If someone as great as Maimonides (Hilchos Teshuva, chap. 3) warns us not to violate certain prohibitions, where violators lose their souls, we are wise to heed his words. If we then learn that the Talmud (Sanhderin 90a) and others agree with this threat, then we must study those laws and grasp the severity of the sins involved.
We live once. We can select a path of lusts, wealth, power and fame...and forfeit our souls. Or, we can follow Moses' teaching to "choose life", and ensure that we not only live the most joyous existence here, but also inherit the World to Come. Had the Torah made the World to Come a prominent topic, many would focus on it alone and they would abandon the search for wisdom and its enjoyments here – thereby sacrificing both worlds. For when one lives in imagination (imagining the unknown reward of the Afterlife) one is not living in reality, and forfeits it. But we are guaranteed that by living a life of Torah we will earn the Afterlife. This is because entitlement to the Afterlife is in proportion to one's knowledge of fundamentals and Torah fulfillment, based on a genuine value of both.
There are just a handful of fundamental laws we must observe to retain the Afterlife. It is therefore inexcusable that the study of these few laws is almost totally absent from most yeshiva curriculums. Not only are these laws essential, but with a firm, rational understanding of them, students would be far less attracted to other religions – being armed with refutations; intermarriage would decline as would resorting to substance abuse, since students would find satisfaction in their Jewish lifestyle, and reality, and would therefore need no escape.
With a clear appreciation of the truths that only Judaism offers and which Torah study provides, students would find pride in their religion, as their observance would make sense. It is the lack of a clear, pleasing philosophy and rational explanations that drives students away. Studying Hebrew language, Talmudic cases of cows goring others, and the obligation to attend Shul for hours weekly will not retain a student's sense of obligation, if not grounded in a system that appeals to his or her mind. Questions starting with "Why should I be observant? What's in it for me? Why is Judaism different than any other religion?" must be answered at the outset. This must progress to lesson after lesson in the beauty and precision of Chumash and Navi. They must be exposed to the brilliance of the Torah's style: showing them the questions raised from the texts, and how the very text that created the questions, also supplies the answer. We have given many examples over the years in the JewishTimes. Utilize our back issues, articles and audio classes that will best appeal to your students and children. Our attempt has always been to display the remarkable design of the Torah.
Life has one primary purpose: seeking truth. God granted each and every man and woman intelligence – and no other Earthly being – for the very reason that we use this faculty in all areas. "And it was that [King] David was wise in all his ways, and God was with him". (Sam. I, 18:14) Not only did King David treasure the life of Torah, but this verse teaches that by doing so, "God was with him".
As recipients of this lofty gift, intelligence, a gift so precious that God assigned His name to it "Tzelem Elokim", we must realize that our employment of intelligence, our pursuit wisdom, and the continued search for new truths must surpass all other endeavors. The Talmud, quoting King Solomon, teaches that the greatest mitzvah that precedes all others, is Torah study. (Moade Katan 9b) This is not only sensible, as we require knowledge to carry out the rest of the Torah, but Torah study surpasses all else due to the elevated status of the activity. Nothing matches the act of investigating God, which is what we mean by Torah study. When engaged in studying God's creations or Torah, we realize the most satisfaction in life. We are amazed at new concepts. Our highest element – our Tzelem Elokim – is free to soar and think into any area we query. It doesn't tire. It is enabled to detect questions and uncover answers God has hid, to arouse greater interest. New insights permeate our whole self with an enjoyment unmatched in any other area. As we investigate God's universe, we are awed by its immensity, its complexity, its precision and its harmony. We know for certain that such a perfectly functioning cosmos and Earth are not results of accidents. We never seem to end our discoveries of new life forms, laws, planets, and the realization that all creations are "placed" where they function best. All animals seek a mate with their own kind; foods that best match their needs and likes are are within reach of each species; all species of plants yield their own products. All that, which is most necessary for life, is most abundant; that which is less needed, is less found: starting with air, water, rain, vegetation, meat, light, and temperatures. Just as the cosmos was created and is guided by complex design and wisdom, all natural laws on Earth too are highly intricate and display God's brilliance.
