Contact Us

What Is Judaism?

What Is Judaism?

A discussion with Hillel directors and college students circa 1960


The Torah must apply just as well to our present-day problems as it did to the issues faced by our ancestors in the desert (and must not change in order to have application to the present).

The verse in the Torah referring to man being created in the Divine image, betzalmeinu kidmuseinu [in our image, in our likeness] has numerous aspects of interpretation. One of them is that the human was made to resemble his Creator by consisting of opposite extremes and yet being a complete entity. The human consists of flesh and skin, blood, etc., which come under the jurisdiction of the five senses. Yet when one speaks of his love and friendship for another, he does not refer to his physical person but to his character, personality and spiritual attributes, which are the extreme opposite, in that these things cannot be touched, seen or heard. This integration of extremes in the human is referred to by the word betzalmeinu, indicating a likeness to the Almighty who is the ultimate unity... The Almighty does not desire opposing forces and nations to fight one another, but rather to make peace and live in unity... Similarly, it is through the temptations of the physical body that the soul reaches perfection.

Science and Religion

Photos of the Rebbe: Chaim Baruch Halberstam/JEM
Photos of the Rebbe: Chaim Baruch Halberstam/JEM

Question: You spoke of integration. I find a desire in my students to seek the interrelationship between Torah and the secular sciences, yet there are few books that deal with this. What is your feeling in this matter?

Answer: Monotheism contradicts the theory of interrelationship. G‑d’s oneness is so complete that He already exists in all phases of knowledge, and you cannot separate His unity into two, three or four realms of knowledge and then attempt to interrelate them.

If one says that G‑d is up in the seventh heaven and here in Brooklyn there is another firer (director)—this is not monotheism but polytheism. True monotheism is when the person understands that everything in creation is included in G‑d’s oneness.

Those of you who are acquainted with science know that the object of scientific discoveries is to find unity in all phases of life—there is a co-relationship between electronics, acoustics, physics and mathematics. Einstein’s achievement was to unite energy with matter. Whoever will discover how to unify electricity with gravity will enjoy even greater glory.

The human consists of flesh and skin, blood, etc., which come under the jurisdiction of the five senses. Yet when one speaks of his love and friendship for another, he does not refer to his physical person but to his character, personality and spiritual attributes, which are the extreme opposite, in that these things cannot be touched, seen or heard. If, while you are praying, you feel the dominion of the Almighty, and when you go downtown to work you are in a different domain—this is a form of avodah zarah (belief in other gods).

There can be no separation between the spheres of knowledge; science, acoustics, mathematics, religion and philosophy are all one entity. The formulas of their unification already exist; they are awaiting someone to merit their discovery. However, the lack of these discoveries does not preclude our use of these formulas even now. As the Talmud says: He’eder yediah eino me’akev (absence of knowledge does not hinder performance of the precepts). Should one today discover a new theory in geometry, it does not mean that this theory was invalid until now, but that it was valid from the beginning of time—only it was not known until now. The unique interrelationship of all matter in this world will certainly at some time be discovered, so why not utilize the consequences of these formulas right now?

Question: In regard to a previous answer where you suggested simplifying the instruction, does that mean only to simplify the terms and words, or may the content also be altered? I ask from a pedagogic standpoint.

Answer: It depends upon the subject. If it is a fundamental matter, it dare not be altered. I have not yet come across a fundamental point that cannot be conveyed in simple terms.

The Torah was given to 600,000 Jewish men. They were not all learned people; many were quite uneducated. Also, many children were present at Mt. Sinai. Yet the Torah was given in such a way that all might understand.

The question arises: why all the noise and thunder etc. at the giving of the Ten Commandments, when actually only simple, ordinary truths—“Honor thy father and mother,” “don’t steal”—were said?

One answer is that even plain things are deeply felt and impressed upon the hearer through great noise and supernatural occurrences . . . like a revolution. A man’s true character cannot be discerned under normal conditions; only in abnormal circumstances does his real character show. The best example is the German people. Before the war no other people could compare to them in high standards of morality, ethics, philosophy, etc. But then they sank to the lowest level of degradation. Yet all their depravity and murder was based on a philosophy of life. Only when we see how one acts in times of difficulty and temptation can we judge his true character. You must instruct the student in simple language, but in such a manner that will make an impression in his heart (and bring him to proper action).

