The Uniqueness of Judaism

Rabbi Ari Ginsberg

“For you are a sacred people to Ad-noy, your G-d, and Ad-noy has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people from all the peoples who are on the surface of the earth” (Devarim 14:2)

One of the most amazing aspects of living in a free society such as America is the ability to engage in intellectual debates with members of different religions and theologies without fear of retribution. As we all know, this was not the case through many periods of our history. I recently had the privilege of engaging in such a debate about religion with a colleague who considers herself a staunch evangelical Christian. Her background, as she explained to me, was that she is a self-proclaimed “born again” Christian who studies and lectures on the bible in her church community on a consistent basis. Although I normally would avoid discussing religion in the workplace, in this instance, I made an exception. Interestingly, this experience did open my eyes to some important issues that heightened my appreciation of the Torah and our tradition/Mesora.

 I asked my colleague many questions about basic Christian philosophy throughout our informal conversation, but there were three questions that revealed the essential difference between our two religions.  The first question involved an understanding of the trinity - the Christian belief that God takes the form of three entities or has three components based on the plural usage of “Elokim” throughout the Torah. I asked her how she reconciled this belief with the verse in the Torah, “Hear Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One” (Devarim 6:4). If the bible claimed that God is one, how could he have three parts simultaneously; is this not an obvious contradiction? I explained that the use of “Elokim” in the Torah is reflective of God’s perfect justice, and is used interchangeably with reference to a human court to reflect a thorough process of deliberation. (Rashi/Ramban: Shmos 21:6) The second question I asked was how it was possible for Jesus to experience pain and suffering if he was perfect. Wouldn’t a perfect deity be capable of avoiding physical discomfort and ultimate crucifixion? Despite the negative connotations in limiting God’s abilities, Judaism maintains that God cannot be imperfect and is therefore unable to experience human pain. The third question I posed to her regarded the topic of God taking human form and expressing genuine emotions. A verse in Malachi (3:6), as quoted by the Rambam (Yesodei Hatorah 1:12), states: “I am Hashem, I never change.” This appears to directly oppose the possibility of God transforming from a non-physical to a physical form, or from a state of happiness to an emotional disposition of anger or regret. The Rambam, therefore, elucidates that all the demonstrations of emotions in the Torah are not genuine in nature, but recorded for our benefit in human terms in order to gain insight into Hashem’s actions and our own way of life. 

At the conclusion of this debate, my colleague admitted that she did not have satisfying answers to the questions I had raised, but she made recourse to an inarguable position. She claimed that she had a religious experience, whereby she had literally felt the “Holy Spirit” (one of the components of the trinity) inside her body. She explained that nothing I could say would faze her. This signaled the end of the debate, leading me to reflect on what had transpired. The conclusions seem to be of the utmost significance. First, the importance of our Mesora that outlines the boundaries of Jewish theology and the foundations of our religion gives us and our scholars the ability to understand the Torah and its literal contradictions on a more profound and complex level. Without the Oral Law (Torah Sheba’al Peh), the Written Law (Torah Shebichsav) is incomprehensible and is subject to gross speculation. Second, the ability to understand the nuances of Lashon Hakodesh (Hebrew), as opposed to a translation, can be the difference between the Torah being used as a proof for Christianity, or as we know it, a clear expression of Judaism’s veracity. The last concept that I had surmised, which I found distressing, is the possibility that many Jews would have been unprepared to answer these contradictory questions convincingly and may resort to falling back on the same point made by my Christian colleague. It is not sufficient for an Orthodox Jew to claim that he “feels” Hashem’s presence on Shabbos, or during davening or while singing, or “knows” that Hashem is everywhere, and therefore believes in God. It is imperative to distinguish our Jewish religion in quality of thought as well as religious fervor and emotion. Every Jew should understand how and why our Mesora makes us a distinct messenger of God’s wisdom to the world.

To illustrate the previous point, when I was a freshman in college I had enrolled in a class called Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. My professor was a Reform rabbi who enjoyed veering off topic and challenging the Orthodox Jewish students in the class with questions stemming from classic bible criticism. Although I enjoyed these attacks and the requisite counter-offensives, (luckily I can credit many wonderful teachers and my Jewish education for preparing me to rationally defend Orthodox Judaism), many of the other Orthodox students were clearly struggling in their responses. This experience revealed a clear weakness of conviction and understanding that should be strengthened at a young age in our Jewish educational institutions.

The appreciation of our Mesora, as well as its ability to help us understand the Torah to a greater degree, is a source of strength and conviction in our Jewish ideals. As Orthodox Jews, we should take advantage of this tremendous gift from Hashem and use it to further our standing and mission in this world. As such, we can be a true “Mamleches Kohanim Vegoy Kadosh” , a “Kingdom of priests and a distinct nation”  (Shmos 19:6) in representing the wisdom and depth of Judaism’s beliefs and practice.