- The essence, the main principle
Judaism has a universal world view that sees the purpose of humanity in general and the Jewish people in particular as G-d’s agents to transform the world into a “dwelling place for G-d.”
In simple language this means that we must do everything possible to inhabit, civilize refine the world in which we live. Concurrently, the role of Judaism for the Jewish nation is to bring G-dly and spiritual illumination to the world. This is accomplished primarily through the performance of the MItzvos—the Divine commandments (of which there are 613), the study of Torah (which encompasses all of Jewish knowledge, that are all rooted in the Torah) and prayer.
Judaism is a “religion” based on a foundation of faith and a structure of study, action, and prayer.
Faith is seen as the foundation of Judaism, without which the structure could not endure. Action represents the structure of Judaism. To have faith without action is like building a structure with only a foundation; it is pointless. Conversely, a building—no matter how functional—without a foundation will not endure.
Torah study and prayer are the way we cement our relationship with G-d and endow our actions with meaning, depth, light, energy and soul. Torah, Divine wisdom, given to us by G-d is experienced as G-d’s allowing us to “pick His brain.” It is also viewed as G-d’s “love letter” to us.
In short, Judaism sees us as G-d’s agents to fulfill a mission of transforming the world intoa “dwelling place for G-d.”
- The concept of G-d
G-d is simultaneously understood as the Creator of the universe who both transcends His own creation and is intimately a part of it.
When we say that He transcends the universe, we mean that a) G-d does not have to be a Creator; G-d has no need to create. b) G-d remains inscrutable. We cannot fathom or describe G-d in any way. Logic is one of His creations and we cannot demand to make G-d conform to something He created. This does not just mean we cannot understand G-d because He is too deep, infinitely so, but because He is beyond the very concept of understanding and logic.
However, G-d, chose to create a world. He also chose to be involved in His world and is within every aspect of existence. He even chooses to allow us to understand some of what He does and why He does it.
While G-d interacts with the world through His attributes, His attributes do not define Him; they merely define His actions and relationship with our universe.
G-d’s involvement in creation is more than just a compassionate father who looks after His children. The universe could not even exist for a fleeting moment without G-d’s continuous creation of each and every atom in the universe.
G-d, while preferring to have the world run according to the laws of nature that He invested within creation, is obviously not bound by those laws and can and does perform miracles.
Arguably, the most important tenet of Judaism is the belief in one G-d. This negates any form of polytheism, dualism, trinity, or any conception of G-d which sees any power outside of G-d or any composition within G-d. Moreover, the belief in one G-d also entails the belief that there is nothing besides G-d. This means that all of existence is either a manifestation of G-d’s creative powers or a manifestation of His power to conceal His presence. Hence even where G-d seems to be absent; that too is a manifestation of His ability to be present and be totally concealed at the same time.
Although G-d is the exclusive power in the world, no non-human creature—including angels (which includes Satan)—has any independent power, Satan can do no more an no less than that which G-d allows and empowers him to do. In short, angels, the sun, the moon and all the forces of nature, have absolutely no power and may therefore not be revered and worshipped.
Humans, by contrast, were given this special power of free choice. Therefore we do have a right to show reverence to human beings for their good choices.
These human beings that have so elevated themselves through the continual right choices have become the “intermediaries” that help us cement our relationship with G-d. The power to do so is not because of their power; rather it is because they have renounced their egos by devoting their lives totally to G-d’s will. They have therefore voluntarily made themselves into G-d’s intermediaries by being transparent thus allowing G-d’s presence to flow through them into the world. Our connection to these holy people—much like Moses and Aaron—helps us to feel G-d’s presence. In the end, we are connected directly to G-d because they are totally transparent and do not serve as a barrier or even as our agents and proxies. They assist us in developing a direct relationship with G-d.
To the extent that they claim to have their own independent power they actually become a barrier between us and G-d because they too are distant from Him.
- Faith and spirituality
As mentioned in #1, faith is viewed as Judaism’s very foundation. Contrary to the myth that Judaism does not put the emphasis on faith, Judaism—especially within the Chassidic approach—faith is Judaism’s most fundamental component.
The kernel of truth in the assertion that faith is secondary is the notion that Judaism views faith as the beginning and not the end. The objective of faith is to act in a manner that is consistent with that faith. For one to have faith in G-d and behave in an immoral fashion misses the entire point of Judaism. We are here in this world not to just have faith, for the soul before it descended into the physical world certainly had faith in G-d. Our souls descended to make a difference by living our lives in ways that are in consonance with that faith.
And while faith is the foundation of Jewish practice, one can have faith—sincere faith and not act accordingly. The Talmud describes a hypothetical scenario wherin a thief prays to G-d to be successful while he is about to break and enter the victims’ property.
This might appear to be an example of hypocrisy, but if we think for a moment, who is the thief trying to impress? Chassidic thought concludes that his faith may actually be sincere. Moreover, if he didn’t have faith in G-d’s goodness he might not feel comfortable stealing because of the possibility of being caught. The irony here is that it is faith that causes the individual to behave contrary to G-d’s will.
The explanation of this phenomenon is that faith is a peripheral emotion. It represents one layer of our consciousness which may or may not filter down into our conscious mind. Put another way, faith lies at the core of our soul. It may or may not percolate to the surface and manifest itself in our outer faculties of speech and action. Faith must be harnessed to our conscious self the way a locomotive must be harnessed to the other cars in order for them to move.
In Judaism there are many principles of faith. According to Maimonides, there are 13 principles of faith. It should be noted that although there are other classical authorities who dispute the number 13, their disagreement concerns the characterization of these articles of faith as fundamental principles. They do not contest the 13 principles inclusion in Judaism, nor do they dispute their significance.
Among the principles of faith, Maimonides lists the belief in one G-d. This belief Jews affirm many times daily with the recitation of the verse: “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.” These immortal words were on the lips of countless Jews who were murdered because of their fidelity to the Jewish faith. Even in the most “G-d forsaken” times, such as the Holocaust, thousands of Jews went to their death proudly and defiantly declaring their faith in one G-d.
Among the other principle of faith is the one that negates any physical form for G-d; that He pre-existed creation and will live forever; that He alone may be worshipped, no intermediaries. The remaining principles will be discussed later.
Faith is but one aspect of one’s spiritual connection to G-d. Judaism also demands that we develop an entire set of emotions in the way we relate to G-d. These emotions include primarily love and reverence, In order to acquire these feelings one must engage in protracted meditation concerning G-d’s existence and His presence in our lives.
The Jewish belief is that we possess a soul. The soul, a part of G-d, is the source of our existence and was sent from its heavenly perch to inhabit a physical body.
The degree to which each soul expresses an altruistic, selfless and G-dly nature is in direct proportion to the mission each individual has in changing the world. There are people whose souls are “on fire” who have a greater potential to affect the world, and affect it in greater measure, than others. But, everyone has the spiritual potential to make a difference.
The mind is not synonymous with the soul; it is but one aspect of our personality. However, it is the one that is most receptive to picking up the messages sent to us by our soul.
Now, since our souls are not physical entities but a spark of the Divine this spark or flame—depending on the nature of the person’s mission and the resources needed for fulfilling it, the soul can never die. After death the soul returns to its heavenly source and lives forever in a state of G-dly bliss..
- Rituals, worshiping and celebrations
Judaism puts the greatest emphasis on action. More specifically it refers to the action involved in the performance of the Mitzvot. The word Mitzvah (singular) or Mitzvot (plural) is commandment(s). Contrary to a common misconception the word Mitzvah is not translated as a good deed. While every G-dly commandment is, by definition, a good deed, the word Mitzvah conveys a far more profound concept. The phrase for good deeds in Hebrew is “Ma’asim Tovim”
On the surface, one may equate the performance of a Mitzvah with the term ritual. In truth a Mitzvah is much more than just a ritual. It is the way we affirm our commitment to G-d. By abiding by His commandments we demonstrate our utter devotion to His will, even if we do not understand the meaning of the Mitzvah.