That same Divine design and precision found in all corners of heaven and Earth are equally found in the world of Torah wisdom. Torah truths are not found easily: we must think long and intelligently to arrive at them, just as we engage much analysis to discover natural laws. Both are creations of the same Creator – both reflect the same perfection.
Unfortunately, the transmission of Torah which relies on humans – finds itself at a grave disadvantage. Unlike the rest of the universe that is unaffected by human error...human emotions, assimilation, ignorance, schemes and agendas have distorted Torah transmission over time. And the human need for acceptance compounds those distortions in even greater measure: the blind lead the blind where few people oppose what might be flawed reasoning, only to be accepted by others. Many are attracted by mystical and idolatrous notions, although they feel, "it is Judaism". Many rise to positions of authority although unworthy, as it feeds their egos and desire for power, while their untrained minds proliferate fallacy. And the masses accept it, as they respect positions, reputations, the numbers of followers, or simply because it's in print. The real barometers of truth – intelligence and proof – have been tragically sacrificed and replaced with "popularity". Ironically, the same individuals who would never rely on human emotion to select surgeons, do rely on emotions when accepting what Judaism is. While there is no difference in the perspective of the Creator, as the universe and Torah are equally His brilliant masterpieces...humans fail to employ rigorous reasoning when determining Torah truths.
Therefore, it is crucial that we go back to the source to determine Torah truths. In a world where no two Judaism's appear alike, we trust God's promise: "Torah will never leave your mouths, your childrens' mouths or your grandchildrens' mouths, says God, from now and forever". (Isaiah 59:21)
Relying on our Torah, the wisdom of our prophets, and Maimonides' teachings, I hope to present the fundamentals that define Judaism. I have categorized four topics: God, The Ten Commandments, Fellow Man, the Self, and Rules. Within each, I will attempt to succinctly highlight what is most crucial to our understanding. We must possess true notions in all areas, and dispel falsehood, as we said, "truth" is the objective of our lives. In each realm, we must engage the Tzelem Elokim, as is God's will, if we are to arrive at truth. For it is only through reason alone, that mankind might discover the brilliance God used in crafting reality: our Torah laws. As it is impossible to detect color without the eye, it is equally impossible to detect truth without reason.
We perpetrate a great injustice to our children and students by omitting classes on the Torah's fundamentals and the art of reason and proof. The Torah can be the most enjoyable experience, guaranteeing the best of both worlds. And as our greatest leaders have taught, the fundamentals are vital, as is the method of reason and proof. I will now briefly outline our fundamentals, offering reasoning and rules to guide us.
Maimonides organized 13 Principles concerning our understanding of God that are vital to our remaining part of the Jewish people, and entitling us to Olam Haba – the Afterlife. If we fail to understand what God is, and is not, we forfeit our entire purpose in life, and the afterlife. We also pray to something in our imaginations, and not the true God. And imaginations cannot respond to prayer.
First and foremost is our recognition of, and conviction in the Creator. We must understand that creation is to provide mankind with evidence of the Creator; the intricacies in its design display His unfathomable wisdom. God has done this so man might fear Him, and come to be enamored, to the point, that man constantly seeks God. This process of discovery was also a creation, and God made discovery highly pleasurable. It is no accident that we enjoy a good question, and a good answer. All is part of His design.
We must understand that nothing creates itself. That is impossible. Thus, the entire universe did not exist at one time. God exists independent of all else. He created the universe out of nothingness. We don't know 'how' He did this, and we cannot. We cannot ask 'why' He did this, as motive is a human attitude, and God is in no way related to anything human. But it must be so that the universe did not create itself, but was created by the Creator. And as God is the exclusive cause of the universe, there are not two, three or more gods. For "God" means "exclusively" the cause of all. He is the singular existence needed for everything else. No other "god" is required. For if there were two gods, then neither one is truly God, since neither one had the sole capacity to create. And if one created while the other did not, that second god is not God.
