Judaism and the Search for Religion

The two major scriptures of Judaism are the Tanakh and the Talmud. In the Tanakh we find such well-known stories as Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah and the Flood, the Exodus from Egypt, Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath, and on and on—it’s what Christians call (incorrectly, from the perspective of Judaism) the OId Testament.

As for the Talmud, this consists of no less than 63 volumes of Jewish wisdom teachings and tales, edited over eighteen hundred years ago and continuously added to over the centuries.

Both are part of what Judaism calls Torah, a word which means “teaching” or “guidance” and which brings to mind Hinduism’s concept of “dharma.”

It is from the Talmud that we receive today’s wisdom story. The time is the first century, during the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, and also when a fellow Jew named Jesus lived and died. A man comes to talk with Rabbi Shammai, says, “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew, but I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.” Now this story is going to teach us a lot about Judaism, but it also teaches us about people in general. The man who comes to talk with the Rabbi wants a sound bite! He wants an elevator speech, an executive summary. Why does he feel so rushed? Does he have a Superbowl to go to? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But that’s a striking image, isn’t it? Standing on one foot. Unless you’re a stork, or a yogi, it’s not a very stable position. What is the story really trying to say about this man who wants to convert to Judaism? I’m going on about this because the Talmud is a subtle teacher, and much is between the lines. A rabbi from our time, Adin Steinsaltz, who is widely considered to be a genius—the first person in a thousand years to single-handedly write a complete Talmud commentary—says that “we kiss the Talmud before studying it and when we finish, but while we are studying from it, we pound it!”

Needless to say, this is a religion that values scholarship. The life of the mind is spiritual practice. Underlining is spiritual practice. A Yiddish proverb says it like this: “A table is not blessed if it has fed no scholars.”

Back to the story. The man in search of a religion comes to Rabbi Shammai, and it doesn’t go well. Rabbi Shammai happened to be a quick-tempered and impatient man, strict in his views, and to him, the sound bite approach to his religion was absolutely not going to cut it. He knew that people spent years learning the Torah, and perhaps the most important part of this learning isn’t available from a book. When Moses received the written law on Mount Sinai, it is said that alongside this written revelation was an oral one, meant to help interpret the written law, passed on by word of mouth, community wisdom. To plug in, you have to be part of this community. Community, in fact, is the starting point and the purpose for the entire religion. What was created at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after the Exodus from Egypt, was a holy people. And keeping these people on the straight and narrow is what the religion is all about. This is what Rabbi Shammai knows. So he pushes the man away. Pushes him with a builder’s yardstick—and this little detail in the story reminds us that the Rabbi had a day job. He was a builder of homes. That’s what he did.

But the man in search of a religion, God bless him, is persistent. Doesn’t let Rabbi Shammai rain on his parade. Perhaps it’s because he is so inspired by things he’s already heard about Judaism. (Of course—otherwise he would not have sought out Rabbi Shammai to begin with. We shouldn’t underestimate him.) One of these things probably had to do with the unique character of Judaism’s God, and religion scholar Huston Smith, in our study text for this year, The World’s Religions, says it well: “The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters. First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent. The Jews [however] reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts. Whereas the Gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans. While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery…. God is a god of righteousness.” That’s what Huston Smith says. Judaism’s conception of the Divine was very different from that of its neighbors, and not just because of its monotheistic affirmation that God is one. God is also good, God is ethical, God cares. In the Tanakh, from the book Isaiah, chapter 58, we read, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

The man in search of a religion wants to know more about this God, unlike any other God he’s ever heard of before. So he does what today we would call congregation shopping, church shopping. Finds another Rabbi, who happened to be a woodcutter, Rabbi Hillel. And Rabbi Hillel is a completely different story. “Certainly,” he says, when the man lays down his strange condition—“teach me the essence of Judaism while I stand on one foot.” “Certainly.”

