“The idea that Judaism starts with is that man is created in the likeness of God…. There is always the opportunity to do a mitzvah…. The central issue in Judaism is the mitzvah, the sacred act. And it is the greatness of man that he can do a mitzvah. How great we are that we can fulfill the will of God!” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The Jewish perspective on doing the will of God is found in five central concepts: creation, covenant, halakah (walking with God), Torah (written and oral law) and mitzvah (commandment).
God created humanity in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27). Human beings possess both a good and a bad inclination (yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra). (There is no notion of a “fall” in Judaism as there is in Christianity.)
Humanity is both dependent on God and a partner with God. Leon Klenicki writes: “For Judaism, creation is God’s offering, calling forth both a personal and a communal response of commitment and redemptive action.”
Martin Buber says in I and Thou: “We take part in creation, meet the Creator, reach out to him, helpers and companions.” Participation in creation is a central task for humanity.
God’s covenant with Israel provides the theological foundation for the development of the Jewish faith. God covenants with all humanity and creation through Noah (Gen 9:1-17), and God covenants with the Jewish people through Abraham (Gen 17:1-21) and Moses (Ex 19-20).
By covenant God calls and promises, and the Jewish people respond by accepting their role as a community with a vocation. Rabbi Klenicki explains: “God imposes conditions, a way of being; and Israel accepts the call to be a People of God. The biblical covenant is an experience of total inner change and commitment. It implies a transformation, a new beginning in life.” The covenant is not just historical; it is lived out by Jews in each generation.
The covenant relationship generates a spirituality of “walking with God” (halakah). The revelation of God at Sinai defines a way of life for Israel in the Ten Commandments. This way of Law is widened and deepened by the prophets and the rabbis who interpret its text.
The keeping of law is not mere legalism; it happens in the context of covenant. Klenicki calls halakah a “discipline of the spirit.” He says: “Halakah is a way, a discipline …. Halakah requires a careful observance of food, a devotion to family and the community, a life of prayer, and the keeping of ritual… flexible and always aware of life’s needs, of the living imperative implementing the experience of God.” Walking with God integrates the inner encounter with God and the outer expression of faith.
God gave both a written Torah, found in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and an oral Torah, recorded in the Talmud. The proper response to God’s revelation is active study. The Talmud says: “Turn (the Torah) over and over, for it contains everything. Keep your eyes riveted to it. Spend yourself in study. Never budge from it, for there is no better life than that.” Torah gives direction for living.
Mitzvah (commandment) refers to all of the laws, practices and customs of halakah, and more broadly means any good deed. Mitzvah is a response to God’s covenant love. By performing an act of mitzvah, Jews demonstrate the vitality of the covenant in their own lives, according to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. He writes: “The mitzvot sanctify the Jew’s life and imbue it with transcendental meaning and content….The mitzvot are the vehicles by which Israel is transformed into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; they are the divinely ordained tools enabling her to emulate God’s ways.” Mitzvah provides a way to transform everyday actions into ways of relating to God.
Heschel explains how doing a mitzvah is central to doing the will of God: “Religion without mitzvot is an experience without the power of expression…. Without the Torah we have only deeds that dream of God; with the Torah we have mitvot that utter God in acts.”
Bibliography and helpful links:
Martin Buber, I and Thou (Simon & Schuster) 1976
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism (Word, 1984).
Leon Klenicki and Eugene Fisher, Basic Jewish and Christian Beliefs in Dialogue, PACE (Winona: St. Mary’s Press, 1983).
Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976)
Talmud quoted from Philip Novak, The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994)
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.