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The Ingredients of Judaism

10/07/2015 08:28:20 AM


Three Elements of Judaism - This sermon is based on an essay written by Rabbi Marc Angel with some additions and expansion of ideas by Rabbi Barry Gelman

Parshat Ha’azinu - 5776 - Sept. 26, 2015 - United Orthodox Synagogues


Jews do a lot of cooking this time of year, so I figured I would talk to you about recipes.

What are the ingredients of Judaism? If you had to boil down or reduce Judaism to its most basic ingredients, what would they

I suppose that there are many ways to answer this question.

Torah, Avodah, Gemillut Chassadim - Torah study, performance of Mitzvot, Acts of loving kindness.

Community, Family and Faith.

Perhaps we can answer the way the Rabbi did when asked by a student what to talk to his date with the first time they went out. He said: “Talk to her about the three “Fs” - Food, Family and Ph(f)ilosophy.

The young man sat down the his date and asked her: “Do you have a brother?” “No”, she said.

Moving on to the next “F”, he asked her, “do you like Kugel?” “No, she said.

Ok, he thought to himself that covers family and food, now on to the third “F”, philosophy.

“If you had a brother, do you think he would like Kugel?”

So, maybe family food and philosophy are the three ingredients of a full Jewish life.

Rabbi Marc Angel noted in an articel he wrote on Parshat Ha’azinu that “In his essay, “The Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Professor Gershom Scholem points to three tendencies within the spiritual life of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Angel explains:

“The “conservative” element stresses the need to maintain things as they’ve always been. It is manifested in a deep commitment to Jewish law and custom; it focuses on detail and ritual. This tendency wants to ensure stability and continuity. It worries that any change in the system can lead to the unraveling of the entire structure.

The “restorative” element longs for the “good old days.” It wants to renew our days as of old, to reestablish the kingdom of King David, to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Its underlying thought is that the greatest eras and personalities are in the past, and that our wish is to return to a past “Golden Age.”

The “utopian” element longs for a messianic era. It is characterized by spiritual restlessness and idealistic fervor. It contains within it bubbling emotions, and can be creative, nerve-wracking, even painful. It calls on us to change our focus from the safety of the past to the uncertainty of the future.”

Rabbi Angel also rightly notes that these three movements are not mutually exclusive.

“Throughout Jewish history, these three elements have reflected themselves in our religious lives. In some eras, one element has predominated; in other eras, another element has predominated. But all three have always been with us to some degree.

The challenge is to balance the claims of all three tendencies, and to develop a Jewish life that draws on the strengths of each.

“The “conservative” element maintains the religious structure of our daily lives. Without adherence to halakha on a regular basis, Judaism is sapped of its influence on our lives. It becomes a nostalgic pastime to be experienced on special occasions.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it well when he wrote: “The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action.” He goes on to compare Judaism to friendship. “Does friendship consist of mere emotion?...Is it not always in need of tangible, material means of expression.”

Judaism without Halacha, without a common code, becomes a matter of personal preference rather than a commitment to a divinely ordained way of life. We live the reality of God as creator and ultimate owner when we  renounce ownership and stop creative work for twenty - five hours each week. We declare with action that we are God’s partners in perfecting the world when we lend money without interest and we sanctify even our most human and seemingly non-spiritual aspects of life when we keep kosher and make blessings over food. Without Mitzvot Judaism loses it a ability to impact life.  

A prominent Jew once noted that he had not been in synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah. He was 65 years old when he said this and he explained why. He said that he once saw his father davening and when he asked his father what he was saying, his father said, “I have no idea, I just say this stuff because this is what my father said.” After he heard that, he said: “I walked out and I have not been back since.”

The truth is, I do not blame the man for not returning to synagogue.  If we cannot express why Mitzvot and davening and tradition are important and how they fill our lives with meaning, then they will fall out of use. It is not just tradition that we need, we must work to learn understanding and develop meaning for the things we do.

Next, Rabbi Angel teaches us that “The “restorative” reminds us that we indeed did enjoy “golden ages” and we did indeed produce great personalities. While we in fact do not want to return to the past, yet we can derive tremendous inspiration from the great events and personalities of Jewish history. If we can restore the best elements of our past, this can be a boon to us and to the future of our people.”