In the pages of the Talmud, this is not the only time in which Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel, the builder and the woodcutter, disagree. If we include not only their direct disagreements, but those between their followers, we end up with over 300 instances. All of them recorded in the Talmud. “It is,” says writer Arthur Kurzweil, “probably the only sacred document that objects to itself. Within the Talmud, you will read passages that object to the very point of view it had just expressed a moment before.” In other words, here is a religion that, like Unitarian Universalism, loves the questions and loves the disagreements and does not envision religious identity as a matter of unanimity of belief. To be a Jew, you don’t have to believe certain things. You don’t even have to believe in God! “To some people,” says Woody Allen, “I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.” Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz puts it like this: “Every person has to, at some time, recreate Sinai for himself. We believe that the Law has at least 600,000 different paths within it for individuals to enter. There is what is called the ‘private gate’ for each of us. And we have to find our own gate.” Rabbi Steinsaltz also says this: “The Talmud has kept us sane by showing us that there are contradictions in the world and that we cannot solve them. We must learn to live with them.” Judaism’s argument, in short, is that religious identity can’t be a matter of everyone believing the same things because the Law is big, with many paths to enter in; people are different; and life contains contradictions that can’t be smoothed over. Because Judaism accepts differences of belief—because Judaism embraces questions and arguments and disagreements—it proves its relevance to real life. Says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “What is required in Judaism is not to agree, but to engage.”

We see it in the pages of the Talmud. People engaging questions and issues of every size, from all sorts of perspectives. Rabbi Shammai’s perspective was characteristically strict, concerned as he was about the Roman occupation of the lands of Israel and how to keep Judaism strong and intact in the face of Roman cultural influences. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, did not share this concern, and so he was more liberal in his views. More open to people like our man in search of a religion. Yet the views of both are considered equally inspired and worthy. Said the sixteenth-century Jewish scholar Isaac Luria, “not only are both the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel enduring on the conceptual level but each has its time and place on the pragmatic level as well.” Each has its time and place, and we pound the Talmud to get clear about which of its teachings can best fit here and now circumstances.

Back to the story. We’re near the end. Rabbi Hillel has the man stand on one foot, and then says, “Repeat after me. What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”

It’s a great answer, a great summation of Judaism, for two reasons. First, it’s in line with the God of Judaism’s character. Be ethical, because of the God of Judaism is ethical. Second, it echoes Judaism’s primary emphasis on practice—not to believe something, but to do something: tikkun olam, “repair of the world.” So the man stands on one foot and repeats it, and then what Rabbi Hillel says next is super sneaky. “That is the whole law. All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so that it is part of you.” The end.

See how he’s sneaky? What he says is not so different after all from what Rabbi Shammai believes. For the Golden Rule to become a part of you, you’ve got to give yourself to the larger tradition that supports it and gives it meaning. Sound bites and executive summaries go only so far, and never far enough. It’s true of Judaism, it’s true of Unitarian Universalism, it’s true of anything. Armchair quarterbacks will never know what it’s like to really play.

Rabbi Hillel says to the man, “Go and learn.” If he follows the advice, then part of what he does is learn and practice the “halakha” of Judaism, which means way or path—the Dao of Judaism, if you will. The path consists of rules for living, including basic ethical guidelines like “you shall love your neighbor as your self” as well as detailed laws concerning all aspects of life like land ownership, civil and criminal procedure, family law, dietary restrictions, and sacred observances like weekly Shabbat, or Passover, or the High Holy Days. A rule for practically everything. 613 of them, found in both the Tanakh and the Talmud.

613! Now from the perspective of the man who wants sound bite answers, this might sound absurd. What kind of religion is this? Give me unanimity of belief any day, over all these rules and constraints and spontaneity-killers! Yet I like how scholar Stephen Prothero illuminates the ultimate value of halakha. He relates a story about the last time he was in Jerusalem, and a Jewish friend was showing him around the city. “On two different days,” he says, “ I offered to buy him ice cream. In each case, because of the dietary requirement not to mix meat and dairy, he had to recollect when he had last eaten meat (his community’s rule was a three-hour wait.) This,” admits Stephen Prothero, “may seem irrational, but for him my offers appeared to engender Buddhist-style mindfulness, prompting him to be mindful of what he was thinking about eating and of what he had eaten in the past and when. More important, they prompted him to be mindful of God.” In other words, halakhic living brings transcendence to even the humblest activity. It’s how a Jew finds the sacred in the everyday. That’s how. Do that, and the spirit of the Golden Rule is never far way.

