I was asked recently to articulate why Judaism matters. Here is my reply:
Now HaShem said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. [As a consequence of your going] I will make of you a people vital to life, and I will bless you, and spread your reputation [as a people devoted to justice and compassion], so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse [those who follow the way of justice and compassion will be blessed with justice and compassion, those who do not will be cursed with injustice and cruelty]; and through you all the earth’s families [human and otherwise] shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, my rendering)
This is the mission statement of the Jewish people. The Hebrew translated here as “Go” is lech lecha, and literally means to walk to yourself, implying both an external and an internal journey.
To take this journey, we are challenged to leave behind nationalism, tribalism and family baggage. Judaism is not about conforming to the past, but about living God’s command in the present. It isn’t about fitting in, but about moving on.
Where we are to go, the “land” mentioned here, is not revealed. While some insist it is Israel, I suggest it is something more (which is not the same as saying it is something else): a state of mind.
In either case, this is a journey based on radical trust. We will be shown our destination only when we arrive at it.
Our importance as a people depends on our taking this journey into the unknown. We are called to be the boundary-crossers (this may be the original meaning of Habiru/Hebrew); we are the ones who “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
The purpose of the journey is not to become great, but to become a vehicle through which all of the earth’s families will be blessed.
Our goal isn’t to conquer or convert, but to bless and bring blessings to the entire world, every family of every species. We do this by embodying compassion: engaging the world justly, lovingly and humbly (Micah 6:8).
When asked to articulate the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study it.” (Tractate Shabbat 32a).
I take Hillel literally. The entire Torah, the entirety of Judaism, is a guide to compassion when we read and live it as such.
If your reading of Torah or your living of Judaism (or both) does not make you more just, loving and humble, then you are misreading Torah and not living Judaism.
This is why I am a Jew: At its best, Judaism challenges me to drop the known and step into the unknown; to be a blessing and a vehicle for blessing so that all life benefits from my life; and to embody a specific level of consciousness that embraces the world with justice, love and humility.
True, Judaism is often not at its best, but I can find enough examples past and present to keep me loyal to the mission.