Furthermore, the word Mitzvah is cognate to the word tzavta that means a connection or a bonding between two entities. When we perform a Mitzvah we thereby create a connection between ourselves and G-d.
Even a cursory analysis would force us to come to the conclusion that it is impossible for a finite being to have a real relationship with an Infinite G-d. The only way we can bridge the gap between the Divine and the mortal is by us doing what He asks us to do. The mere fact that we were commanded by G-d to do something establishes a relationship. It expresses G-d’s desire to connect with us and have us do something for Him. That relationship is cemented when we actually perform the Mitzvah; that creates the link between us and G-d in the opposite direction.
There are many other functions of each and every Mitzvah. A Mitzvah is also the instrument through which we transform the world into a civilized and refined world, thereby contributing to G-d’s plan for creation; to make this physical world into a dwelling place for Him. In addition, each Mitzvah has the capacity to refine our own character. Since we are physical creatures, each and every time we perform a Divine act; it inspires, and conditions us to be me more G-dly.
Along with the Mitzvos which are G-dly actions, Judaism puts much emphasis on prayer, which is the means through which we express our emotions towards G-d. Prayer, although vocalized for greater effect, is a profound meditative experience, in which we work on creating or expressing latent emotions for G-d.
Likewise, our celebratory events—Jewish Holidays—are intended to express our deepest feelings for G-d; our gratitude to Him for all of the miracles that sustained us.
In addition, Holidays were designed by G-d as times to experience genuine feelings of joy.
Judaism views joy and celebrations as integral parts of serving G-d consistent with the words of Psalm 100: “Serve G-d with joy.”
- Meditations, reflections, interpretations and mysticism.
One of the principle meditations in Judaism, particularly, within the Chassidic tradition—which places an even greater emphasis on meditation—is on the oneness of G-d. Based on the Talmud, the meditation when reciting the last word of the Shema (Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d the L-rd is one”) “One,” which in Hebrew is echad, is as follows:
The first letter of the word echad is an Aleph (parallel to the letter A). The meaning of the word Aleph is “master.” It is also the number one (inasmuch as in classical Hebrew there are no separate numbers. Numbers are represented by letters). Hence the first letter of the word echad expresses the notion of G-d’s role as the exclusive Master of the universe.
The second letter of the word echad is the letter chet. The numerical value of this letter is 8 and it alludes to the seven heavens and the earth. The final letter of the word echad is a dalet, (equivalent to the letter d) and has the numerical value of four. This alludes to the four directions; north, south, east and west.
Now, when we put the entire meditation together it makes the following declaration: G-d is the exclusive Master in all of the six directions (i.e. 7 heavens and the earth up and all of the four directions). Not only is G-d one where there is no creation; G-d is still one and exclusive even after creation. Creation did not detract one iota from His oneness.
Some say that the Jewish Star known as the Magen David is a pictorial representation of the theme of echad because it has six points all connected by a core that represents the Divine that permeates all six directions.
Another meditation concerns the love G-d has for us. Despite the fact that G-d transcends all of existence, defies all definitions and does not have any need for us, He nevertheless chose to “lower” Himself and enter our lives every time we study Torah or perform a Mitzvah. Conversely, every time we transgress it is comparable to taking a mighty king who devotes his entire life to provide us with all of our needs and putting his head in the mud.
Jewish mysticism is a discipline that acknowledges that there is more to existence than just the physical world. For every physical object or phenomenon there is a spiritual counterpart. Kabbalah, which is the name for Jewish mysticism, describes four spiritual worlds that co-exist with our own physical world. These worlds form the bridge between the Divine – who transcends any of the spiritual worlds just as He transcends the physical—and us.
Jewish mysticism, with its focus on bridges the gap between the Divine and the physical, acknowledges the importance of combining a spiritual experience with the practical aspects of Judaism.
However, it should be noted, Judaism in general and Kabbalah and Chassidism in particular, do not equate G-d with spirituality. Spirituality just like physicality is a creation of G-d. If one lives a totally spiritual existence by denying oneself all but the most basic needs to survive and dedicates every moment to meditating, he or she is not necessarily closer to G-d that than the hedonists who does nothing else other than indulging in the most sybaritic pursuits. G-d does not want spirituality per se; He wants us to transcend ourselves and our nature by doing what He asks us to do, whether spiritual or physical. Following one’s passion for spirituality can often be self-serving. One can be a spiritual hedonist. Judaism is about being G-dly by doing not only that which is fulfilling to us but what is “fulfilling to G-d.
Having said that, Kabbalah does ascribe much importance to the spiritual realm as a means to endow the actions we do and the Mitzvot we perform with greater feeling, inspiration and soul. The relationship between the Mitzvah act and the spiritual energy generated is like that of the soul to the body. A body cannot exist without a soul, but a disembodied soul cannot possibly accomplish anything in this physical world.
- Perception of the Universe
The Universe is viewed as a breathtaking testimony to the presence of a Creator. The vastness and multifarious nature of the Universe is used as a meditation in our prayers as a means to extol G-d’s greatness.
However, Chassidic philosophy simultaneously emphasizes the nothingness of the entire Universe in relation to G-d. From His perspective the entire Universe is not even like a speck of dust. This premise is based on the fact that: a) the Universe is finite and G-d is infinite. For G-d who is infinite the entire universe rates no more than a speck of dust. b) the entire existence of the Universe is dependent on G-d’s continuously creating it. If G-d were to withdraw His creative energy for one fleeting moment the world would revert to nothingness just as it was “prior” to its creation. Hence the Universe has no independent existence of its own. What we perceive as a vast Universe is actually G-d’s energy.
However, Chassidism does not believe that the world is an illusion and a deception. Physical existence, the way we perceive it, is also part of G-d’s plan. G-d wants us to live within a physical world and uncover the ultimate reality that it is all G-d’s creative power. Even the concealment of His presence from us is a manifestation of G-d’s power to conceal Himself, the purpose of which is to discover the reality the way it is from His perspective. We uncover the underlying truth by way of living a G-dly life, which is, as stated above, following the commandments that are G-dly actions not just goodly actions.
Based on the above, and contrary to certain secular philosophies, the Jewish belief is that the Universe had a beginning. It was created by a Creator and continues to be molded and formed by G-d. Even if one was to accept the theory of evolution, it could not have happened without G-d giving the forces of nature the ability to evolve. It should be noted that while one cannot accept evolution without G-d; one can accept G-d without evolution. G-d could very easily have created a fully mature world and human being without having to go through a process that takes billions or even millions of years.
- The interactions and relationships of God and humans
While G-d is infinite and we are finite, G-d chose to interact with us by a) creating us with a purpose; b) informing us about that purpose; c) allowing us to have a relationship with Him; d) rewarding us when we conform to His wishes and plan.
Judaism believes that every human being can have a relationship with G-d but only on His terms. We cannot decide on our own how G-d will connect to us or how we will connect with G-d. The sin of the Golden calf was precisely that. When Moses, the G-d designated intermediary between Him and the people, was thought to have disappeared, an element of the people created a golden calf. Commentators explain that initially it was not intended as a replacement for G-d but rather a replacement for Moses. In other words, they decided that the golden calf will become G-d’s method of interacting with the people in place of Moses.
That was considered a mortal sin even if they did not intend it as a replacement for G-d. The reason it was considered such a breach of faith is because only G-d could determine the means and method of His communicating with us. If we declare that our own efforts will substitute for G-d given commandments to foster a relationship with Him thereby “pigeon holing” G-d into that mechanism, it is tantamount to idolatry.
Judaism believes—and it is one of the 13 Principles of Faith espoused by Maimonides—that G-d does communicate with people.
This communication takes several forms:
The most forceful and fundamental communication G-d has ever had, and will never be replaced or superseded by any other communication—not even in the Messianic Age—is the revelation at Mount Sinai.
