking of justice as fairness. Of course now I have to define fairness, which would take us into volumes of philosophical thought far beyond my capacity to understand let alone explain. So for me it would have to be decided on a case by case basis, and even then it is hard to do.