As God created the physical universe, He is not physical. Again, as He created the physical for the first time, prior to that moment, there was nothing physical. Thus, God is not physical. As such, He also possesses no quality at all that is similar to His creations, like happiness, sadness, jealousy, anger or any other emotion. The prophet teaches this: "To what shall you liken Me, and I will be similar, says the Holy One?" (Isaiah, 40:25) God is unlike anything He created, including all created emotions. When the Torah speaks of God as jealous, it means He rejects the view that other gods exist, as if one leader were jealous of another. When the Torah teaches that He loves us, it means He approves of our actions.
And as He is not physical, God does not occupy space or location. As the Rabbis teach, "He is the 'place' of the world, and the world is not His place". The word "place" here means source or "cause". Just as an object requires a location and cannot exist without place, the world too cannot exist without God. Calling God "place" of the world means to call Him the source, or cause of the world. But God, in fact, is not "in" the world. He exists in a manner we cannot understand. "For man cannot know Me while alive", was stated to Moses. (Exod. 33:20) For this reason, we reject the notion "God contracted Himself to make room for the universe to exist". This statement is heresy, as it attributes the physical character of location to God.
And as He created all else, He was the first existence ever to exist. He created time too, so He had no beginning. All this demands that we glorify God and pray to Him alone, and to no other being. For only He controls the universe, since He alone created it. No man, not even Moses, had any control over natural law. This explains why Moses was almost killed as he traveled to Egypt, and why prophets died. No one has power to avoid death, or other natural laws. If we need anything at all, we must direct all our requests to God alone. Not men, not Rabbis, and not prophets.
We must be convinced in Revelation at Sinai. For this is the proof that Torah and Judaism are of a Divine nature, and that all other religions are not. All other religions are based on belief, since there were no masses that witnessed any Divine communication. Whereas 2.5 million Jews witnessed an intelligent voice emanating from the flames on Mount Sinai. Nothing of this world survives fire, therefore, we know that voice was God. The unanimous acceptance of that account today verifies the story occurred, for who could proliferate such a story, and who would accept such a story, had it never occurred? Thereby, we recognize Judaism as possessing proof that Torah was given by God. No other religion possesses this proof.
Sinai also verifies the existence of prophecy – God's communication with man. Moses too is validated as the greatest prophet, since God chose him to receive and teach the Torah. Thus, none can contradict Moses' Torah. This provides a solid argument against Reformed and Conservative Jews who wish to reduce our laws, and to alter them. For Moses' Torah teaches that man is killed for Sabbath violation, while many Jewish groups today condone Sabbath violations. And the Torah prohibition to not add or subtract from Torah teaches that God gave this system to remain as it is forever.
We must realize from God's many actions, that He is fully aware of man, his actions, and his thoughts. For how could God approach Cain "before" his sin and warn him to abstain, unless He knew his thoughts? And as He punished Cain and many others, and rewarded those who feared Him, like Lote, we learn the fundamental of Reward and Punishment.
From Reward and Punishment, we learn that reincarnation is not a Torah truth, for what type of threat is the Torah's warning of excision – death of our souls – or the punishment of physical death for Sabbath violation...if we are to again be reborn? Such punishments teach that they are final. Life occurs once, unless God wishes that at Resurrection, some of us return. But do not confuse Resurrection which occurs at the Messianic era, with reincarnation. And do not assume Resurrection to be impossible, for as the Talmud argues, "if God can create life from lifeless semen, He can create life from bones that actually once possessed life".
We must accept all 13 Principles: God's existence; He is one; He is not physical; He existed before all else existed; He alone deserves our praises; He gives man prophecy; Moses was the greatest prophet; Torah is from God; Torah will never be changed or removed; God knows man's actions and thoughts; God rewards and punishes; God will bring the Messiah; God will resurrect the dead.
These fundamentals organized by Maimonides address our concept of God.
In addition, we must recognize the elevated status of certain commands, with Torah Study as the greatest. Prayer – Tefila – must also be valued by us, and directed only to God. God is the only force in the universe. Therefore, idolatry in all its forms must be rejected, including all forms of lies concerning "other forces" in the universe. These lies include horoscopes, amulets, belief in mezuza as protective, and any physical object claimed to have affects on the world inexplicable by natural law, like red bendels, curses, and signs. Even as I write, I just received an email from JPost.com publicizing www.kabbalah72.net which promotes this idolatry of Kabbalistic amulets that offer "health, protection, and success".