At that time G-d revealed to the world its purpose, and that He intended that purpose for all times, never to be abrogated or replaced with another system.
At Mount Sinai, G-d spoke not only to a prophet, but to an entire nation numbering an estimated two to three million souls. Although they heard only the so-called “Ten Commandments” (more accurately the Ten Statements), they witnessed G-d summoning of Moses to the mountain to receive the balance of the commandments.
Judaism also believes that G-d communicated with many prophets. However, a prophet, no matter how great, cannot change any of the teachings given at Mount Sinai. In the Book of Deuteronomy there is a clear passage that deals with the attempt of some prophets to utilize their incredible abilities to alter the law. Even if they perform miracles, the Torah exhorts us, we may not follow their instructions if they lead us astray from G-d. In fact, the Torah attaches the death penalty to a prophet who tries to do just that.
The purpose of prophecy then is to a) exhort the people to be more faithful to the Torah; b) to admonish them and convey G-d’s threats to them if the people do not shape up; c) to instruct us about certain courses of actions that are not mandated or forbidden by the Torah.
The prophet must be a highly spiritual individual whose entire being is dedicated to G-d and His commandments.
Although the era of prophecy has come to an end at the time the second Temple was built—the last prophets being Chagai, Zecharia, and Malachi, the existence of prophecy did not cease. Even in our own day and age there are individuals who we believe G-d’s communicates with and through whom He conveys His message for us. and through them. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is a prime example of a man whose prophetic pronouncements are well known, and the thousands of miracles he performed, and continues to perform, are legendary.
Although most people are not endowed with prophetic abilities, they can nevertheless communicate with G-d through prayer.
G-d also communicates with us as well in an indirect way. The Talmud states that there are “heavenly voices” that emerge from Mount Sinai daily that encourage us to “return to G-d.” According to Chassidic doctrine these voices are heard by the unconscious soul that relays it to the conscious mind. We feel these communications whenever we feel a spontaneous sense of inspiration or guilt or a desire to become a better person. Those fleeting sensations must be harnessed immediately to action otherwise these communications with their inspiration will dissipate and will be wasted on us.
- The purpose of life
As stated several times above, the purpose of life has been set forth by G-d in the Torah. The Torah encompasses all of the Biblical works (referred to by some as the Old Testament, but Jews chafe at this characterization, because it is believed to be as new and relevant to all times and, as stated above, will never be abrogated or replaced) and the Oral tradition that was handed down to and through Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down orally from generation to generation.
The purpose of life is to align ourselves with G-d’s will by making the greatest effort to put into practice these commandments.
The above is summed up in a Talmudic expression: “I was created exclusively to serve my Maker.”
Chassidic thought looks at every aspect of creation and sees it in terms of its ultimate purpose. Our physical world is divided into four categories: Inanimate, vegetation, animal and human. The purpose of every aspect of creation is to be elevated to a higher level. So when we plant a seed in the soil (inanimate) and it grows food (vegetation) which feeds the animal, each one of those levels is elevated to a higher form of life. However, the purpose of these three levels is to be elevated and incorporated into the human being, which is the highest form of life.
What then is the human being’s role if he or she is already at the top of the ladder? Is it to serve one another or a lower form of existence? That would mean that the process of elevation has stopped.
Chassidic thought explains that the purpose of humanity is to be elevated into the G-dly.
Within the general and overall purpose there are differences between people depending on and commensurate with the resources they were given. The mission does vary from nation to nation and from individual to individual. Each and every creature has its own potential. One should therefore not strive to be someone else but to be himself or herself by actualizing his or her own potential.
There is a story of the great Chassidic Master known as Reb Zushe of Anipoli who once declared: “I have no fear when I reach the heavenly courts if they ask me ‘why were you not like Moses or Abraham.’ I will give them an easy answer; I will say, I was not Moses or Abraham. What I fear is if they ask me ‘why weren’t you Zushe?’ For that I have no answer…”
Judaism believes that all of humanity was chosen for a mission to make the world a dwelling place for G-d, as discussed earlier. This is a universal mission. However, generally speaking, humanity as a whole is charged with the responsibility to make the world a stable and civilized planet. Towards this goal there are seven Noahide commandments, to be listed below.
The Jewish people were selected from among all of the nations to perform 613 commandments through which they introduce G-dly energy and light into the world. Anyone who feels that he or she wants to be part of this specialized and more challenging mission can convert to Judaism.
When G-d created Adam and Eve, He tested them. When they failed the test, G-d “waited” for another human being to come along with whom He could make a special contract (read: Covenant) that would give the human race the ability to change the world – to make the world into G-d’s “Palace.” Ten generations elapsed between Adam and Noah. Noah was a righteous person who was saved from the flood that destroyed the world, but Noah—despite his qualities—did not exhibit the quality that was necessary to influence and inspire others to follow in his footsteps. Meanwhile, to “maintain” the world, G-d told Noah and his sons that there are seven basic rules that he and his progeny must follow, to ensure basic stability in this world. We will discuss these laws – known as the Seven Noahide Laws—later.
G-d “waited” another ten generations, until, Abraham emerged as an individual who was not only righteous, but who was prepared to give his life in the dissemination of the message that there is one G-d, and that the world is not a jungle. G-d had finally found the person, who, of his own volition, accepted G-d and His objective for the world.
G-d then proceeded to make a covenant with Abraham, promising him that his descendants will become a nation to whom G-d will entrust His Master Plan for the universe; the plan that will enable us to transform the world into a “dwelling Place for G-d ” To facilitate their mission, G-d would give them the Land of Israel—the Holy Land—to serve as a model for the rest of the world, how to build a “palace” for G-d.
After living through Egyptian Bondage—where they would get a taste of the pressures of assimilation and persecution they would have to endure in the future—they were liberated by G-d through Moses and given the Torah-the Master Plan at Mount Sinai.
This Master Plan had something in it for everyone. For the Jewish people it represented a comprehensive way of life, with a code that comprised 613 commandments. Every facet of life was to be governed by another of G-d’s commandments.
For the rest of the human race, G-d had reiterated the seven principles, or seven Noahide commandments, that guarantee that the world will be a civilized, clean and good world. All of this is a prerequisite for the world becoming a G-dly world; a world in which everyone can see G-d’s presence without any obstructions.
The seven Noahide commandments are:
a) The prohibition against idolatry; having multiple gods.
b) The prohibition against blasphemy; blaming and cursing G-d for ones misfortunes.
c) The prohibition against stealing in all of its forms and shapes.
d) The prohibition against murder, including abortion
e) The prohibition against sexual immorality, including adultery, incest, homosexual acts, bestiality.
f) The prohibition against eating an animal without first killing it, a practice that was presumably common in ancient times, but exemplifies gross insensitivity towards G-d’s other creatures.
g) The commandment to establish a judicial and legislative system that would enforce the laws and legislate new laws to deal with the growing needs of society.
So the Jewish people and the rest of the human race were given parallel responsibilities: The Jewish nation was given the responsibility of bringing G-dliness into every aspect of life by observing the 613 commandments. The nations of the world were given the responsibility to ensure that the world is a civilized and decent world. Otherwise all other efforts at inviting G-d into our world will prove futile. G-d would not dwell in a world that is not fit. Both efforts are crucial for the fulfillment of G-d’s Master Plan.
Moreover, after the Revelation at Sinai, the observance of the Seven Noahide Commandments are not just intended for “maintenance” purposes, but they are a pivotal part of G-d’s Master plan. Hence, it is not enough for people to observe these laws because they were given to Noah, but they must be observed because they are part of G-d’s communication at Sinai.
Within each and every nation or group there are more specific functions that are best suited to that group. And within each group, each individual has his or her unique contribution based on his or her potential.
How do we know what our specific mission is?
There are two paradoxical “tests” or indications. The first is whenever we see that a certain positive area of endeavor really gets us excited; we can assume that it is our soul’s special mission.