Related to the restorative element is the notion of role models. Role models play a central role in Judaism. Now, of course, we should not idealize the past, but there is great value in looking to our forebearers for inspiration. The terms Zaken - the word for old in hebrew is understood by the midrash to mean “Zeh Shekannah Chochmah” one who has acquired wisdom.

When Moshe needed help when Bnei Yisrael were on one of their complaining sprees, God tells Moshe:

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶסְפָה-לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, כִּי-הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו; וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ.

16 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with thee.


Elders here means those who are wise.

If the conservative approach teaches us to keep things as they are, and the nostalgic approach means looking back for wisdom, then the “utopian” approach asks us to look to the future.

“The “utopian” element reminds us that without the idealism and hopefulness of utopianism, we risk becoming mired in the past” and being satisfied with the present.

At the very heart of Judaism is a vision of perfection. We dream of a world where every person is recognized as a Tzelem Elokim - individual created in the image of God. We dream of a world where there is no hunger, no poverty, no war.

In fact, the dream of perfection that we have stems from our own experience - the Exodus from Egypt. For that moment in time, powers that exploited were defeated and the slave and the downtrodden were uplifted and given their full measure of dignity. Our responsibility is to recreate that moment for every needy person in the world.

It is true, we eagerly await the Messiah, but we must do more tha wait. We must create communities that model what life will be like in Messianic times. If we do that, without even realizing, we will create the messianic era. Until the Messiah comes, we must be the messiah.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read: ז זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם, בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר-וָדֹר;   שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.  

“Remember the days of old; think about the years of the past generations. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain to you.” (Devarim 32:7).

Rabbi Angel notes that this verse can be understood relating to these very three elements of Jewish life.

“Remember the days of old…” Tradition is vital to our wellbeing. By rooting ourselves in our traditions and teachings, we retain continuity with our past and we deepen our sense of rootedness and structure.”

Tradition and Halacha are the means by which we respond to God’s calls.

Ideas are turned to actions.

We put Torah to work.”

We must be to put Torah at the center. It must be the wellspring from where all of our decisions flow.

“Ask your father…” Rashi comments that “father” refers to our prophets. This is a nod to the restorative element. We lack prophecy today; yet we long for the “good old days” when we had divinely inspired prophets who could lead us, who could deliver direct messages from God. Lacking the presence of living prophets, we must depend on the words of the prophets as recorded in the Bible.

We also can look to role models - those who have acquired wisdom and those we look up to.  

Think about this. Studies show that when children are asked who their number one role model is, over 50% of them say a mother or a father. The kids who say that there number one role model is someone else(rock star, athlete etc) say that their mother or father is their number two or number three role model.  Our kids look to us as role models.

We have to live the life we want our kids to emulate. We can’t just tell them how to be, we have to model it for them. Then they will follow our lead.

Finally, “Your elders…” Rashi comments that “elders” refers to our sages. The hallmark of a genuine sage is wisdom to apply ancient teachings to the needs of the current generation. Historically, our greatest sages have also been the most utopian. “

Our Rabbis had wildly utopian hopes and dreams for the future.

Here is but one representative example of the utopian view the Rabbis had of messianic times.

The context is a conversation on whether or not one is permitted to carry a weapon on shabbat, potentially violating certain technical prohibitions.




R. ELIEZER SAID: THEY ARE ORNAMENTS FOR HIM. It was taught: Said they [the Sages] to R. Eliezer: Since they are ornaments for him, why should they cease in the days of the Messiah? Because they will not be required, he answered, as it is said, nation shall not lift up sword against nation…”

This is an fiercely utopian and optimistic statement about what the future will bring and it represents the view of what the future holds in store for humanity - a world without war or violence.  

We need all three tendencies to create a vibrant, lively and inspirational Judaism.

A Judaism that is only focused on the “conservative” aspect of the Jewish faith lacks imagination and is too rigid for many.

If all we base our Judaism on is the “restorative” element - thinking our best years are behind us, they our faith becomes irrelevant.

And, if we are hyper focused on the “utopian” aspect of Judaism then our religion becomes disconnected from reality and fails to act as a unifier.

As Rabbi Angel says to conclude his essay: “In truth, we need all three elements and we need to balance them wisely. This was true of the Jewish past. It is true for the Jewish present. It is the foundation of the Jewish future.


Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780