Charles Moscowitz is the author of the new book: God is God: God is the Creator and Law-Giver
I study Talmud on Zoom with a Rabbi and a small group. Today we discussed the intricacies of a tract of Mishna. We then recited the afternoon prayer which includes the Aleinu which praises God for not making us like other nations. This causes me to reflect on the question of why God wanted us to be separate from other nations. If this is the will of God then why did God separate and what is our mission?
The Talmud tract we studied and the conversation focused on the intricacies and even the minutiae of Jewish law, known as Halacha, which was codified at a time when the Jewish people had lost sovereignty in Roman Judaea after the destruction of the Second Temple, 70 CE, and the bar-Kockba rebellion, 136 CE. At the time Jews were banned from entering Jerusalem and were severely prosecuted. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, after crushing the rebellion, attempted to abolish Judaism outright by renaming Judaea “Palestina” which was a reference to the ancient Philistines who had disappeared from the pages of history millennia earlier at the time of King David. Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Alia Capitolina and he set up an idol on the ruins of the Temple.
The Talmud served as a means to preserve and advance that separation of the Jewish people from the non-Jewish world at a time of grave doubt about the future of Judaism. This was one of the reasons why these laws appear to be so strict and exacting.
Yet, this simple and valid explanation of the purpose of these laws risks the avoidance of a deeper understanding of their meaning and function. That function, I would suggest, and indeed this goes to the mission of the Jewish people and why God made us unlike other nations, is for the Jew to strive to know God and to serve God by means of observing this extra layer of laws. These laws, besides serving as a means by which we delineate our separateness, reminds us of the existence of God the Creator and the Law-Giver. They represent a partnership between us and God, a covenantal relationship that is meant to demonstrate that God is God and that we are to set an example to all of the nations and peoples of the world so that the world will know God. These laws, which don’t always appear to be rational in the strict sense, raise our spirituality, our morality, our ethics, and our sense of purpose and mission both as individuals and as a people.
Yet by focusing mainly, and in some cases almost exclusively on observing those laws to a high degree of perfection, however, we risk losing the forest for the trees. Without God, we diminish our sense of purpose as our observance of law, while reflecting great accomplishment, risks becoming empty and highly legalistic gestures that focus more on appearance than on substance.
The dilemma becomes more exacerbated and acute when the concept of separateness and the habits of observance fall into the hands of Jews who forget God altogether and who simultaneously ignore these laws. Yet they continue to hold on to the idea of separateness and to the mission of changing the world except they replace God with themselves as shapers of their own flawed and biased versions of morality and ethics. They attempt to carry out the mission of their people, as they arbitrarily understand that mission, without God, without the concept of law as part of Devine revelation, without an objective understanding of the spirituality, morality and ethics that are all part of the mind of the Creator of the Universe. They proceed to act and advocate with few if any vestiges of what it means to be a Jew.
Their denial of God and the laws that make the Jew different from the other nations of the world tends to result in a Jew that is dedicated to changing the world through revolution led by those who, stepping in for the God that they banished from their consciousness, seek to change the world to suit their own images. They seek to create an artificial world that is based on the own deeply flawed opinion and agendas. They turn their back on greater truths which they replace with figments of their own fecund imaginations as they try to transform society to conform to those figments by means of fiat power.