Conversely, and ironically, whenever a certain project or required mode of behavior is met with stiff resistance on our part, despite the relative ease that is involved, it may be a telltale sign that this is the direction charted for our soul to fulfil its specific mission. The more crucial something is for us the greater the forces of evil/negativity mount a fierce resistance to its execution. Overcoming the challenge and resistance is one integral part of the mission.
- Fulfillment of life
By living one’s life in accordance with G-d’s dictates the Human being ceases to be just a mortal who is no more than a sophisticated animal and has now entered into the realm of the Divine. This represents a quantum leap for the human being. When we help another human being and thereby empower him or her to better serve G-d that elevates us as well.
This constitutes the fulfillment of our life’s purpose and mission.
There is yet another salient point here. If the purpose of every life form and every existent being is to be elevated into a higher form, when a human being utilizes a lower form to help enhance his or her relationship with G-d one thereby elevates all the other life forms and the resources that go into their sustenance and production into a G-dly existence. Human beings by their proper behavior elevate and instil meaning into everything.
If, on the other hand, if we are totally self-centered and use our talents just to advance our physical and material existence, we thwart the very purpose for which our souls descended into this world. In addition, we will also degrade all the resources that went into our sustenance and all of our talents rather than elevated.
As mentioned above, when we recognize what our specific mission is and pursue it even in face of difficulty, we will have fulfilled our soul’s mission in this world. If we fail and come short, one of the remedies is for the soul to return to this world in another incarnation (yes, Judaism believes in incarnation). The goal then is for the person to rectify and complete that which was wanting the first time he was down here.
It should be emphasized that Judaism—particularly in Chassidic tradition—does not want us to shun the material world. Our goal is to use all of the material benefits and pleasures for the fulfillment of our mission to make the world a G-dly abode. In the process we harness technology and all of the modern changes and use them as tools to change the world.
- Goodness, kindness, wrong and evil
Good and evil are concepts that only make sense with the belief that G-d is the one who makes those determinations. In other words, the reason it is wrong to steal, for example, is because it was prohibited by G-d. Once G-d forbids it, it becomes inherently and absolutely wrong.
If theft were to be rejected strictly on the grounds that it is anti-social or that it goes against Natural Law, we would always find someone who could make a relativistic argument. In the secular conception of good and evil nothing is absolute; virtually everything is grey and situational. Only a belief in an absolute G-d who does not change produces an ethical system that can never be abrogated.
This does not mean that Judaism does not recognize exceptions to the general rule, such as it is permissible to steal or even kill someone in self-defense. However, these “exceptions” are themselves based on the Torah. The original law was given with the understanding that there are extenuating circumstances which allow for the suspension of the prohibition. We cannot use our own intellect to rationalize away a Biblical commandment.
Goodness is usually used to describe acts of kindness. Acts of kindness include charity, extending a loan to someone in need; visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourners etc.
However, the Talmud discusses the preeminence of acts of kindness over giving charity. The Talmud offers three reasons: a) Charity involves one’s resources; kindness involves one’s body. b) Charity is only to the poor; acts of kindness are to rich and poor alike; c) Charity is only for the living; acts of kindness are for the living and the dead.
And even charity is measured by the degree to which one expresses kindness and exertion to help the other. Kindness is not just writing out a check once a year to an organization.
According to Maimonides, elaborated on in Chassidic literature, giving frequently does more for the donor than the amount given. Every charitable and kind act refines the person who does it. (Certainly, one’s own refinement takes a back seat to the needs of the recipient. However, where the needs will be addressed either way it is preferable to give in increments so as to condition and refine ourselves by acts of kindness.)
Chassidic thought also focuses on a Talmudic passage that suggests that the person who performs acts of kindness receives more than the person who is the recipient of that kindness.
The rationale behind that is: When one gives to another, that person is fulfilling His G-d given purpose for which he or she was created, and becomes G-d’s partner in this world. In effect, the act of charity and kindness validates our very existence and makes us worthy of living. The recipient is merely living; the donor makes a life out of his giving and living.
- Do’s and Don’ts, sins and redemption
The Torah contains within it 613 Commandments. Of these, 248 are “positive” or prescriptive commandments, which dictate what we ought to do. The remaining 365 commandments are “negative” or proscriptive; telling us what we are forbidden to do.
Both categories are needed to make our life’s journey complete.
The 248 positive commandments serve to bring G-dly energy into each and every limb of our body. Indeed, the Talmud states that these 248 correspond to the number of bones/organs that we have.
In addition, insofar as the world is concerned, each and every Mitzvah that we perform brings the world closer to having reversed the process of creation in which G-d creates a vacuum and space for us to exist that is devoid of His presence. The Mitzvah regenerates G-dly energy into this void. And when we reach “critical mass” the world will have reached the stage of perfection at which time the Moshiach will usher in the Messianic Age, when the entire world will see the fruit of its labor and G-d’s presence will be manifest for all.
The negative commandments also serve two functions:
Insofar as the individual who is tempted to act in a sinful manner and resists that temptation, it has the capacity to refine the person in ways that even exceed the degree of refinement involved in a positive act because it elicits a tremendous force that derives from the inner core of our soul.
In addition, insofar as the world is concerned, the Zohar, the principle work of Jewish mysticism, states that whenever a person suppresses the impulse to do a forbidden act, he generates a surge of a transcendent G-dly energy. Unlike the more conventional and subdued form of energy we generate through the observance of positive actions, the avoidance of the negative under pressure elicits an unconventional Divine force.
The advantage of the positive over the negative is that the positive act becomes the “receptacle” that enables us to integrate and internalize that energy. The transcendent light generated by resisting temptation cannot be internalized as easily because it is so utterly beyond us and there is no “instrument” through which it can be accessed. It, more or less, hovers above us and affects us indirectly.
When we violate these two areas of G-dly endeavor (by sins of commission or omission) it does two things: First it distances us from G-d because our transgression is an act of rebellion. Second, with regard to sins of commission, it creates a defect in our soul. The soul becomes less receptive to G-d and spirituality in general.
A person is not locked into that state of alienation and spiritual degradation. The Torah provides for personal redemption. It is called Teshuvah, which is generally mistranslated as “repentance” but actually means return.
The term “return” implies that the core of the person is pure and good. The natural state of the human being—and of the world—is positive. This may be referred to as “original virtue.” The sin is a superimposed aberration on the pristine pure and holy essence of the world and humanity in particular. Man and woman were created by G-d and placed in the Garden of Eden to dramatize the fact that our world is inherently a garden. Sin is the aberration not the default position of the human being. Thus, when a person “does” Teshuvah they are “merely” returning and restoring his or her original goodness and holiness.
Teshuvah is a multi-tiered experience. On the simplest level it entails sincere resolve for the future. The one who does Teshuvah resolves never to do the sin again. On the highest level, Teshuvah involves the generation of such passion to reconnect to G-d that the person reaches an infinitely higher level than he would had he not sinned. This idea is captured by the phrase coined by Talmudic Sages: “The place where the Ba’al Teshuvah stands, the perfectly righteous cannot.” And it is this dimension of Teshuvah—the one motivated by intense love to return to G-d—about which the Talmud declares that the sins are transformed into virtues. This is so because the sin becomes the fuel that creates a far greater love and passion for G-d and fuels the incredible dynamic of return.
In Judaism there is no person and no time that is beyond Teshuvah. Even if G-d says, “You cannot do Teshuvah,” or “your Teshuvah will not be accepted” it is to be understood as a test to see how deep one’s desire it is to get close to G-d. No person is beyond being saved.
The above only applies to sins against G-d. For sins against other people we cannot be forgiven unless we also make restitution and receive forgiveness from the aggrieved party.
- Insights into the human experience
A human being is not a more advanced stage in the evolution of animals. Whatever value the theory of evolution has, it cannot deal with metaphysical reality.
