Is Judaism a "religion"? Is the term "non-religious Jew"
an oxymoron? Can one still be Jewish without observing the edicts and ethos of Torah in one's daily life?
Jews defy all conventional definitions of a "people" or
"nation." We lack a common race, culture or historical experience.
While we all share our eternal rights to the Land of Israel, for all but a few
centuries of the last 4,000 years the overwhelming majority of Jews have not
lived or even set foot in the Jewish homeland.
Throughout our 3300-year history, what has defined us as Jews is a
relationship and commitment. We are Jews because G-d chose us to be His
"cherished treasure from all the nations... a kingdom of priests and a holy
people" (Exodus 19:5-6). We are Jews because G-d chose us to play the
central role in the implementation of His purpose in creation: to orientate our
lives in accordance with His will, and to develop a society and world community
that reflects His goodness and perfection.
The substance of this relationship, the charter of this commitment, is the
Torah. The Torah is G-d's concept of reality as communicated to man, the
blueprint that describes the perfected world envisioned by its Creator and
details the manner in which the Inventor of Life wishes it to be lived.
This would seem to define our Jewishness as a "religion": we are
Jews because we adhere to the beliefs and practices mandated by the Torah. But
the Torah itself says that this is not so.
The Torah itself proclaims (Leviticus 16:16) that G-d "dwells amongst
them in the midst of their impurities" -- that His relationship with His
people remains unaffected regardless of their behavior. In the words of the
Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), "A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a
According to Torah law, a person's Jewishness is not a matter of life-style
or self-perception: one may be totally unaware of one's Jewishness and still be
a Jew, or one may consider himself Jewish and observe all the precepts of the
Torah and still not be a Jew.
In other words, it is the relationship between the Jew and his Creator that
defines his Jewishness -- not his acknowledgment of this relationship or his
actualization of it in his daily life. It is not the observance of Torah's
mitzvot (Divine "commandments") that makes him a Jew, but the
commitment that the mitzvot represent.
The Essence of a Transgression
This is the deeper significance of the axiom, "A Jew, although he has
transgressed, is a Jew."
The simple meaning of these words is that a Jew is still a Jew despite
his transgressions. But on a deeper level, it is because he has
transgressed that he is a Jew. A non-Jew who eats chametz (leavened
bread) on Passover has done nothing wrong; likewise, his eating matzah on the
Seder night has no moral or spiritual significance. But for a Jew, the mitzvot
of Passover are a component of his relationship with G-d: by observing them he
is realizing this relationship and extending it to his daily life; if he
violates them, G-d forbid, he is transgressing -- he is acting contrary
to the commitment which defines his identity. Thus, in a certain sense, the fact
of a Jew's transgression is no less an expression (albeit a negative one) of his
relationship with G-d than his observance of a mitzvah.
Indeed, the Hebrew word mitzvah means both "commandment" and
"connection." The relationship between the word's two meanings can
also be understood on two levels. On the behavioral level, we connect to G-d
through our fulfillment of His commandments. On a deeper level, we are
inexorably connected to Him by virtue of the fact that He chose us as the object
of His commandments. Obviously, these two levels of connection are two sides of
the same coin, being the inner and outer faces of the same truth: our observance
of the mitzvot is the manifestation, in our daily lives, of the intrinsic bond
between G-d and Israel.
The Six-Dimensional Link
The Zohar, the basic work of the Kabbalah, expresses this concept in
the following manner:
There are three connections ('kishrin") that are bound to each other:
G-d, the Torah, and Israel --each consisting of a level upon a level, hidden
and revealed. There is the hidden aspect of G-d, and the revealed aspect;
Torah, too, has both a hidden and a revealed aspect; and so it is with Israel,
who also has both a hidden and a revealed aspect.
The Zohar goes on to describe the manner in which the Torah serves as the
connecting link between G-d and Israel: how the Torah is one with its Divine
Author, and how the Jewish people connect to the Torah through their study and
observance of its teachings.
