Letters from the Jewish heritage
I am writing a series of letters that reflect what I’ve heard myself from the testimony of the observant Jews I have met and read writings of. These first few represent the questions regarding why to believe in the Sinai revelation at all. Later, God willing, I will add some more that specifically address the Christian ideas.
First letter: Sailing On His Ship
Thank you for the questions and well-wishes you sent. It would be an honour to share the perspective of our inheritance with you.
It will take humility and courage for other nations to listen to our story. You already seem to have a relationship with our Creator. Perhaps you ask these things out of real curiosity, or as a way of sharing your own belief in Christianity with us. Maybe both. But if you are willing to respect us as fellow human beings and listen sincerely to our values, you are welcome to ask.
In reality, all nations have a lot to give in building and restoring our world. We do see our own message as a unique light, important to share and never compromise. We are like sailors up on the mast, shouting to their shipmates what they see in the distance. This calling comes with unparalleled costs and blessings. (Anyone can join our nation if they choose to.) But every other sailor, every nation, has their own great role to play in navigation and sailing. We should exist humbly for the same goal: to welcome our Creator as King in the world.
Jewish communities often keep to themselves in response to the physical, social, and ideological dangers we face in each generation. They do not wish to impose without being asked. Our calling at this time is simply to be faithful to the covenant God made with us. The Western impression of Judaism is shaped largely by the texts of religions other than our own, and many people (even many born Jews) have little interaction with the cherished heritage we carefully pass from parent to child, from teacher to student. But if anyone desires to come closer, the light we have experienced is still held here as a treasure, a light for their path.
Second letter: The Words On Our Hearts
You asked a good question, to begin with. Why do Jews believe in God? That is, why do we think we can personally relate with our Creator? Maybe most of our reasons are similar to yours.
Our nation’s faith has taught us that our lives come from our Him. When we responded in relationship through prayer and through Torah, we met Him closely. Nothing else we’ve ever learnt or experienced matters so much to us.
We know that human feelings can be wrong, but we still can’t take our existence for granted. Everything in this world is dependent and connected, even the way that moments, places, and natural properties exist to begin with. Although there is much that we don’t understand, we thank our Foundation for the simple gift of being. We pray because we know everything we experience, including consciousness and relationship, is familiar to the one who knowingly designed and planted the first seeds of creation.
Psalm 145 says, “The eyes of all look to you.” Nothing good in the world exists separately from the cause of reality. Deuteronomy 6 tells us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Our hearts come from our Creator. He steals nothing from us, needs nothing from us; the Maker of our hearts deserves our love. Psalm 147 says, “He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.” Astronomy has revealed with increasing complexity the intricacy and vastness of the universe; the properties we observe at the smallest and largest scales are still astonishing; existence, life, sustenance, consciousness, love, and beauty are valuable to us. None of this is separate from the one who holds it together, ‘drawing it continually out’ from non-existence.
All humans are still left with many questions about this mystery. We yearn for real, actual truth. So with every hope we have for real understanding, we don’t call to something finite but only to our souls’ Source. In prayer, sometimes we call out like travelers lost in a vast forest, but we still find intimacy amidst times of confusion. Our very essence rests on the force underlying all creation, regardless of time, beyond cause and effect, which we can only call His ‘will’.
And we ourselves are not the fullness of what matters. No matter how little we know, it isn’t an option to stop caring about whatever our Creator expects from our path in life. The only question is how to hear what is revealed.
Third letter: What we Remember
In your last letter, you wanted to know why we accept the Jewish scriptures and follow the commandments in the Torah. This is so important. Beliefs that aren’t really from our Maker can only obscure the light of His truth and the path of seeking Him.
Our parents’ message compels us for many external reasons. From the time of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, through our scattering to the ends of the earth, and up to the twenty-first century, our nation and our faith have survived by astonishing, documented events. We sense that our consistent awareness of God and what He deserves, for thousands of years, has also been because of His help. Devotion to the Creator alone, totally apart from forms or natural elements, is unique from among the surrounding ancient nations. It has also been unquenchable: held loyally in precarious situations by many in every generation since.
As predicted in the Torah, no other nation before or after the events at Sinai claimed to have a revelation from God to a mass of people who have passed it to their descendants. No religious historical claim is so unique. The surprising and unlikely event that this nation was scattered and yet remained a nation was also foretold in these books. And it was prophesied that the Sabbath would be central in showing for all time to come that God has sanctified Israel; until this day it truly is a deep part of relationship with Him.