The human being is a qualitatively different creature not because he or she is smarter than a primate but because human beings are endowed with souls which allow them to transcend their own existence.
The human being can consciously decide that he or she will forgo his or her own pleasure and need for the benefit of a total stranger. That is a uniquely human experience.
In classical Jewish sources the human being is called a medaber-a speaker or communicator. What distinguishes the human being from the animal is also his or her ability to communicate. Human communication is the human being’s ability to project outside of himself or herself.
According to the Talmud, the human being is both superior and inferior to all other creatures.
The last creation recorded in Genesis is the creation of Adam and Eve. Why was man created at the end? The Talmud provides two answers: The first is that a human being who becomes arrogant should know that even a gnat was created before him and is therefore superior to him, The second reason is that G-d wanted to insure that everything would be ready for man to use; he should not have to wait until other parts of creation were made available to him.
A great Chassidic Master once said, “a person must have two statements in his pockets; one that says ‘the world was created for my sake’ and the other that reads ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”
The human being, because he or she is qualitatively beyond all other creatures, is superior to them. Only the human being can fulfill G-d’s plan for the creation. The human being utilizes all other parts of creation to realize that goal.
The human being, because he or she is qualitatively beyond all other creatures he or she is simultaneously, inferior to them. Because the human being has free choice to realize his or her mission and chooses to shirk his or her responsibility, he degrades himself and the rest of creation. No other creature can violate its purpose for existence.
Another uniqueness of the human condition even in relation to angels is that an angel is a programmed being and can only go in one direction. A human being is a composite, multifaceted being and can multi-task and even go from one extreme to another. Humans are capable of expressing opposite emotions, going from one direction to the other, balancing and synthesizing all of the disparate forces and influences.
- Confirmation, joining the group
Judaism believes that a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish. However, Judaism also allows for conversion to Judaism.
Judaism, however, does not encourage conversion to Judaism principally for the following reason:
Judaism believes that G-d chooses everyone, and gives every person a role in executing His Master Plan by living a life in accordance with the Seven Noahide laws (to be discussed below). Even in the Messianic Age, when the world will reach its state of perfection, the Jewish belief is that there will still be non-Jews. There is no reason for the non-Jew to become Jewish.
Once one who sincerely wants to join the Jewish people and goes through a proper conversion, he or she is fully embraced by the Jewish community.
Before a person entertains the notion of conversion it is crucial that he or she understands what the different roles of Jews and non-Jews are.
When G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah at Mount Sinai, He selected them from among all of humanity for a special role. As stated above, their role is to bring G-dly light into the world so that the world becomes a “dwelling place” for Him. To realize this monumental task, the Jewish people were given special spiritual resources that will enable them to survive and thrive despite the enormous twin challenges of persecution and assimilation. And while there are great benefits and rewards to being Jewish there is also tremendous suffering and sacrifice.
Only a person who feels that he or she wants to acquire this new and extremely challenging mission can convert. The convert must be prepared to accept all of the Biblical and rabbinical commandments; shoulder all the individual responsibilities of Judaism and share the fate of the Jewish people. If these individuals who seek to convert do not feel that way, it would be a mistake for them to neglect and abandon their own G-d given mission, for which they were given all the requisite resources.
Once a person converts to Judaism, in total conformance with Jewish law, he or she is regarded as a full-fledged Jew. The Torah admonishes us to love the convert and do everything we can to make them feel a part of the community. Some of Judaism’s greatest leaders and role models were converts or sons and daughters of converts:. These include Jethro, Ruth, Shmaya, Avtalyon, Onkeles, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir and countless others.
There is also another principle about a convert to Judaism. The belief is that the sincere converts, by virtue of their conversion, have demonstrated that they already had a “Jewish soul.” That means that they were born endowed with the potential to fulfill the special mission of the Jewish people. The conversion process served as the means to prove that this is indeed the case and to actualize their potential. No one really converts to becoming Jewish; they merely actualize their potential.
Once a Jew boy has reached the age of Bar Mitzvah (13) and a girl has reached the age of Bat Mitzvah (12) there is no need for any confirmation. Every time a Jew performs a Mitzvah he or she is proudly and resolutely confirming his or her status as a Jew who is connected to G-d and to his or her people. Hence, Judaism never had a need for a formal confirmation ceremony.
- The life cycle
A. Beginning of life
There is no one point at which life begins. In certain respects life begins at conception; 40 days after conception; birth, circumcision for a boy, Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, marriage etc. Each stage of life introduces the person to a new status with added obligations and privileges.
While there are many grey areas with respect to abortion, there are two undisputed positions:
Abortion as a means of birth-control or for frivolous reasons (parents want a girl etc.) is forbidden. Abortion to save the life of the mother is permitted. Abortion for other strong emotional reasons (such as incest, rape, mother’s health, viability of child etc.) where there is absolutely no threat to the mother’s life is disputed.
The position that forbids it under those circumstances considers the fetus (after 40 days of conception) to be human-being. The only difference is that it is not an independent human being. In the terminology of Chassidic philosophy: A human-being is a composite of body and soul. Murder is the act of separating the body from the soul. A fetus has a body and it also has a soul; however, its soul is its mother’s. The fetuses own soul, though operating on the periphery of its body is not what keeps it alive. Hence, killing a fetus is equivalent to killing a human being, but it still does take a back seat to the life of the mother who is the fetus’s source of life.
The soul begins its integration with the body at the time of the Bris-Circumcision for a boy and the baby naming for a girl. The Bris is a covenant between the Jew and G-d. Women are considered naturally circumcised and their covenant does not require any physical alteration of their body. In Jewish mystical literature, the man is considered to be imperfect and needs the Bris and other physical rituals to help perfect him, whereas a woman’s creation is much closer to the way she was intended to be.
As stated, the G-dly soul enters the body near the time of birth. However, as long as the child has not reached the age of maturation—Bar or Bat Mitzvah—the soul’s integration into the body is incomplete. Children are therefore not held responsible for their actions, since their Animal Soul is fully developed and functioning unhindered, whereas their G-dly Soul is still finding its way into the system.
During this period, Judaism places the onus of the child’s behavior on the parents. They are responsible to educate their children and are held accountable for their children’s behavior.
At the age of 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy, the child is no longer free of his or her own responsibility. At that point their soul has made its full entry into the body and now the struggle between the Animal Soul and the G-dly Soul is a fair contest.
This is the age when the child is considered an adult and is responsible for the observance of all the Biblical and Rabbinic commandments.
One of the most important parts of the Bar Mitzvah for the boy is this commencing to perform a Mitzvah-commandment called Tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes containing Biblical scrolls that highlights: a) Belief in one G-d; 2) Love of G-d; 3) Commitment to study Torah and observe all of the commandments and 4) the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. These are worn on the arm near the heart and on the head. This Mitzvah is not performed before Bar Mitzvah because of the sanctity of the Tefillin, the rabbis felt that the child would not comport himself appropriately with the right thoughts and preparedness. One of the most exciting parts of the Bar Mitzvah is the wearing of the Tefillin for the first time. (Although in some communities it is worn a few weeks before Bar Mitzvah to help train the boy as to its proper procedure.)
Although the obligation to educate the child that devolves on the parents is in effect until Bar Mitzvah, parents are still responsible for their children’s education even after that age. The difference is only in the degree of their responsibility.
It is customary, to have a celebration to mark the momentous occasion of transition into adulthood. Traditionally the celebration was restricted to boys and it involved the boy getting called up to the Torah on a day that the Torah was read publically (Mondays, Thursdays, Saturday morning and afternoon, and on all Jewish Holidays and fast days). The Bar Mitzvah boy would in some instances serve as the reader, which involves memorizing the correct pronunciation of the Hebrew words with all of their musical notes known in Yiddish as trop. That is some feat because the Torah scroll has no vowels, punctuation, or notes written in it.