But what are the "hidden" and "revealed" elements of G-d,
Torah and Israel? And what is their relevance to our connection to G-d through
The Zohar is intimating that these three "connections" are
interlinked on two levels, both on a "hidden" and on a
"revealed" plane. For each of the three interconnected links possesses
both an explicit and an implicit dimension.
There is the so-called "revealed" aspect of G-d -- those
expressions of His reality which He chooses to manifest within the created
existence; and there is His "hidden" unknowable essence. The Jew, too,
has his revealed and manifest self -- the manner in which he expresses himself
through his behavior; and his hidden, quintessential self. And the Torah, as
outlined above, has both a more pronounced as well as a more implicit
significance as the connecting link between G-d and Israel.
On the "hidden" plane, the soul of the Jew is bound to the very
essence of G-d through the underlying relationship and commitment which Torah
represents. Even if the Jew's life, on the conscious-behavioral level, is
inconsistent with the revealed will of the Almighty, s/he is no "less"
a Jew, G-d forbid: no matter what, the "hidden" intrinsic bond that
defines his Jewishness is unaffected. But in order to express this relationship
on all levels of his being, in order to bring his life in line with her essence,
the Jew must reiterate the connection on the "revealed" level. This
s/he does by studying G-d's Torah and observing its mitzvot.
The Third Juncture
There is, however, another, yet deeper meaning to the Zohar's words.
The above-cited passage speaks of "three connections which are
bound to each other." The Aramaic word translated here as
"connections" is kishrin, which literally means
At first glance, this seems to be an inaccurate usage. If Torah is the link
between G-d and Israel, then what we have are three entities (G-d, Torah
and Israel) linked via two connections (Israel's connection to Torah and
the Torah's connection with the Almighty). Where do we have three
This brings us to a second definition of the "hidden" and
"revealed" dimensions of the relationship between G-d and Israel. The
Two things preceded G-d's creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I
do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states "Speak to the
Children of Israel...", "Command the Children of Israel...",
and so on, I know that Israel preceded all (Tana
D'vei Eliyahu Rabba, chapter 14)
In other words, G-d created the world in order that Israel might implement
His Divine plan for existence, as outlined in the Torah. So the concepts of
"Israel" and "Torah" both precede the concept of a
"world" in the Creator's "mind." Yet which is the more
deeply rooted "idea" within the Divine consciousness, Torah or Israel?
Does Israel exist so that the Torah be implemented, or does the Torah exist to
serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the expression of his
relationship with G-d? If the Torah describes itself as a communication to
Israel -- the Midrash is saying -- this presumes the concept of
"Israel" as primary to that of "Torah."
This means that G-d's relationship with Israel "pre-dates" (in the
conceptual sense) the Torah, for the Torah comes to serve that relationship. In
this sense, Israel is the "link" between the Torah and G-d: the
Torah's existence as the embodiment of the Divine wisdom and will is a result
of Israel's existence and its connection with G-d.
Thus, we have three connections linking G-d, Israel and the Torah:
On the revealed level, the Torah serves as the link between G-d and Israel:
the Torah is connected to G-d, and Israel is connected to the Torah. (This
includes both levels of connection outlined above -- the connection achieved
through the performance of a mitzvah and the connection defined by the
commitment itself ).
But on a deeper, more quintessential level, there exists a third connection:
the "direct" connection between G-d and His people which precedes the
very concept of a Torah. On this level, Israel's involvement in Torah is what
connects the Torah to G-d -- what causes Him to extend His infinite and wholly
indefinable being into a medium of "Divine wisdom" and "Divine
will." On this level, it is not the Jew who needs the Torah in order to be
one with G-d, but the Torah who "needs" the Jew to evoke G-d's desire
to project Himself via the Torah.
Nevertheless, the Torah is crucial to the Jew's relationship with G-d. The
essence of the Jew, as it is rooted within the essence of G-d, is indeed one
with its Source. But then it "descends" to become part of the created
existence, assuming a distinct identity as a soul and then as a human being. So
G-d provided the Jew with His Torah. Through Torah, the Jew touches base with
his own quintessential self and makes his intrinsic bond with his Creator a
reality in his daily life.
(See also Moses Disappears)