How to Teach Jewish Topics

Question: I observe from your library that you are well-read in other fields as well as in Torah. Do you not agree that there must be a unification of knowledge in the mind of the instructor before he can lecture to his students?

Answer: I agree in principle, but one must not bring superfluous topics into the lecture, which may becloud rather than clarify the issue. I’ll give you an example from a professor I once had. He was a professor of medicine, and when he studied anatomy, he became completely engrossed in each phase of it. Once he was preoccupied with the anatomy of the leg.

He delved into his research until he knew each muscle and how it worked; he understood how the various leg muscles must coordinate to do such a simple thing as taking a step. Nevertheless, when he arose from his study and had to walk—the thought of the numerous leg muscles involved hindered his walking, and he had to learn how to take each step, just like a baby.

Do not try to convey all the intricate problems of Judaism so that the students become confused. Talk of the essentials of Judaism as though to a five-year-old, without chakirah investigations—because many of these doubts that you would discuss may never really have bothered them. Tell them plain Torah and Tradition without comparing it to Greek, Hindu, or Buddhist philosophy. First of all this will save time, and secondly it will be clearer in the mind of the student. If there are any doubts in his mind, he will ask it on his own volition and then you can answer him.

Question: If we do not delve into these doubts, the students may think that we are ignorant of them.

Answer: Still, do not lecture about them until they ask. Then you will answer precisely, and they will see that you are not unlearned in these fields. It is similar to how you inject malorin into a syphilitic to cure him, but you do not inject malorin into a healthy person.

Question: We know they learn things in other subjects that conflict with Torah. Shouldn’t we discuss these contradictions?

Answer: I was a college student in Russia, France and Germany, and saw that 95 percent of the students did not let their philosophy of life be affected by anything that they learned while trying to pass their courses. In Russia the students were also nonbelievers (more so than in American colleges), and yet they studied philosophy with the same detachment as when they studied dentistry, for example. You find some who become really concerned, but only about 5 percent; to the 95 percent the material is only in order to pass the course. So do not throw doubts into their minds and then attempt to dispel them—rather, speak to the point, attempt to influence them to proper action.

Question: What about the contradictions between science and religion?

Answer: Actually, there is no contradiction between science and religion, no matter which religion. I base this statement on the latest scientific discoveries.

A hundred and fifty years ago they thought that science and physics spoke the absolute truth. Kant and Einstein proved that science never did and never will be able to give absolute truths. The scientist can only say: If you will accept these axioms and these methods of deduction, you will come to the following conclusions.

But if you do not accept these axioms, science can do nothing for you. In the time of the Rambam [Maimonides], the scientists thought that they knew the absolute truth. But today in the University of Sorbonne, the University of Berlin, and in Columbia University they tell their students that they do not know the absolute truth. In the time of Copernicus they said that the earth stands and the sun revolves around it—they even burned people who said the opposite was true. Einstein says that we will never be able to prove which revolves around the other, unless you destroy the very basic foundations of science.

Question: You mentioned “absolute truth” a few times. Where do we find this term in the Torah?

Answer: It says Hashem Elokim emes. G‑d is true without any conditions. This is the essential meaning of absolute truth.

What is Judaism?

Question: How would you define Judaism in a nutshell?

Answer: Your question is reminiscent of the ger in the Gemara [convert in the Talmud] who asked Hillel a similar question.

The essence of Judaism is that Judaism is not abstract and detached from life, nor is it limited to a certain portion of human activity or irrelevant to his environment. If he is a true Jew, it must permeate his whole being 24 hours a day, and concern all of his activities. He must believe in G‑d Almighty as an absolute unity, which excludes all possibility of something outside of Him. He must accept G‑d as the Creator of the universe not only at the moment of creation, but in every moment afterwards as well. If he were to think that G‑d was the Creator only then at the time of creation, but now the world exists on its own merits and that things happen by coincidence—this would be the opposite of unity. If you accept the first postulate of Unity, that the world is constantly maintained by Him, then every one of us fits in the general pattern of the universe. You must do everything in a certain manner, for otherwise it would confuse the system of the universe. There is a divine pattern for each of us, and each act brings us a step further in the right direction—towards our mission in life.

