Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 22 January 2022 / 20 Shvat 5782

Judaism: Not Religion or Theology

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The circumstances of the giving of the Torah convey a great deal about the character of Torah, and of our relationship to it. In G-d’s preparatory words to Moshe, He explains that by virtue of the Torah the people will become a “kingdom of priests to Me, and a holy nation.” There is then a three day period of separation and sanctification to prepare for the great day. Moshe is instructed to set a boundary around the people and to warn them not to draw close to the mountain or touch any part of it.

One purpose of this separation was to establish for future generations that G-d remained in His place, opposite the people, and that His Word came to the people. In this way Judaism is fundamentally different than all other “religions.”

“Religion” stems from the hearts of people: their codes of law originate in the human mind and merely express their conceptions of deity, of human destiny, and of man’s relationship to deity and his fellow man that exist in a particular period of history. Like all other disciplines — language, science, art and philosophy — “religion” is subject to change with the passage of time, as its laws and practices are merely an expression of levels reached by civilization at a given time. Because it is only a marker, religion cannot undertake to raise and educate the nation from which it sprang, up to its own higher standard.

But Torah is not religion. It was given by G-d to the people, who stood at a distance, and required preparation to receive it. It was given from the untouchable, extraterrestrial sphere, and strict separation was maintained. As such, Torah presents the absolute ideals, and sets forth conceptions for all time about G-d and human affairs.

Far from having its genesis from within the people, this set of Laws was imposed on a stubborn, stiff-necked people, a people who struggled for centuries to impart and implement its truths. It is this imperfection of the Jewish People, and its repeated rebellions against Torah that attests to the Divine origin and uniqueness of Torah. It still remains an absolute, an ideal, towards which the people strive, and the Torah still awaits the age which will be fully ripe for its realization. The Torah has no development and no history; it is the Jewish People which has a history, and a development towards Torah. Torah does not have to catch up with the times. It is the times that have to catch up with Torah.

As much as Torah is not religion, it is also not theology. Despite the Divine, unchanging and supernatural nature of Torah, it has never been withheld from the layman and reserved for the gowned theologian. “Theology” contains the thoughts of man on G-d and things Divine, and results in complicated systems of theology, incomprehensible to the layman. But Torah contains the thoughts of G-d on man and human affairs. The Torah speaks not of the essence of G-d and the supernatural, but of what G-d is to us, and how we are to relate to Him and to each other. The Torah does not describe how things look in Heaven, but how they ought to look in our hearts and homes. And this is why the entire nation is to be a holy nation of priests, each member drawing the Torah’s wisdom into his personal sphere, wherever and whenever that sphere may be.

  • Source: Commentary, Shemot 19:10-13; Collected Writings I, pp. 183-186, 189-190

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