Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

“What is Judaism?” asks Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “A religion? A faith? A way of life? A set of beliefs? A collection of commands? A culture? A civilization?”

It is all of these, he responds, but Judaism is something more — a “constellation of ideas.”
Judaism values the power to think. Rabbi Sacks describes our tradition as “a dazzlingly original way of thinking about life.”

My friend David Suissa writes: “In our Twitter-crazy world of radical polarization, are we losing this power to think? It often feels like it. We seem to always be in combat mode. We want to catch our opponents in a mistake, crush them with our talking points. Instead of valuing ideas, we value clever arguments. Above all, we want to be right.

Great ideas, though, are not about being right. They’re meant to enlighten, not bludgeon. They seek to open minds, not change them. They inspire thought, not angry passion.”

Among his favorite ideas, Sacks quotes the American Declaration of Independence and its key sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

While claiming that “this is arguably the most important sentence in the history of modern politics,” Sacks notes the irony that “these truths are very far indeed from being self-evident. They would have sounded absurd to Plato and Aristotle, both of whom believed that not all men are created equal, therefore they do not have equal rights.”

The transformational idea of human equality, Sacks explains, can be self-evident only “to someone brought up in a culture that had deeply internalized our Hebrew Bible and the revolutionary idea set out in its first chapter, that we are each, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, in the image and likeness of God. This was one of Judaism’s world-changing ideas.”

David Suissa writes: “Yes, ideas can change the world, but they can also change us.

A favorite ideas in Judaism is how we extract deep wisdom from our holidays. Digging for meaning is integral to the observance of rituals. We don’t just fast, pray or sit around a festive table. We’re supposed to go deep, find life lessons, ask big questions: How can these rituals help us grow? How can they bring us closer? How can they add meaning to our lives?”

As we prepare to celebrate the New Year of the Trees, Tu Bishvat, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, may we find ways to go deep, ask questions, think about our lives and our planet and what wisdom Judaism can share with us and our loved ones.

B’vrachot, blessings,
Rabbi Dennis