Select Page

Judaism’s Unique Challenge

“You shall be wholehearted with the Eternal your God,” is a verse from this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shofim. This charge is tucked away in the middle of this week’s reading. Easily overlooked, since it is only five Hebrew words, this short verse packs a punch and sheds great light on the Torah’s entire philosophy of life.

The context of this verse makes a clear distinction between the religious outlook of Judaism and any other religious system. Of course, at the time of its writing, the Torah was referencing the Canaanite nations living in the land of Israel. Yet the same attitudes and approaches to life deplored by the text of Torah are extant today in our modern society. They are prevalent even amongst our fellow coreligionists.   Judaism, however, despite certain actions by many of its practitioners, remains the only religious system with its realistic, albeit often misunderstood way of life. What is our approach to life that makes the Jewish religion not only unique but at times difficult to embrace?

In his code of law, the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides (the Rambam) describes the various practices of idol worshippers. In chapter 11 he lists practices we are all familiar with, good luck charms, omens, avoiding a black cat, consulting your horoscope before acting, and the like.  To paraphrase the Rambam 11:16, “…. all of these practices are false, lies and empty of any truth. It is not fitting for Israel, who has produced the world’s greatest thinkers, scholars and scientists to follow such emptiness.  All people with wisdom know with clear proofs that these practices and ideas are devoid of any truth. And so the Torah warned us, ‘Be wholehearted with the Eternal your God.’”

Let us examine this directive. We must ask ourselves, why are these false notions so appealing? What makes them so attractive to us that we live our lives by them?  Can you imagine but a former president of the USA and his wife, people of our modern civilization, consulted astrologers before making decisions.  True and frightening!

The appeal of idolatry, astrology and alike are grounded in human psychology. We have powerful fears and live with tremendous uncertainty.  Concerns over physical health and financial wherewithal are just two major worries always lurking in our minds.  We are looking for shortcuts, pathways through life that will by-pass these obstacles. To accomplish this desire people invent and then project their man-made systems onto reality.  These systems are in fact pure fantasy. Fantasy is alluring and captures our imagination, removing us from our daily routine, struggles and problems.

The Torah, as understood by the Rambam and our other great sages, suggests the only true way through life is to confront reality with knowledge. Knowledge not only informs but it also empowers. To be sure the process of gaining knowledge is slow and tedious requiring hard work and expenditure of energy. There is no shortcut but this way is true and certain. 

The Torah never asks anyone to accept foolishness as a way of life. On the contrary, the core of our religion is “…study outweighs all of the mitzvoth.”  The word study implies there is something to learn and to know. True this approach to life is not as appealing to our psychology as is perhaps saying a magic formula or waving a wand. But the Torah’s approach to life is the only realistic one for man. It requires that you must study and progress in science, for example, to know what causes thunder and lightning. Learning how the physical world really works also requires the study of mathematics, an involved study on its own. This endeavor is not so glamorous; there are no shortcuts. But it is the only way to truth. Only in this way does a person develop a realistic relationship with God.  A truly amazing world that displays the wisdom of the Creator becomes accessible. 

The same infinite wisdom of the Creator that emerges from the proper study of the physical world is manifest in every one of the 613 mitzvot.  Hence we must apply the same process to attain a relationship to God via the religious realm. This is the unique and most singular message of our entire Torah. The Rambam makes this point abundantly clear in “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Book 3, Chapter 37. There he states, “It is the object and center of the whole Torah to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it…” Why? Because idol worship in all of its forms is premised upon the antithesis of a having a rational, knowledgeable relationship to God. 

Unfortunately, many of our fellow Jews fall victim to this same attitude and approach to mitzvot and the religious practices of Judaism. Putting messages into the Kotel or leaving them in a box at gravesite of a rabbi, wearing a red thread on your wrist, and checking the mezuzot when someone in the house gets ill are modern versions of the same activities the Rambam says the Torah rails against.   What does the Rambam say? “…they relate to the words of the Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as it says in Proverbs (3:22) ‘They shall be life for the soul.’” (Laws of Idol Worship 11:12 and Laws of Mezuzah 5:4)

 The verse, “Be wholehearted with the Eternal your God,” is the key to unlocking the door separating man from his Creator. It is this path to God that makes clear the distinction between Judaism and all other religious systems. 

At Posnack Day School we strive to imbue our students with true security that comes from understanding the knowledge and wisdom of God displayed in His two creations, the Torah and the physical world. Our students can then express real joy, love and gratitude to God that comes from being “wholehearted with the Eternal your God.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan