Jewish Beliefs: Accepting the Yoke of the Mitzvot

Judaism is not heavy with doctrine but has 613 commandments - all but three of which can and should be broken when life is in peril.

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Performing the Tashlich commandment into the Hudson River, New York, 2010.
Performing the Tashlich commandment into the Hudson River, New York, 2010.Credit: Eliahu Hershkowitz

The Jewish religion is not heavy on doctrine, nor does it have a credo that its followers must accept in order to be Jews in good standing. Leading a Jewish life, at least from the religious point of view, is to take on the “yoke of the mitzvot,” the commandments that include instructions for how to comport oneself in almost every aspect of existence.

None of this is to say that Judaism does not stand for certain beliefs, or that it doesn’t embrace and preach specific values. It does both of these, and this article will attempt to lay out some of the basic elements of those beliefs. But there is no official package that constitutes the Jewish credo, and there is no central authority, such as the pope, in Roman Catholicism, who could decide on such a credo. Rabbis, the leaders of the Jewish community, are basically teachers, rather than intermediaries with God who can offer salvation or damnation.

Probably the closest Judaism comes to an articulation of basic beliefs is Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith,” which appear in the 12th-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher’s commentary on the Mishna.

Each of the baker’s dozen of statements in the list begins with the words, “I believe with perfect faith that” They go on to express the belief that God is the creator of all things, and is unique, inchoate and indivisible; that the words of the Prophets and of the Torah are true and eternal; and that the Messiah will come, “even though he may tarry,” at which time the dead will be resurrected.

Haredim performing the Tashlich commandment, casting bread into the waters of the Yarkon River mouth before Yom Kippur. 2011.Credit: Nir Kafri

The Rambam’s list, however, is just the best-known of a number of such summaries of Jewish faith that were assembled, largely in the Middle Ages. None is official. And it leaves out many elements that are seen as basic components of Jewish identity.

Herewith are some of them.

The Jews as “Chosen”: This is a concept that has aroused antagonism and worse over the centuries among non-Jews, and discomfort among some Jews as well. Among knowledgeable Jews, however, it is not understood to mean that Jews are better or preferred in the eyes of God. In fact, it is not even a belief that only Jews can achieve salvation or eternal life – to the extent that these are Jewish concepts at all. Rather, being “chosen” refers to the opportunity given to the Jews as a nation – and their willingness -- to receive the mitzvot (the commandments), and to be a holy people. As the Book of Amos (3:2) says: "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth -- that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities."

Inspecting seaweed for sushi production at the Mitzvot Institute: He's looking for bugs and other things that would render the weed unkosher.Credit: Alon Ron

Certainly, there is no sense that the Jews constitute a race, or that membership in the Jewish people is a closed list. In fact, as is often pointed out, the title character of the Book of Ruth was a non-Jew, a Moabite, who decided that the Israelites “should be my people,” is presented in the Bible as the great-grandmother of King David, from whose line will come the Messiah.

Rabbi Hillel and the “Golden Rule”: When the 1st-century rabbinical sage Hillel was asked by a non-Jew to summarize the Torah for him while standing on one foot, according to the Mishnaic tractate “Ethics of the Fathers,” he gave the following answer: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and learn.”

Indeed, the concepts of compassion and empathy are expressed in Exodus 22:20: “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." Giving of charity in all its forms is also a key part of Jewish behavior.

The Messiah and the afterlife: Judaism does not have a fixed concept regarding an afterlife, or of reward and punishment after death. Rather, it emphasizes life, which is its own reward.

The cyclical nature of the Hebrew calendar, with the opportunity returning each autumn, during the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to ask for forgiveness – not only from God, but from our fellow human beings – for wrongdoings committed during the year past, and to improve on our behavior, is further evidence of the responsibility of the individual for his or her own acts and of the constant chance to redeem ourselves.

When you not only may but should break the commandments

Another indication of the centrality of life in Jewish thought is the fact that any and all of the 613 commandments supposedly found in the Torah – with but three exceptions – not only can, but must be violated if someone’s life is even remotely risk.

For example, the need to get medical care for a sick person trumps the restrictions of the Sabbath, despite the centrality of that day. The exceptions to this rule – the commandments that must not be violated even at the cost of death – are the prohibitions on idolatry, murder or adultery.

Among many Orthodox Jews, there is a literal belief in the coming of the Messiah (as expressed in the Rambam’s principles of faith, although even the great philosopher acknowledged that “he may tarry”), who will ingather the Jews from all parts of the world in the Land of Israel, and cause the resurrection of the dead. Among more liberal movements, the concept of the Messiah is less literal, and focuses more on the aspiration for an age when justice and mercy will prevail.

In Christianity, and particularly in the New Testament, the Christian scriptures, the statements in the Hebrew Bible alluding to the coming of the Messiah are seen as having been fulfilled with the birth of Jesus, an incarnation of God in the form of a man. Jews do not believe that the Messiah has appeared, and do not believe that the nature of God is divisible, or can take human or any other form.

Centrality of the Land of Israel: Even as the vast majority of the Jewish people lived dispersed around the world for most of two millennia, and it was during this period that they took on many of the characteristics they have today, the Jews have never stopped longing to return to Zion.

For some, the longing is more for a metaphorical “promised land” than it is expressive of a literal desire to live here. One of the ideological points that divides Orthodox and other Jews from many ultra-Orthodox is the belief by the latter that it is a sin to have tried to establish a “Jewish” state in Israel before the arrival of the Messiah. But all Jews share a love for their homeland, even if they have strong differences about whether it belongs to them exclusively or can be shared with another people, such as the Palestinians.

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