Judaism’s Best Ideas. My list – no particular order.
Part of my studies was reading Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas by Arthur Green, a nimble, fascinating Cliff’s Notes on Jewish thought and history. I loved it, and Rabbi Susan’s guidance in my conversion included the assignment to create my own list, a requirement before my final steps.
So in no particular order:
- Tikkun Olam
- Ehad – one people, one creator
- Torah (lowercase t)
- Halakha – doing, not just saying
These are big ideas. Let’s unpack very (obnoxiously) briefly.
1. Tikkun Olam – Heal the World
This relates to #5: halakha. You can’t just wish or hope or mope or pray, you have to actually get off your butt and make it happen. You’re G-d’s partner, not a petitioner. And this particular concept teaches that Jewish people, being the first to recognize a single g-d/G-d/something one (#3, Ehad), also have a particular role to spread certain messages. Among them, concepts like Don’t murder are divine/universal, not civil. That same divine nature of respect for life and creation extends to the world; progressive Jews are seeing the ancient call of Tikkun Olam to mean we must literally heal the world to confront head-on the usual scourges of poverty, illness, and violence, but also climate violence and environmental calamity. To me that means righting injustices big and small that disproportionally affect vulnerable populations.
2. Shabbat: Hit Pause, Y’all
With the flowering of mindfulness practice and mindfulness just as a buzzword, some Jewish scholars are calling on their peers to get the word out that, Hey, we invented that, too! It’s not just an eastern precept. Resting (abstaining from economic and physical labor for 24 hours), especially post-iPhone, really forces you to unwind, think about how you’re using your time, and refocus. It enables or forces connection, slowing down, breaking bread, building community, and getting the heck off of social media and the grinding news cycle. Want to improve your life and subsequently your household, community, and the world? Great place to start. Is it hard for me to give up my phone? Yep, working on it. But it feels so good when I do.
3. Ehad: One People, One Creator
The biggest revolution that ancient Judaism provided was the idea of a single G-d. The dueling, petty, multiple gods of every culture then and for some time after were projection; mankind is murderous, perpetually at war, and selfish. Suddenly a single deity—either as a he, she, it, they, or a concept like “the universe” if you prefer—had a single focus: to create and love humanity. There was no other g-d(dess) for them to spar with; the focus was on mankind, not some territorial pissing match between Greek figures on a mountaintop. Ehad was born; Israel is one, says the Shema, called Judaism’s most important and famous prayer. Except it isn’t a prayer, it’s directed at Israel. “Listen up, God-wrestlers,” goes my favorite translation by far. There is one G-d and Israel is one tribe. Band together now.
4. Lowercase ‘t’ torah: Study
Study, learning, growth, introspection, debate, and argument. These are expected. Woah! I grew up in a culture that said sure, study the Bible, and maybe there was a bit of wiggle room in interpretation in stories where the stakes were low. But the big stuff, like what is G-d? Here’s where I got into trouble. I was in the wrong classroom and culture and knew that at a pretty young age. Being a young queer intellectual puts you in a position to question most things, and now I have been embraced by a tradition that thrives on that! This is both daunting and fun!
I’m coming to terms with Torah with a capital ‘T’. Far more interesting and relevant to me is the Talmud, the stories, debates, and takes on the Torah written over the centuries by the first rabbis. It would take you years to read and it’s the bulk of the Jewish intellectual tradition.
5. Halakha: Just Do It
In Hebrew, halakha translates to something like “the way to walk” – “go” or “walk” work as verbs. Halakha encompasses Jewish law: the 613 mitzvot, rabbinic works, the Talmud, and customs. Orthodox Jews strictly follow halakha, that’s Judaism to them. Liberal Jews believe it goes further.
I’ve written before about “thoughts and prayers” culture. Judaism teaches that we’re G-d’s partner; if you ask G-d for something then expect them to do 100% of the work, you’ll be disappointed and not only that but you’re not doing your job. If you choose to personify G-d, fine! But why is she so quiet? Because you’re supposed to enact goodness and not just pray for it. In fact if you only pray for it and don’t do anything, you’re being selfish and lazy (IMO and perhaps paraphrasing the rabbis a bit). I’ll take it one step further: When we gripe, hope, and pray for a better world but don’t take steps big or small to make it happen, we’re actually creating a worse world. See #1 and repeat.
This is Teshuvah in action to me. I can’t ask g-d for forgiveness, I have to ask the human that I wrong. Similarly, I can’t just ask g-d to heal the sick or feed the hungry, I’m supposed to do it with my community and maybe just ask g-d for the strength and guidance to do it.
- You, too, can do Jewish. You can become Jewish, or you can do Jewish without converting. For an ancient practice that’s considered an ethno-religion, that’s fascinating! (And also necessary)
- No heaven, no hell. Kind of. There’s actually no mention of the afterlife in the capital-T Torah (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, the books of Moses). The focus is on the here-and-now to me, thought the rabbis do muse quite a lot (obsess maybe) on the World to Come.
- Never forget. Never Again is the reminder that terrible people will always try to do terrible things to some at-risk group. If it’s not us, we’re required to keep it from happening again.
- We’re not always right. Jews almost universally don’t believe there’s one path to g-d or goodness. We don’t believe in heaven as a reward, or that Judaism is the only path to it. As a result, with rare, odd exception, Jews don’t recruit.
- The 10 Commandments. I never thought I’d type these words, but this really was the first time basic civil rights were codified. You can’t kill or lie in court about someone, and the concept here is that these are g-d-given, inalienable rights, not just bestowed by who happens to wear the crown. These being commandments and not rights is, of course, an issue, but it was the necessary first step.
- The next thing. Something I don’t even know about yet!
And that’s my short list. That’s it! All of Judaism! You’re an expert now, like me! Oh, wait. There’s kind of a lot more.
Artist rendering of the Talmud