The Universality of Judaism

We read this week about the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and the corresponding election of our people as G-d’s vehicle, to proliferate monotheism and humanism throughout the world. Lest we err into thinking that this vocation entails a-priori privilege over others, our sages wisely named this week’s Torah portion after a non-Jew – Jethro, who was Moses’ father in law.

Jethro, teaches Rashi, was an idolatrous priest who experimented with all conceivable modes of idolatrous practices, as part and parcel of his volatile spiritual journey. According to some rabbinic commentators, Jethro actually converted to Judaism, whereas according to others, including the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra for example, Jethro became a good monotheist who internalized the supremacy of spirit of matter, but did not convert specifically to Judaism.

The naming of the parshah of the Ten Commandments after a non-Jew is far from serendipitous. It is meant to remind us once more, that which the Torah unequivocally professes in its opening chapter, namely that all humans are created in G-d’s image, a revolutionary ideal, which culminated in modern times with the political and legislative actualization of human rights and representative democracy. Notice also, that during the Jewish Holy Day of Shavuot, in which we celebrate the giving of the Torah – once again – we also read a Biblical work named after an indigenous non-Jew – Ruth the Moabite, who later on converted of her own accord to Judaism. The messiah/universal redeemer, asserts the tradition, will be a direct descendant of this originally non-Jewish woman, who grew up as a member of an enemy nation, hostile to the Jewish people.

Thirdly, notice also the content of the haftarah (prophetic reading) adjacent to the Torah portion of Kedoshim – the holiness code in Judaism. This prophetic reading, taken from the book of Amos, proclaims in its very opening verse in G-d’s name: “You [The Israelites] are as Africans to me!” In other words, our sages of antiquity codified for us to read the divine proclamation that the Almighty’s concern is with Africans too, thereby tacitly with all members of the human family – all of this is recited out loud in synagogues all over the world, immediately after we read about the holiness code in Judaism! And lastly – which text did the rabbis of old prescribe for us to read during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, as the very scriptural culmination of the High Holy Days season? The book of Jonah, whose pervasive message is that it is the cosmic obligation of the Jew to alleviate the plights of all mortals, and to contribute to the spiritual and moral refinement of all of humanity, including the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh, a city whose inhabitants are highly antagonistic foes of the Jewish people and its distinctive ethos. Judaism, taught us Emmanuel Levinas, is a “difficult freedom,” and a “religion for adults.”

At its finest and loftiest, Judaism is neither mere ethnocentric chauvinistic zeal, nor a morally defective particularistic political messianism. Rather, at its zenith, Judaism is but a distinguished particularistic path to uphold, affirm and even celebrate the dignity, rights and beauty, inherent in all cultures, and in all members of the human family. Judaism is a universal religion, not because it seeks to proselytize to members of other faiths or none – it doesn’t. Judaism is universal because it is open for all for join, and seeks not to obliterate or denigrate other spiritual doctrines.

In the words of the prophet Micah in the Bible: “For all nations shall follow their gods, and we shall pursue the path of Hashem.” This is what the late and righteous Rabbi Sacks had in mind, when he authored and coined the term “The Dignity of Difference,” after the abomination of 9/11. The diversity of humanity, pervasively implies our tradition, is a source of boundless celebration, rather than a cause for sorrowful lamentation. The Spirit of the universe denotes and emanates heterogeneous multiplicity, rather than sordid homogeneity and stifling uniformity. And it is precisely because we are all different – personally, ethnically and culturally- that “each and every one of us can make a unique contribution,” as individual persons, and as distinct cultures.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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