In most communities in the past, the Bar Mitzvah boy would also study and memorize a Talmudic discourse, usually on the topic of the commandment of Tefillin, which he would commence observing at the age of 13.
In some Chassidic circles (Chabad in particular) the boy would also memorize and recite a Chassidic text dealing with profound mystical and philosophical interpretations of the Tefillin observance.
Unfortunately, in many communities the Bar Mitzvah celebration lost its underlying rationale which is to celebrate the child’s entry into an age of greater responsibility and observance of the commandments, and not a graduation from Jewish education.
In Chassidic circles the Bat Mitzvah is also observed with no specific ceremony. Usually, girls and women gather at the home of the Bat Mitzvah girl where she would deliver a speech that contains her understanding of what it means to be a Jewish woman based on Jewish classic texts.
In Chassidic circles, women are also given a solid Jewish education. In some subjects her education is even more extensive than boys. However, the emphasis in the study of Jewish law for girls is on its more practical side, while boys focus much of their time and energy on the theoretical basis for the laws as elaborated on in the Talmud and Talmudic commentators. .
C. Marriage, family and social structure
Marriage is viewed as Judaism’s most important institution. In fact, the High Priest in Biblical times had to be married. Celibacy, as a matter of choice, is considered a sin. Obviously, there are people who cannot get married for a variety of legitimate reasons. They would certainly not be faulted for that; but a conscious, philosophical objection to marriage is considered wrong and flies against the very purpose for which we were brought into this world.
The very first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply, which can only occur within the framework of marriage.
Marriage, according to Jewish mystical tradition, is the reunion of two half souls that were separated at birth. This implies that when we marry our soul is now working with all of its cylinders operating at full speed and we are ready to tackle the world with all of its challenges.
Marriage can be considered the beginning of a person’s real challenge to transform the world into a “Dwelling-place for G-d.” Before marriage we lack a) the full capacity of our soul; b) we have not yet entered into the material world with all of is challenges.
Marriage, therefore, is not just about procreation. The very union of these two half souls is, in and of itself, a major spiritual accomplishments that has cosmic effects.
A marriage is considered to be a reenactment of the first match, of Adam and Eve, when they were still in the Garden of Eden before their sin. Marriage is also considered a reenactment and a microcosm of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when G-d was “betrothed” to the Jewish people; the Torah being the marriage contract. The entire Biblical Book of Shir HaShirim-The Song of Songs is a love song between G-d and Israel that was experienced at the time of the Exodus and at Sinai and is reflected in every proper marriage. And marriage is also a portent of the future consummation of the bond between G-d and His people in the Messianic Age.
Marriage introduces a most powerful G-dly energy into the couple and through them to their home and beyond. If they merit to live a harmonious, holy and spiritually healthy life, the Divine presence rests in their midst as it did in the Holy Temple.
D. Attitudes toward children and Elderly
Children and elderly represent two ends of the spectrum of life. There is something positive that links these two stages of life.
Youth, in general, and childhood in particular, is punctuated by the energy it exudes. This is viewed as G-d’s gift to us. Therefore the way we harness that energy for the good, which depends on the way the child is educated, will determine the spiritual quality of that individual’s entire life. This is essentially what King Solomon declared: “Educate the child according to his way, even when he will be old he will not depart from it.” While we expect an adult to mature and go beyond infantile approaches to life, we want to preserve the youthful zest and G-dly energy that is youth,
Moreover, children, despite their lack of sophistication, nay because of it, are more expressive of G-d’s utter transcendent “simplicity.” In other words, G-d is beyond any description or definition, such as He is love or Supreme Intelligence, Creator, All Powerful. Those are valid descriptions of His actions and manifestations, not His Essence. The child’s innocence and simplicity is an expression of that G-dly simplicity that recedes into the background in the process of maturation.
The Talmud states that the world exists on the merit of the children’s study of Torah because their breath is devoid of sin.
The other end of the spectrum of life, old age, is not considered a time of spiritual decline. On the contrary, the Talmud states that one must show respect to all senior citizens even if they lack knowledge because they were, in fact, educated by life’s experiences.
The fact that the elderly lose some of their physical abilities with age is a sign that G-d wants them to focus on the intellectual, emotional and spiritual side of their personalities. Even if they lose their memories and cannot function in any capacity, G-d forbid, they still retain every one of their life’s positive accomplishments that can never be erased.
For that reason the Talmud states that one should give respect to the elderly sage who has forgotten his knowledge. It cites the fact that “the shattered tablets were placed in the same ark as the whole tablets.”
Senior citizens are encouraged to focus on the more spiritual side of their lives and look at this period in their lives as a challenge to grow spiritually; never view it as a period of decline.
E. Death and dying
Judaism is a philosophy that celebrates life. However, as death is inevitable, it must also be considered to be part of G-d’s plan for life. Our mortality is one of the ways we recognize that we have challenges that we must meet within a prescribed period of time. If we thought we had endless time to live we would postpone much of our efforts to transform the world.
In Judaism, death is not overly feared because we know that it is not the end of our existence; it is the beginning of a new phase. Conversely, death is not celebrated either because Judaism believes that this life with its ample opportunities to perform Mitzvot is superior to the afterlife where the soul “merely” basks in the light of its accomplishments.
Jewish law is very much concerned with not doing anything to hasten the process of death and. Indeed, even to use extraordinary measures to preserve life. However, Jewish law also recognizes that there is a time when death is imminent and it places certain restrictions on what we may do to preserve life. Each and every situation is considered to be unique and conscientious Jews will never sign any document such as a DNR without consultation with a competent rabbinic authority who is well-versed in these very complicated and sensitive matters.
In Judaism, every aspect of life is governed by Jewish teaching. Certainly an event as monumental as death is informed, guided and illuminated by Jewish law, which is believed to be G-d’s instruction to us. Every aspect of life and death are ultimately in His hands. He revealed His will and intentions to us through the teachings of the Torah.
Judaism believes that the body is also holy for several reasons:
(a) It was created in G-d’s image. (b) It is the Temple of the soul; (c) The performance of countless Mitzvos, G-dly acts sanctify the body.
In the mystical teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism the body is considered to even have a higher spiritual “source” than the soul. The soul’s mission, among other objectives, is to teach the body, refine it, elevate it, transform it. thereby revealing and actualizing the Divine energy that is its source.
Because the body is not simply a temporary dwelling for the soul but has intrinsic value we treat the body with respect and do nothing to destroy or mutilate it even after death.
Moreover, one of Judaism’s cardinal beliefs is that in the Messianic Age the dead will be Resurrected, we may therefore not do anything to the body that demonstrates that death of the body is the end of its existence.
On the other hand, Judaism acknowledges that the body will decompose in the ground. In fact, it does not allow us to do anything to prevent that process from occurring by burial in a vault or in any other way the body’s natural decomposition process will be delayed.
The rationale for this is Biblical. G-d tells Adam “From the dust you come and to dust you shall return.”
The purpose of returning to dust is that it is an atonement process for the body which may have been tainted by all of the negative behaviors of which most people are guilty. For a body not to decompose even when interred unhindered in the earth is either a horrible punishment that denies this body the opportunity to be purified and atoned for, or it is a sign that these persons were so righteous and holy that their bodies do not need this purification process.
In Jewish tradition, the body is washed and purified physically in a special ritual and dressed in simple white linen shrouds and placed in a simple unadorned pine box. The reason for this is to maintain equality for all, rich and poor, so that the poor will not be embarrassed.
G. Beyond death, is there life beyond death?
Judaism believes that the soul lives on forever. By definition therefore, there must be eternal life for the soul. However, since the soul is a totally spiritual entity there can be no suggestion that the soul will enjoy physical pleasures in the afterlife. Indeed, spiritual pleasure is infinitely more blissful than any physical pleasure.
- The ideal eternal life
The soul, upon leaving the body, ascends (in a spiritual non-spatial sense) to the heavenly tribunal where it is judged. If a person is deemed to be righteous he or she will be sent to Paradise, a spiritual location where the soul will feel a state of blissful connection with G-d. Judaism believes that those people whose lives were less than righteous will have to go Gehinom, or the Jewish version of hell. Gehinom is not simply a punishment for the sake of punishment, rather it is a purification process, where the soul is cleansed of all the undesirable adhesions to itself that prevent it from being able to receive and absorb the Divine bliss in Paradise.
According to Jewish tradition, it is benefit for the soul to go through this process. A far greater punishment is for the soul to be denied entry into Gehinom.
As an alternative to Gehinom, the soul might be required to come down again into this world and be reincarnated into another body to rectify that which it had damaged or failed to accomplish the first time around. A soul may enter this world multiple times until it gets it right.
Ultimately, all of the righteous souls will return to the physical world at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, which will occur after the onset of the Messianic Age. After the Resurrection, we will live on forever. Death will have been conquered and we will live on for eternity basking in the light of the Divine.
- What is Well – Being? How to achieve it?
Well-being can best be described as a state of harmony with G-d, other people and oneself.
Life, by definition is fragmented. The fragmentation and the conflicts that arise from it manifests itself in many ways: There can be a rift between G-d and our world, between one nation and another, one person and another, husband and wife, two brothers, body and soul and even within one’s soul, a person can be pulled in many different directions.
Well-being can be achieved when one finds the unity that underlies all of the different directions.
There are two ways one can express unity. The first is to negate or ignore anything that goes against your comfort zone. The second is to forget the differences and focus on the things that unite.
The idea of unity and peace is central to Judaism. The Mishnah states: “G-d could not find any other vessel that contains peace in His world other than shalom-peace. Peace and unity are the most cherished values in Judaism that even trumps truth. Despite the fact that truth is G-d’s “seal”, one may cover the truth in order to preserve peace. Aaron, Moses’ brother, according to Talmudic tradition, would dissemble in order to bring peace to two people. He would tell one side that he heard that his adversary was sorry and really wanted to get back together. He would then repeat this “white lie” to the other party to the conflict, thereby bringing them together.
Chassidic thought explains that it was not a lie. He knew that deep down they were not adversaries. If they had been true adversaries no dissembling would help.
When a person learns how to get along with others—even those he disagrees with, without compromising values and beliefs—one finds peace of mind and joy.
Another important ingredient in well-being is gratitude and happiness. In truth, the two go together, happy people are grateful, and grateful people are happy.
Happiness is a trait that requires one to recognize that he or she has a purpose in this world and that his or her life is directed towards realizing that purpose. Happiness is not achieved by the pursuit of happiness but by the pursuit of higher goals and objectives; especially those that demand self-transcendence.
It goes without saying that fun and entertainment are not substitutes for true joy.
True joy comes from the soul, which is a part of G-d. G-d identifies with joy and wherever we find true G-dliness we find true joy.
The person who has faith and trust in G-d is one who will always be happy and will enjoy well-being in the spiritual, emotional and even physical existence.
One achieves all of the above by study, reflection on G-d and our purpose in the universe. However, the most effective and ideal way to change our attitudes towards life is to engage in acts of kindness even as we learn to think positive. Action itself generates the emotions and mindsets that are desirable.
- Is there a Redeemer? How to get to him? How to bring him? What will he do?
Judaism believes—and it is one of the 13 Principles of Faith—in the Messianic Age that will be ushered in by a human Messiah, referred to as the Moshiach, which literally means “the anointed one.” To understand his role—and it is a “he”—we must first understand the role of the Messianic Age.
The Messianic Age is when G-d’s plan for the universe—to make it into a dwelling place for Him—will be realized.
When enough people over a period of time do enough good and contribute enough holiness to the world, G-d will finally deem the world ready for Him to be present for all to behold. The accumulation of our individual efforts will transform the world into an ideal world that will bask in the light of G-d.
Jewish belief is that this New Age does not involve a cataclysmic change that will shatter the universe. Rather it will bring about the actualization of all the positive energies that we have been generating over the last few millennia.
Good is real and can never be erased and therefore accumulates. Evil, G-d created to conceal the good and the G-dly to enable free choice. When the sinner subsequently repents or suffers for his transgression, the evil dissipates.
It may seem that evil is more prevalent, but that is only because the enormous repository of good generated throughout humankind’s long history rests beneath the surface, so to speak, while the evil that still exists is on the surface. When enough goodness and holiness is generated, the good will finally “burst” out of its container and overwhelm the world.
All of the changes in the world that will occur are all part of a Divine plan. According to the Torah, there are three primary players in the unfolding of the Messianic drama.
First of all, there can be no changes in this world that can occur without the involvement of G-d. It is His direction, inspiration and power that gives us the ability to accomplish anything. Above all, the Messianic Age is G-d’s original plan for the universe. G-d is the “Architect” of the plan.
Secondly, G-d gives us humans the freedom of choice, so that we, of our own accord, will choose to make the world a better world, a G-dly world. Indeed, the entire purpose in creation was that we should transform the world into a “dwelling place for G-d,” through our actions that are in conformity with G-d’s teaching and instructions. When we make enough good and proper choices, the world is then ready for the final transition into an Age of Redemption. We are thus the “builders” who implement G-d’s plan
There is also a third element: Moshiach. He is of flesh and blood, born to two human parents in the most natural way. He must be human, because the purpose of Moshiach is not to impose G-d’s presence but to aid us in making the right choices, i.e., to invite G-d into the world by choosing to do more good. The one who makes it happen is Moshiach by being a part of us and by bringing out the best in us.
Moshiach, who will make the “Master Plan” a reality—like Moses who was chosen by G-d to transmit the “Master Plan” for the world—is a leader who feels the needs and the pain of the people because he is a part of them. He is human and has to make human choices in his life. His humble nature allows him to be receptive to the Divine. His vision and insight enable him to see not only what the generation needs but also how to meet those needs and particularly how to make the transition into the Messianic Age. When the world is ready, G-d selects the Moshiach, the ideal human being to serve as the catalyst for the final transition into the Messianic Age.
Maimonides, based on classical Jewish sources as the Bible and Talmud, states the basic qualifications for Moshiach:
He must be a leader, a descendent of King David, who is steeped in Torah knowledge and totally committed to all of its commandments, engaged in the effort to influence Jews to follow the path of Torah, repair its breaches, fight the wars of G-d, build the Holy Temple and gather the entire Jewish nation to Israel.
Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation there is one person, a great Jewish leader, who is worthy of being the catalyst to bring about the new era. There is a Moshiach in every generation.
In summation: There are three key factors and players in the unfolding of the Messianic drama: First, there is G-d, the Architect of the plan. Second, there is “us,” the players who make the plan work. Third, Moshiach, who is the human leader or “contractor” who helps us realize our potential that will make the final thrust into the Era of Redemption.
To facilitate the final transition into the era of Redemption, it does not suffice for us to just have faith and be passive about it. We are the key players. We must be pro-active for three reasons:
First, by being pro-active we can hasten the process and alleviate some of the pain that goes along with any transition. Secondly, by being pro-active, we become part of the process, thereby gaining legitimacy by fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. Third, by being proactive we will be adequately prepared and not be overwhelmed by what is to come.
At that time there will be three primary changes:
a) The rebuilding of the Holy temple in Jerusalem and through it the revelation of G-d to all.
b) The Jews scattered throughout the world will be brought back to the Promised Land of Israel.
c) The entire world’s population will live in peace with Israel and with one another.
Sounds incredible! On the one hand, It is. But, upon deeper reflection, it is totally within the realm of nature to see the world change for the good. Even human nature can and will change.