But in a big way, our deepest reason comes from inside us, not merely from things we see and understand. People who keep the Torah covenant don’t choose it just because it seems maybe-believable, or even probable. It is a choice to respond to something absolute, deep inside the heart, deeper than words. A gift and a commandment, directly to the soul of a Jew. We feel there is no path of obedience, surrender, wisdom, and relationship with God outside this route: “a tree of life to those who cling to it.”
We all have questions, but no overriding reason to consider this false. Nothing in the study of natural science, history, or textual criticism flatly contradicts our faith. For every observation that brings up questions, others resonate closely with our understanding. When it comes to a choice, we humbly surrender the limitations of our knowledge and love in the path of our nation’s covenant and the laws, ethics, and attitudes we have learnt come from our Maker.
And so our faith in the Hebrew prophets is different from the reasons why Christians accept the same books in their ‘Old Testament’. We start with the experience of those who hold these traditions as their own. They were told, then written, to us personally. Our nation has been given the criteria (outlined in Torah) and the calling to recognise prophecy. All our other beliefs flow out from this awareness. These things were spoken in our cultural context, in our language, according to the promise that those who follow His commandments are His witnesses because of what He showed us. And we have passed these things on in simple faithfulness and blessing, with His help, from generation to generation. So we simply accept these laws, as opportunities to connect with God, with thankfulness.
Fourth letter: We Will Do and We Will Hear
You said you’ve noticed a difference in how observant Jews think about the commandments, and you were right. We come to our scriptures, as everyone does, in light of a living context. So we know that the commandments are not merely a story but a gift to us forever, which sanctifies us.
Two records stand to witness our exodus from Egypt and experience at Mount Sinai. One is the account written in the five books of Torah. The other is imprinted on the covenant nation itself. We came out of the wilderness there with a covenant, a message, and an awareness to hold through history: changed and shaped forever by our Maker, through these experiences and the laws He gave us.
Without the living Jewish nation, the record God created of these events is seen only in part. The scriptures, as documents of our covenant, can’t be properly read without seeing the living, righteous community of Jews; even His rebukes have been always been presented and preserved through a faithful group. And what separates the righteous and preserves our message? We cling to His commandments, with heart and with action; in detail and in spirit.
In fact, Judaism emphasises the centrality of clear commandments above everything else. This is very important in our reading of scripture. We can speculate all we want about many things, and do our best to please God in them, but at the centre we stand on the things He specifically commanded. So the commandments, given through Moses (in the five books of Torah), are the axis for the rest of the Bible. The other prophets spend all their time pointing people back to them. It isn’t legalistic to keep them and guard them. For us they are non-negotiable, like breathing; a precious responsibility.
Although all humans and traditions are fallible (including ourselves), God promised to preserve His own words in our mouths. We learn the commandments from our parents and teachers and are commanded to give them, with details of their essence and spirit, to our children. This is the way it was designed and commanded, with the breath of God in the process.
And Torah is not just an individual obligation for us. There definitely is a personal element, but along with the morality and relationship with God that every human needs to have, Jews also have the particular laws of the Torah covenant (such as the laws of Sabbath, food, and ritual purity). They are ours as a whole community, to shine the light of our heritage as one. The sin or righteousness of each person affects the whole group. We humble our own voices to be part of the eternal community.
So in this collective setting, sometimes our teachers make ‘fences’ around the law, to simplify for the whole community (in many different situations) what it takes to keep it. Sometimes they make rulings to help us keep the spirit of the law strongly as a group. We accept these rulings as binding, yet we take care not confuse the rulings of rabbis with the Torah from Sinai.
Despite our failures, we’re devoted to growing, relying on the mercy and help of our God. The Torah and prophets teach that what matters is whether our hearts are facing and choosing Him today. Whether or not we can see other reasons, and regardless of how good we think we are, we choose to obey simply because He said to and our hearts are open to follow.
While all humans can relate deeply with God through obedience, the ritual laws that are only for Jews help us focus also on our particular calling. They bring huge opportunities to express the surrender we owe to God, and choose to embody our dependence on Him. Through His laws, the values and ideas of Torah permeate not only our minds and even our hearts, but also the substance of our lives.
Fifth letter: Reliving the Testimony
We already spoke about the beauty of God’s commandments to our Jewish nation, along with the context in which a Jew reads the Hebrew Bible. To enter the picture more deeply, it’s not only actions but also important times that specifically consecrate and shape us, every year. Each generation relives the experiences that formed us through the method God designed, and our children experience Torah before they can even read.
The Sabbath is our most familiar testimonial observance. We rest from creative work on the seventh day of each week, commanded to remember both creation and our liberation from slavery in this way. It allows us to remember and experience how all the power we have in our hands is a gift, not inherent to ourselves. By completely abstaining from many categories of creative work, we declare that the whole earth is God’s, and we are His.