Question: What about bechirah [freedom of choice]?

Answer: We still have the possibility of doing a good thing or an evil deed, but the good or bad deed can be done only in a definite environment which fits into the divine pattern.

Question: What about the atheist, or one who cannot accept this belief in the Divine unity?

Kant and Einstein proved that science never did and never will be able to give absolute truths Answer: Every Jew has the potentiality to believe this. If G‑d has given this precept, it behooves Him to give the Jew the possibility of fulfilling it. He created you and me and everyone, and commanded us to believe in His unity, and if we did not have the potential ability to accept this belief it would be a contradiction to His perfection.

Question: If so, why is it that no one is perfect?

Answer: When a person is perfect and has achieved everything, he has nothing else to live for. There must remain imperfection so that he will have something to strive for tomorrow.

Question: Doesn’t G‑d’s omniscience preclude free will?

Answer: This seeming contradiction has confused many people, but there is no real contradiction between the two. The best illustration is a fortuneteller who foresees future events (whether or not the power to do so actually exists is not the present issue—let us say that by some miraculous power he can accurately predict far into the future). Still, he is only seeing what will be done by the person on his own volition. The fortuneteller’s foreknowledge does not influence the person’s freedom of choice.

Incidentally, this is another interpretation of betzalmeinu kidmuseinu—every human has free will. Without freedom of choice there would be no basis for reward and punishment.

The Jew has a choice whether to do right or wrong, but not to do the right thing in one of two equivalent ways. He must make his choice in accordance with the Almighty’s prescribed plan so that there will be no confusion.

Question: Does G‑d reveal His will to us now as He did at Sinai?

Answer: Yes, now also—but in a different manner. The Sinai revelation was the “connection” made by G‑d between the Creator and creation. It was necessary for the Revelation at Sinai to be in its particular manner so as to leave no room for doubt. This is the fundamental difference between the Jewish religion and all other religions. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and all other religions must rely on a story or testimony told by one or a small number of people.

Christianity relies on the stories of one individual that were transmitted to twelve disciples. Islam began with an event which one man witnessed and then told his tribe about. And so it was with Buddhism and all other religions. They all leave room for doubt. To avoid these doubts, the Torah was revealed to 600,000 men. And this event was transmitted not by disciples, but by parents to millions of children. This strong foundation was in order that the Torah should have validity even for “trouble-makers” (agnostics).

After Sinai, no revelation is necessary, as the parents revealed these facts to their children. Since it is not necessary to repeat the Sinai Revelation, G‑d does not reveal Himself again in this manner, as His world-pattern does not include unnecessary actions—but it could certainly be repeated if He so desired. From time to time, whether it be on a Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday—each one of us feels that he has accomplished more than his own natural capabilities; this extra “power” is a form of G‑d’s revelation within us.

Question: Can present-day rabbis give their own interpretations of the Torah, just as Maimonides expounded certain passages according to Aristotle?

Answer: Only if these interpretations do not contradict what has happened before. A personal revelation must be in accordance with the one at Sinai. A prophet who contradicts the Mosaic law is a navi sheker [false prophet]. Just as there are certain laws of deduction that must be followed in physics, so has the Torah established set rules of deduction and interpretation. If you find a new interpretation that does not follow these principles, it must be rejected.

Maimonides expounded according to Aristotle only when dealing with passages of aggadah, but not when dealing with halachah [precepts].

To deny the everlastingness of something is not a complete denial, as this depends on the future Question: How is G‑d’s uniqueness seen in this world?

Answer: Everything in creation has in its innermost part a spark of G‑d that unites it with everything else in the universe. It doesn’t matter what—human, animal, vegetable or mineral—in their innermost molecules, all are alike.

To deny that G‑d is One is to deny something existing at the present time. To deny the everlastingness of something is not a complete denial, as this depends on the future. G‑d is ein sof [everlasting], and He has transferred this feature into his creations. Physics states that nothing can be destroyed—the atom will always exist; it can be transformed, but not destroyed.

The inkwell on my desk, for instance, has limitations in size—it is round, etc.—but in its “innermost” there is something that cannot be destroyed.

This is a manifestation of G‑d’s Oneness.

Question: When science speaks about the origin of life, doesn’t it repudiate our Torah?