It actually occurs in several stages. First, because Moshiach will command the respect of all those who hear of him, the world—initially, perhaps, out of fear and awe—will conform to the rules of a civilized society. With his charisma and by example, he will “compel” us to live better and holier lives. The more good we do, the more we express our hidden potential for good, which in turn makes us do more good. We then become conditioned to good, weaning ourselves off of our bad habits.
Jewish sources emphasize that these future events are not going to disrupt our lives. The Redemption is a validation of all that we’ve done right. Whatever we are, our humanity, our identities will not change, just become more complete. We will savor all of what we’ve accomplished prior to the Messianic Age and we will see how our actions now were actually the catalysts for this New Age.
The Messianic Age is a time of discovery; of one’s own and the world’s true and inner potential. Our awareness of reality will be acute; we will appreciate each other’s true qualities, as we will all be capable of realizing our full potential.
This heightened awareness will lead to a reduction and, ultimately a total elimination, of tension in the world. There will be no more war and strife. Rivalry and greed will disappear and will be replaced with love and devotion to higher knowledge. In the words of the prophet Isaiah “And the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the sea is covered with water.”
At that time the lives of all people will be in complete harmony with the so-called “Seven Noahide Commandments,” discussed earlier. These laws–originally transmitted by G-d to Noah and his children, and subsequently to the entire human race at Mount Sinai—form the basis for a civilized society. And in the Messianic Age, all the nations of the world will embrace these laws and put down their destructive weapons and convert them for peaceful uses.
In addition, there will be a proliferation of all the material goods. In the words of the great Sage, Maimonides, “the delicacies will be as prevalent as the dust of the earth.” Once material needs will not be so urgent, jealousy and strife will also cease.
There will also be a sense of unity; not only in inter-personal relationships, but unity within oneself. Instead of the fragmentation of our lives, being pulled in so many directions, robbing us of our peace of mind, there will be a unity of purpose which will allow us to see how all of our interests stem from one unifying objective: constant growth in our awareness of G-d’s unity.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the greatest Jewish leader of our century, described (paraphrased in a recent best-seller Toward a Meaningful Life) the Redemption thus:
“But what exactly do we need redemption from? From being trapped in the darkness of the material world, which obscures our search for meaning. From a listless and aimless life. From our doubts and fears.”
The belief espoused by the Rebbe is that we are presently standing on the threshold of this age.
The last century has witnessed momentous and unprecedented events. They include: the Holocaust, the return of Jews to Israel, the miraculous victories in Israel’s wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes, the miracle of the Gulf war, the deadly scud missiles hardly causing loss to life in Israel, the return of millions of people to G-d and religion, and the tens of thousands of miracles that individuals have experienced.
These and more events which have been predicted by the Biblical Prophets and Talmudic sages thousands of years ago that they were to precede and presage the coming of Moshiach is what prompted many great Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to declare that we are living on the heels of the Messianic Age.
From 1991, the Lubavitcher Rebbe has emphasized that we have entered an even more advanced stage. He repeatedly declared – quoting the Midrash, an ancient classical Jewish work: “The time for your Redemption has arrived!” The Rebbe referred to the imminence of Moshiach as a prophecy and exhorted us to prepare for this event by adding more goodness and kindness.
The Rebbe spoke of how all that is necessary now is to “open our eyes,” to see the present reality for what it truly is. All the good that the world had to accumulate since its creation for the Messianic process to begin has already occurred. Now, our task is to acknowledge the new reality. We should acknowledge the cataclysmic changes that have occurred in recent years, and translate this awareness into modes of behavior that are more wholesome and G-dly—in short dedication to the Universal principles of the Seven Noahide Laws, in letter and spirit.
Indeed, many Jews and non-Jews believed that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would have been the most qualified leader to be the Moshiach. He made his life’s work, one persistent drive towards Redemption. In spite of his physical absence, many Jews and non-Jews continue to see him as the one who has unleashed the final thrust towards Redemption by serving as the ultimate role model for this new era. The Rebbe spread G-dly knowledge permeated with unconditional love and concern for all to the farthest reaches of the world.
The Rebbe was the most prolific teacher of G-dly knowledge. In spite of his incredible mastery of all the sciences and humanities, the Rebbe put his greatest emphasis on spreading the teachings of G-d. In the over 200 volumes published to date, and in tens of thousands of letters, the Rebbe sheds light on virtually every facet of religion and life. The Rebbe continues to be the beacon of light to all segments of Jewry and humanity. It is no surprise that the Rebbe received the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Rebbe alerted us to the reality of this “New World” that we are entering into and predicted the recent world events and declared ahead of time that they portend the imminent Redemption. Indeed, many have pointed to the Rebbe’s synthesis of prophetic insight with acute pragmatic sensitivity. It is no wonder that so many of his close followers as well as outsiders of his movement, Jews and non-Jews, have considered him to be the Messiah, the person who activates the spark within each of us that will ultimately change the world for good.
Regardless of how one feels about this issue, it is clear that the Rebbe is the driving force now—through our collective efforts—to alert all Jews and non-Jews to the overwhelming significance of our day and age. Our task now is to greet Moshiach, by looking to the role model par-excellence of an ideal G-dly life and to emulate his ways.
The Rebbe exhorted us to ignite the spark of Moshiach in our own lives, by doing more goodness and kindness; by opening our eyes to the new reality; by striving to make our lives more wholesome and complete, by following the Seven Noahide Commandments and disseminating them to our friends and neighbors, in harmony with the Messianic idea of excellence; and to not stop praying for the true and complete Redemption.
- Perceptions and attitudes toward non-believers and other cultures
Judaism believes, as mentioned above, that every human being was created in G-d’s image and is chosen to be a part of G-d’s plan for universe. Judaism does not compromise on its values and beliefs just to accommodate the attitudes of others. Any culture that does not conform to the Master Plan as it was given to all of humanity, i.e, the observance of the Seven Noahide Commandments, in the eyes of Judaism, has strayed from its G-d given objective.
Any culture, secular or religious, that conforms to these Seven Noahide Laws is viewed in a positive light.
Although, Judaism and the Jewish people were consistently reviled, persecuted and, theologically speaking, at odds with virtually every religious and political system, the world in this pre-Messianic Era seems to be coming closer to Jewish ideals for humanity.
However, even where we disagree, Judaism teaches us how to separate between the person and his or her erroneous beliefs. We believe in getting along with the person even if we cannot agree on theology.
Another salient point is that Judaism does not believe in everything or nothing (with the exception of a person who wants to embrace Judaism, he or she must be prepared to accept it totally). Even if we strongly disagree with another viewpoint held by others we are encouraged to focus on the areas of agreement.
Western civilization has become more receptive to the ideals of kindness and justice. Discrimination is now considered taboo in these western societies. Charity and random acts of kindness are becoming more common. Totalitarian and imperialistic governments have not vanished but they are the exception not the rule as it was in the past. The U.S. spends billions in aid to poorer countries. Science is coming around to seeing unity in nature, as opposed to the belief in multifarious forces of nature that parallel the polytheistic notions of the past. These are all signs that the world at large is coming closer to the underlying ideal of the Seven Noahide Commandments.
As a general rule, Judaism requires taking care of one’s own family and community first, but it also requires that we promote peace and unity with others by reaching out beyond our own borders to assist others. How perfect of a world we would have if every group took care of its own and did a little extra for others outside of their own communities.
Judaism is very strict in demanding loyalty to the host country in which they live. Although Jews will never cease identifying with the Land of Israel, it does not detract from their loyalty to the country in which they live.
There is one more caveat. Since the Jewish people are a minority in the world (we are but 1/5th of one percent of the world’s population, it is a major challenge for Jews to maintain their individuality, especially when there are cultures that seek to “convert” us to their religion. Even more insidious threats are the secular and hedonistic pressures that threaten to engulf Jews. Tragically, persecution and modernity have taken their toll on Jewish observance among Jews. All this points to the reason why some observant Jews are reticent and are reluctant to socialize and be part of the prevailing culture, even when it is not at odds with Jewish beliefs and observances.