The main Jewish calendar begins each year with Rosh Hashanah, a festival of remembrance by blowing horns. Although the written Torah gives little detail about what this memorial refers to, it falls just before Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and atonement. As the first day of the Jewish year it also reaches back to the creation of the world. Reflecting both these things, in Jewish tradition Rosh Hashanah is a day to remember God’s judgment and kingship over His world, and over us. For the entire month of Elul, before Rosh Hashanah, we prepare ourselves in focused repentance and thank God for drawing so close to help us, although we fall so low. On the day of Rosh Hashanah we remember that our Father is also our King, high above us, and lifts us up through righteousness to relate to Him there. While praying and singing about His majesty and His holy, merciful judgment, we bow and blow the horns to coronate Him again as our only King. And after Rosh Hashanah we keep ten days of repentance, allowing ourselves to truly regret our sins and focusing on opportunities to make new choices.
Then comes Yom Kippur, the heavy and yet joyful day of atonement. We fast all day and stand before God in prayer as His people. Although we can’t make sacrifices without our Temple, nor is our national purity for the specific Temple context relevant for this time, we keep the commandments we can for the day and recognise that our purity is still important before our God. Forgiveness is a gift, both for the individual and for the nation. And we affirm on this day that with God’s help, we ourselves can choose obedience and be righteous, pure, before Him.
In the same month of Tishrei also falls the festival of Sukkot. We build temporary huts near our houses to eat in, and often also sleep in and spend our time during that week. We also wave four species of plants and rejoice before our God, as commanded in the Torah. This time is special, spent with family and friends, food and celebration. We thank God for His blessings and favour in the new year. The experience of sitting outside in the huts, with branches for roofs, reminds us how we lived with nothing but God’s protection and provision in the wilderness. His clouds covered us. He still holds us, and during Sukkot we are physically beneath and within His loving commandments. This embrace made us who we are and it still continues to. At the end of Sukkot we also celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, praying for rain during the year, and celebrating the immense gift of Torah.
Chanukah and Purim are not mentioned in the Torah, but we celebrate them to remember later events in our history with God. For the eight nights of Chanukah we light candles to remember the rededication of the Temple after Antiochus IV defiled it. The Maccabees revolted against his ban on teaching and observing Torah, and also against the influence of Greek culture on many Jews of the period. They won, and the holiday celebrates the miracle of God’s provision. While Chanukah remembers the spiritual survival of Judaism and the absolute refusal we should have to compromise in spiritual purity, Purim celebrates the physical redemption of our people in the time of Esther. Because Haman’s plan to exterminate us was foiled and the Jews were able to defend themselves, we celebrate with parties, eating, and drinking, letting our bodies and our souls simply appreciate life and the unconditional aspect of God’s covenant with us. Just as the holidays of Tishrei are powerful moments of deep reflection and the pouring out of our hearts, embracing the conditions of the covenant, Purim embodies this other face of the relationship. And because the hand of God in this miracle happened through events in a book where God’s name is not even mentioned, we traditionally dress up and eat foods with a hidden filling, reminding us that God is with us in everything.
During Pesach we relive the exodus from slavery in Egypt. For a whole week we put away every crumb of leavened food, eating matzah (unleavened bread) and telling again our story of freedom. Our suffering in Egypt, with no explanation, enabled us to serve a suffering world. And at this time we remember that when God brought us out, it was so tangible that we owe Him everything; we became more than ever His people. The miracles He did to show His greatness and redeem us were a powerful spiritual experience, imprinting His justice, kindness, and power onto our minds and hearts forever. He held up the water, moment by moment, and by the time we came through we were a transformed nation.
After counting seven weeks, we approach the holiday of Shavuot. This is the time of the giving of Torah, the intimate details of our role as God’s servants forever. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to move towards God, on Pesach and Shavuot we recall the way He first moved towards us. Binding ourselves to this covenant again is the place of our love with Him.
Towards the end of the year falls Tisha B’Av, another rabbinically established day, this time a day of mourning and fasting. We read Lamentations and remember the Temple, and the kingdom, we have lost. The huge losses and trauma experienced by so many countless families in our community are also grieved over on this day. We know that we can’t serve God from a place of being constantly sad, but this is a time set aside for a very appropriate, sharply felt feeling of our exile. We cry out on this day for God to bring our hearts closer to Him as a whole nation, and physically restore and comfort us again.
These times form the rhythm of our weeks and years. Each time weaves different things through our hearts, but the picture comes together as a deep foundation. This national testimony is the context when a Jewish school child opens the first page of Genesis.