A very popular idolatry are blessings from Kabbalists and Rebbes. Accounts continue to be reported of "Rabbis" and Kabbalistic mystics in Israel and New York taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from many desperate a Jews seeking healing, children, spouses, wealth and sustenance. They prey on their fellow Jew, lying about "very certain success" if they pay them exorbitant sums of cash. Belief in these liars has caused many to err and lose their wealth. If you know of such deceptive Rabbis or mystics, please inform us. We will publicize these thieves' names and addresses. Mysticism is not found in the teachings of Moses or any prophet.
Sabbath is equally vital to our belief in God's act of Creation, His exclusive role as Creator, and to make a public display so other nations and religions might learn of the true concept of God, as Maimonides teaches.
The Ten Commandments
These laws are of significance, explaining why they have been set apart from the others. Saadia Gaon explained that these ten matters are the head categories for all other laws. They are also written in an order descending from most vital to least, within each of the two tablets.
Accepting God, is the first. Abstention from idolatry is second. We have explained these. Third is using God's name in vain. This teaches that our attitude towards God must be one where we preserve His honor. Even His name must be treated with great care and respect. And to ensure His fame as Creator be preserved for us and others, Sabbath is the fourth command. To engender the very path towards accepting His authority, the fifth command is honoring our parents. It was not necessary that the institution of parents exist for itself, for God created Adam and Eve without parents, and it is not difficult for God to continue creating humans in this fashion. But in His wisdom God decreed that the phenomenon of birth exist, as this causes children to revere their parents, ultimately to transfer this concept of "authority" onto God and accept His laws. For this reason this law of honoring parents is placed in the first set of the ten Commands, which relegate laws between man and God. Honoring parents is not for them, for why are your parents any more deserving of honor than any other parents? No, this law is to engender our sense of respecting authority...God. For without parents, man might never learn the concept of authority.
The second tablet contains laws not to kill, commit adultery, or kidnap; not to testify falsely, and not to desire (plan methods of) taking what belongs to others. We see how the most damaging law is first in this set, namely murder, progressing to the least damaging...thought.
The purpose of these Ten Commandments is to forge in our minds the main categories of Torah law. Tzedaka, laws of leaving crops for others, returning a pledge and a lost object, rape, and others are subsumed under kidnapping. For this prohibition teaches our bodily concern for others, which also extends to our monetary concerns. Bearing false witness may include Lashon Hara, as this teaches not to use speech as an attack on others. And adultery addresses our lusts: an area in which many stumble. Study these commands and you will see how other laws fit into these categories. God desires we understand these fundamental themes.
Kindness, charity and justice are vital to society. This serves both a practical and an emotional purpose. Our concern must not be to simply give money or uphold the laws of justice, but to ensure people live with dignity. For it is dignity that empowers a person to strive for a good life and independence. Halacha teaches that the mitzvah of Tzedaka requires us to console and commiserate with the poor. We must therefore respect and uphold Jewish Law, for without it, we learn that man can end up destroyed, as in the Flood. God brought the Flood due to stealing. Therefore, treat halacha seriously.
Less damaging than actions, is speech. One who kills, or regularly speaks Lashon Hara, loses his or her Olam Haba. Another type who loses his Olam Haba are people who instill fear in the community not for Torah's sake, or mislead them to cause sin. This latter category is found more than you think. For if a leader is misguided, and recommends people perform acts that are sins, this leader forfeits his Afterlife. It is therefore so crucial that anyone in a position of authority make certain he or she is clear on what is actual Torah law and philosophy, and teach their followers to reject what is not. Leaders must first reflect, and determine with great honesty if he or she is teaching what is truly found in God's words, or merely popular among the masses.
"Poresh min haTzibur" – one who lives apart from the community even if living a Torah lifestyle – also forfeits Olam Haba. This is because that person does not view the collective Jewish community as a value. This value, is that there exist a phenomenon of a "nation" representing God's will. We must have concern for all peoples, and this is expressed through our joining all other Jews in all Torah activities. Creating a group phenomenon of "God's people", we thereby gain greater notice, and can more readily impress God's other nations to live as He wills.
