What are the fundamental beliefs of Judaism? At the most fundamental level they can be reduced to belief in the divine origin of the Torah, that the Torah was given to the Jews by the Almighty Creator. The basic question then becomes not whether or not God exists, but rather: is revelation possible? Judaism’s answer is that although we cannot say anything about God’s essence, we definitely can say that God speaks. While the act of belief itself is imprinted into human nature, it does not naturally manifest itself in terms of belief in Hashem. Man’s natural tendency is to believe in paganism and idolatry, to believe forces that are to be found within the world and not beyond it.
All grand historical processes occur according the providence of God and His will, including those processes that seem to be in opposition to Him – such as secularism. The rise of secularism presents believers with a dilemma; it appears that they must choose between the religious world and the modern world. The solution to this dilemma is found by gaining a deeper understanding both of belief and of secularism.
How should we relate to the multitude of ideologies and value systems in the world? “Both opinions are the word of the living God” – but to what point? Do opinions outside the realm of holiness also have a root connecting them to the divine? Certainly, morally corrupt opinions should be recognized as such. In fact, the moral standing of a society is defined by its ability to identify corrupt opinions and reject them. And part of bringing about the peace between ideas is by allowing them to do battle. Although, we must recognize that people often cling to a clearly false idea because of the spark of truth contained in it. And so, we must aim to identify those sparks of truth and acknowledge them, and thereby ‘uplift them’. In fact, the greater the moral corruption of a belief or opinion, the potential for holiness embedded in it is greater. Instead of developing a partial worldview we must strive to attain a more inclusive one. In our generation, this means to strive for a synthesis of the religious, national and cosmopolitan aspirations in society. Read More
The true religious experience in Judaism is not based on spiritual feelings originating in man’s emotions. These feelings are no more than a human creation and man cannot escape his human existence and encounter the transcendent Creator through them alone, but can only encounter himself. The religious experience should not be the cause for a connection between man and God, but rather it is a necessary result of this connection, originating in God’s revelation to man. The act of prayer, of approaching and appealing directly to God, is only possible because of the existence of prophecy, that allowed those who merited it to understand to Whom we are appealing.
The essence of preparation for prayer is linked to prophecy and is not about feeling any one particular emotion toward God, but in realizing the unification of opposing values, which is the goal of the inclusive monotheism. The authentic religious experience, then, requires approaching God through a synthesis of both happiness and fear, to feel both closeness and distance from Him at once. To ‘rejoice while trembling’. Read More
Nature may behave mechanically, according to predictable laws, but Judaism sees the soul of man as being unbound by causality. Unlike other approaches, Judaism sees people as being truly free. God’s ultimate free will is the source of man’s free will, and He desired that nature be governed by laws, while man be free. God is not part of nature, but rather, nature is part of God. Therefore, people are accountable for their actions. Although man does not choose his initial set of conditions, he does choose his response to them.
Moreover, Judaism sees no inherent contradiction between divine foreknowledge and man’s free will. This follows from the recognition that His ‘knowledge’ is unlike our human concept of knowledge. Reality can be likened to a film strip, where God sees the entire film reel opened before him all at once, outside the dimension of time. We, on the other hand, experience the film of reality chronologically, and so we must act out of recognition of our free will, and the understanding that God neither compels nor decrees what we will or won’t do.
Herein lies the power of teshuva. As long as man’s will-power continues to identify with a sinful act, he is judged accordingly. But the moment he returns and regrets having done it, he uproots his will from the act; he no longer desires to perform it. By undergoing the process of teshuva, the act becomes retroactively imbued with an alternative meaning and it then can be seen from God’s perspective. Thus we can reach profound moral conclusions from an issue that is on the surface ‘purely philosophical’.
Both the desire for good and the desire for evil are inherent and fundamental to man and this was God’s original intention. The desire for evil is, in fact, grounded in man’s fundamental life force and vitality which are, in and of themselves, positive traits that express a love for this world. Love for this world is liable to bring one to sin, that is, to excessiveness that crosses moral boundaries. But, while evil deeds remain evil and must be opposed, the presence of certain desires themselves reflects a healthy vitality in one’s soul; greater spiritual development will necessarily entail more potent desires.
Capitulation to one’s base desires reflects a deep longing to be a slave; whereas the act of teshuva (repentance) is the greatest affirmation of the liberty of man, releasing oneself from the chains of habit and surrender to those desires. Man’s free will is actually above both his desire for good as well as his desire for evil, and one should therefore strive to lead a life in which both desires are in harmony with one another. In doing so, instead of utterly conquering and subduing one’s base desires, they should be redirected to positive goals; and channeled, under the lead of the desire for good, to the service of Hashem.
The highest purpose that one can choose for himself is to attain deep knowledge and understanding of God. Although, contrary to common thinking, God is not confined to the spiritual realm, but rather, as the creator of both the spiritual world and the material world, He is present in everything. And so the aspiration to truly know God, entails knowing Him through all aspects of life, from the basest material needs to the grandest pursuits of the intellect and the soul. In doing so, every individual reveals a unique aspect of Hashem’s oneness that only that individual can reveal; and this is the meaning of unity, a concept vastly different from uniformity.