Go and learn, says Rabbi Hillel. And not just halakha. Learn also the history. Let the history of the Jews solidify the full import of the Golden Rule, what’s at stake, what it means. And if we the man does, if we do, what we learn is that the Golden Rule and all the rest of the rules come in the form of a covenant with God. Scholars say it happened around 1200 BCE, when Moses led the Israelites out of their brutal slavery in Egypt. Out from underneath the heavy hand of Pharaoh. Then the miracle parting of the Red Sea. Imagine now the moment when they all stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses comes down after being with God high up in the mountain, he comes down bearing the sacred tablets of the Law. He comes down from the mountain, communicates the Torah to the Israelite elders and then says, to them and to all, wash your garments and be ready on the third day, for on that day God himself shall come down from Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And God does—thunder and lightning on the morning of that third day, a thick cloud over the mountain, a trumpet blast shakes the Israelite camp and sets everyone to trembling, and there is God. The people meet God.

And God says, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In short, uphold the Torah and all its commandments, and God will preserve the Jewish people and make them prosper, preserve them upon the face of the earth. That is the promise.

At least one side of it. The other side, the implied, shadow side, is that should the Israelites fail to uphold the Torah and break faith with God, destruction shall come upon them, swift and deadly. Turns out, then, that the main story line of Judaism is covenant, then violation of covenant and exile, then return. We see this pattern played out over and over again. It’s not easy being a Chosen People. Thus, around 500 years after the Exodus event, after such leaders as Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel entered bad times. Bad leadership split the kingdom into northern and a southern halves. Into this moment in history steps a prophet like Amos. A prophet who saw the corruption.

A prophet who said to the corrupt Jewish rulers, Look, remember what life was like in Egypt? Remember how we had been treated by Pharaoh? Well, congratulations. The way you rulers are running things, it’s as if you had re-established Egypt right here in Israel.You have become just as brutal as Pharaoh. The Torah says we must treat the poor and the weak with dignity, but you have made them your slaves. You oppress them, you break their spirit, you kill them. And now that you have broken covenant with God, God will come down like a hammer. And indeed, the retribution came. The cost of disobedience was destruction. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom was destroyed in 586 BC. Break the covenant with God, and you are in trouble. God is a God of mercy, but also of justice. This is the fundamental storyline: covenant, then violation of covenant and exile, then return.

All this—the way of halakha, and the history—is what the man searching for a religion must go and learn, to make the Golden Rule a true part of him. The learning continues, even in the face of the Holocaust and questions about whether God is truly just or even exists. Even in the face of the Middle East crisis, where Israel and Palestine are locked in a state of mutual cruelty and crisis. Even in the face of all the contradictions in the world that we cannot solve and must somehow learn to live with. To be a Jew is just as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said: “[To] remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. [To be sure] that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, [to] remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

The man in search of a religion balances on one leg to recite the Golden Rule, but unless he commits to the larger faith supporting this rule, it’s as if he stays standing on that one leg, perpetually imbalanced, perpetually unsteady. The message is to us all. Only when he commits does he stand on both legs and stand firm, on solid ground. To only half-like something, or like it from afar, is to be half-baked. What is required in religion is not to agree, but to engage. What is required is to seek out experience of the sacred in the everyday. What is required is to do practical and concrete things which bring heaven to earth and illuminate the sacred in the everyday. What is required is to belong to a history and a people larger than your single solitary self, and to share in both the sorrows and the joys, all the exiles and all the returns. Forever, in the pages of the Talmud, Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel disagree on many things. But on this—what it means to be truly religious—the builder and the woodcutter agree.