The incorrect opposite, is conforming to the behaviors of others not warranted by the Torah, but assumed to be so. Although this is not met with the loss of Olam Haba, such conformity spreads false notions of God's laws.
Finally, those who can, must teach others. If one does not, an opinion in the Talmud severely criticizes such a person.
Application of truths to ourselves is faced with many hurdles. Mitzvos aim to perfect our convictions. For if we "say" charity is a good, but are never charitable in "action", we are not convinced in this truth. We are designed in a manner that convictions are tested by our actions. Thus, we have numerous mitzvos. We may not follow through in action due to ego, fear of authority, reputations, or wanting acceptance by the masses. We must be on constant guard of our motives and realign them with Torah ideals alone. We must strive to accept our flaws, for this is the path to a righteous life. Truth must be our sole objective. So reflect daily. Take steps to understand where you err, and make changes. As Maimonides teaches, we may uproot poor character traits by going to the other extreme, until we arrive at an equilibrium. Learning and the understanding of why our mitzvos are correct, combined with proper ethics and habits will make self improvement easier. And when appropriate, be kind to your fellow man and inform him or her of their errors.
Train yourself to avoid seeking honor in all its forms. This too will become easier as we immerse ourselves in greater Torah study. We might eventually arrive at an attitude described by King David, "When I view your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You established; what is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should visit him?" (Psalms 8:4,5) Here, David views himself – mankind – as unworthy of God's attention, but he arrives at this perfection through the awe he senses as he studies creation.
There is so much more to discuss; so many laws and Torah examples of human perfection. What rules might we live by to guide us towards truth, until we learn more?
Rule #1: First, always determine whether an idea is sensible. Demand proof, and truth in all areas. God formulated our Torah, so it must follow strict reason. When in doubt, consult a wise Rabbi trained in years of Talmud and Torah study. You know how to distinguish between 2+2=4 from 2+2=5. Strive to gain that same level of clarity in all areas.
Rule #2: Do not believe stories unless witnessed by masses. For if you do, then you have no argument against Christianity or Islam. I recall a prominent Rabbi who once lectured to hundreds. He expressed his belief in a story of a recently deceased Rabbi who, "not having Shabbos candles, instructed his students to retrieve icicles from the wintery roof to use in place of the candles...and sure enough, they lit." I was astonished that such an influential and acclaimed Rabbi accepted this story, and then taught it. But then, I realized that no human is immune to emotions – any person or Rabbi is subject to allowing his fantasies and deification of man to deter him from God.
Rule #3: Do not allow the person to become more important than the idea. This follows from the example above.
Rule #4: Do not fear man, as the Torah instructs. (Deut. 1:17)
Rule #5: If you have an idea, sound it off intelligent people. Gain feedback. Test it against the Torah you already know.
Rule #6: Ideas that contradict natural law are false. God gave us senses for the primary purpose of knowing what is true and real.
Rule #7: Do not lie, as the Torah commands. (Exod. 23:7) For this will corrupt your thinking in other areas, and it promotes your evaluation of ego as worth lying for.
Rule #8: Fear God, and know that all your actions are recorded, and that He metes out punishment and reward.
Rule #9: Study Pirkey Avos. Benefit from the insightful, ethical and intelligent ideas these great Rabbis have shared with us all.
Rule #10: Seek a source from God's Torah to defend or reject any idea. Then you will know what is absolute truth.
Finally, I would be happy to schedule classes on these areas at your request by phone or online. For one article cannot do the Torah the justice it deserves; many examples and lessons are required. You may also access our articles and audio classes as an alternative at www.Mesora.org/Philosophy and www.Mesora.org/Audio. Our recent audio classes on Koheles posted there are examples of how the text unveils God's hidden lessons. If you wish to join us live, we meet online Sundays, 11:15 AM EST at: www.Mesora.org/TalkLIVE
May God and our intelligence guide us always towards truths, and away from fallacy.