How does one sum up the essential teachings of a religious tradition? If we cannot convey the entirety of accumulated thinking within a religion, how do we distill the fundamental ideas so that they can be transmitted from one generation to the next?
This problem has confronted Jewish tradition throughout the generations. Contemporary Jews often assume that the summary statement of Judaism is the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one (or, the Lord alone).” If we probe a little deeper, we might find the suggestion that what Jews “believe” can be found in first two of the Ten Commandments.
In this week’s Torah portion, we find an important and early declaration of faith that the ancient Israelites were commanded to offer upon bringing their first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple. In this statement, we find what the authors of Deuteronomy, at least, had in mind as the core concepts of the Jewish religious experience.
“My father was a fugitive Aramean who descended into Egypt and resided there, few in number. Yet there, he became a great nation, strong and numerous. The Egyptians oppressed and afflicted us, subjecting us to hard labor. We called out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our cry, and saw our oppression, our hard labor, and our affliction. The Lord then brought us forth from Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with awe-inspiring acts, with signs and wonders. And He has brought us to this place, and given us this land flowing with milk and honey. So now, observe, I have brought the first fruit of the land which You, Lord, have given to me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
What is remarkable about this declaration is that it focuses so little on what God is and emphasizes instead what God has done. It does not offer an endorsement of monotheism, as important as that is; it does not acclaim God as Creator, notwithstanding the opening chapters of Genesis; it does not acknowledge God as Giver of the Torah, despite the centrality of Sinai.
Instead, what Jews affirm is the story of the Exodus in which God comes to be known as the Liberator. Given the range of stories that could be declaimed in the ritual of offering, Deuteronomy selects the story we associate with Pesach as the “confession of faith” of ancient Israel.
Throughout Jewish history, there have been attempts to delineate the core beliefs of tradition. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides sought to encapsulate 13 principles of Jewish faith. While they achieved some currency, they did not become part of some formulaic or liturgical recitation (with the exception of their popularization in the hymn “Yigdal”).
In Maimonides’ lifetime, other rabbinic authorities challenged both the idea of identifying core ideas and the content of his list. While there is general agreement about the essential affirmations of Judaism, the specific content of these affirmations has remained fluid and broad, allowing for multiple interpretations.
Thus, to return to our passage from Deuteronomy, when we affirm that God “brought us out of Egypt” any number of things can be meant. For some, this is a literal truth; for others it is a spiritual metaphor in which making people free becomes an example of Godliness in the world.
Similarly, affirming God as Creator can mean believing in the accuracy of the biblical account of creation, or it could, for example, mean recognizing God as the creative principle within creation.
What Deuteronomy suggests in the passage above is not so much believing in God as identifying oneself with the story of the Jewish people. Similarly, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstuctionist Judaism, taught that “belonging is prior to believing,” by which he meant that faith flows not from intellectual assent to a series of abstract principles, but from active engagement in the ongoing life of a people.
Judaism is thus more than the ideas of Jewish religion: It is the living with the Jews of the past, present, and future and the telling of their story as our own.