Answer: Creation has no relevance in the realm of science. Physics does not concern itself with philosophy, only with the existence of things or their destruction. The task of science is to transform one form into another, or one element into another.

Creation ex nihilo is outside the scientist’s jurisdiction. He concerns himself only with the transformation of matter, e.g. lead into gold, or gold into lead, or even a fish into a human—if you want to accept that (far-fetched) theory; but creation ex nihilo doesn’t interest him. The scientist cannot deal with something he never saw, and he has never seen this type of creation.

Question: Is this creation to be accepted on pure faith, or does it have a basis in logic?

Answer: Belief in G‑d is more than just emunah (faith). In mathematics, for example, if there are only four possible answers to a problem and you have excluded three of them, it is logical that the correct answer must be the fourth one. By similar deduction—exclusion of all other possibilities—you could conclude that G‑d is the Creator. Furthermore, it is a matter of common sense. I would insult your common sense if I told you that this chair I am sitting on was not made by someone. Also, wherever you observe order and system you must assume that there is some force or power maintaining this system. Science has shown that all the molecules in the universe fit into one great system, but that no molecule, or collection of them, itself devised or controls this system.

Before concluding, I noticed that we have some (college) students present. I would like to hear from them as well.

One student: You said that we should make religion part of our daily lives. However, some of us feel that we cannot accept religion completely. Is there any value in compromise? For example, eating kosher but not to wear a hat.

Answer: Nobody is perfect. “There is no tzaddik [righteous person] on earth that has never sinned.” Even the most righteous is lacking in some aspect, yet this doesn’t impair the good that he does perform. Every mitzvah gives him additional power to continue.

Same student: I meant a permanent compromise. That he is not interested in fulfilling some precepts at all?

Answer: Let him do as much as he can today—tomorrow he will try to fulfill even more. Or maybe the day after tomorrow. G‑d has infinite patience. But why postpone till tomorrow what you can do now?

You said that we should make religion part of our daily lives. However, some of us feel that we cannot accept religion completely. Is there any value in compromise? Another student: I come from a small community and never had a good Jewish education. I find the Reform too simplified and liberal, but I cannot follow the Orthodox services. What shall I do?

Answer: You are young, and you have before you all the time in the world to learn even more than those who already have a Jewish education. It is stated in Avos: Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor—you are not expected to learn everything at once. A little bit each day, as long as you are on the right track. Start with Chumash [Pentateuch], Kitzur Shulchan Aruch [abridged Code of Jewish Law] in English, Ein Yaakov [a compilation of homiletics and stories from the Talmud] in English. Avoid the complacency of thinking that you have achieved the summit; rather know that you have more to strive for tomorrow, and G‑d will give you strength.

My major objection to Reform and Conservative Judaism is that they compromise their ideals. They make it easy for you to achieve the summit, and then they say you need strive for no higher. Orthodoxy says you must strive to become a little bit better each day. The stories in the Bible and Talmud apply to every era. Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old and had to support a family, and yet started with [teaching] alef bais [the Hebrew alphabet] and became one of the greatest rabbis of all times. This teaches us that if you set your will to it, you will achieve it.

(To Hillel Directors:) May you have nachas [gratification] from your disciples and learn from them, [as our sages say], umitalmidai yoser mikulam [you learn the most from your students]. May you yourselves ascend from one level to another.

An unedited transcript of an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1 Comment
1000 characters remaining
DR Thomas M.DiResta(proselyte) Swampscott, Massachusetts/USA March 31, 2011

I am a devout student of Judaism, self study of the Bible, talmud & many other books on Judaism. Raised as a catholic I took a giant step forward & went back to my original faith--Judaism. As such, I have tried very hard to follow the faith as closely as possible. I recite the blessings on a daily basis, study hebrew daily so as to better understand my faith(Judaism). I am married, & have met with resistance to a full conversion--& I deal with this as best as I can. I would care to be a bar mitzvah but see that to have harmony I must compromise--much against my wishes. My happiest moments were in attending temple services in my home in florida. Do many proselytes meet with with as much resistance from both attitudes as I have encountered? None the less, I intend to adhere to my chosen faith as much as is possible. Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to express my feelings, yours in faith. Reply

Related Topics