JUDAISM’S THREE TIMELESS INNOVATIONS
by Rabbi Isaac Jeret
*Adapted from the Palos Verdes Peninsula News (9/16/2010)
*Adapted from the Palos Verdes Peninsula News (9/16/2010)
Many of us are aware that Judaism introduced to the world, at least 2,500 years ago, the radical theological principle of a belief in one God, as opposed to the then generally accepted pagan belief in multiple gods. What may surprise some of us is that this theological innovation is but one of three fundamental principles that Judaism introduced that serve as the foundational values of Western civilization and that we might also recognize among the core principles of the Judeo-Christian heritage.
In addition to a belief in one God, central to Jewish faith and practice is the principle that protecting and saving human life takes precedence over all other Jewish precepts. In addition to the inclusion in the Torah's Ten Commandments of the prohibition against committing murder, the Talmud states that even the observances of Yom Kippur (the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar) and that of the Sabbath (the second most sacred day) must be abrogated to protect, preserve, or save human life.
This core value of the primacy of human life is drawn directly from several verses in the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, each of which suggests that the one God who created humanity could only have intended to reveal a religious and spiritual pathway that would promote and enhance life, and never to bring harm to us. The value of the primacy of human life is intended, therefore, to serve as an ever-conscious purpose for engaging in the entirety of the Jewish spiritual discipline, not merely as an implicit concern; no circumstance other than protecting our own lives or the lives of others, and only when threatened in earnest, justifies taking or risking human lives.
This value, and its nuanced interpretations, guides Jewish considerations regarding everything from health-care decisions to preemptive and reactive self-defense, and it obliges us to regard our existence in this world as intrinsically more important than any dimension of existence that might await us upon our passing from this world. How we choose to live our lives is infinitely more important than how we choose to die, unless, Heaven forbid, any of us should ever have to endure so grave a circumstance as one in which how we choose to die is the only life-choice left to us.
A third and somewhat related principle introduced by Judaism is the very notion that the future can and should be made to become more life-enhancing - more beautiful, more sacred, more just, and richer in meaning and purpose - than was the past or is the present of our individual or collective experience. Pagan societies anticipated their annual calendars in a revolving manner, with similar periods and their associated experiences thought to recur annually and eternally. Judaism envisaged at its inception, and continues today to encourage us to affirm and support, a revolving cycle of time that spirals upward, always toward the betterment of the individual and collective human conditions, and aspiring toward the evermore sacred.
Interestingly, and most relevant to the current period of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), all three of these core values - God’s Oneness, the Primacy of Human Life, and our Commitment to a Better Future - are symbolized by the Shofar (the ram’s horn) that is blown throughout Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur in Jewish synagogues worldwide.
The Shofar first appears in our tradition as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, erroneously hearing the call of pagan deities to cause harm to human life -- to his son, Isaac -- to satisfy “the gods.” God then intervenes, demanding of Abraham that he substitute a nearby ram as his sacrifice instead of Isaac. This formative narrative in the Book of Genesis introduced the Jewish value of the Primacy of Human Life by rejecting forevermore any notion of human sacrifice as a means to any desired spiritual end.
As God revealed to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai the Divine legislative foundation of Western Civilization - the Ten Commandments (each of which aims to uphold or achieve one or more of the three core values or principles noted above), the Shofar’s sound accompanied our ancestors’ most powerful, consequential, transcendent, and collective experience of the Divine Presence. Thus, the sound of the Shofar and the Oneness of God remain today bound inextricably in a shared and timeless Jewish experience. The One God calls to us, urges us, demands of us, and comforts us - each and all toward valuing and enhancing life, and building a better future. God's Oneness also presupposes a central locus, One Place, unto which the Jewish People turns forever to find its spiritual center, the heart of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem. It was unto this place - the historic locus of the Holy of Hollies - that we have turned throughout our history to find direction and hope, and it remains so today, as we face eastward in our sanctuaries and turn eastward with our hopes and prayers, as much as the center of the Jewish experience rebuilds in the State of Israel today.
Finally, the Shofar is envisaged by the biblical Prophets to herald the onset of a Messianic Age, an era understood in a more contemporary context to be earned by virtue of a comprehensive and uncompromising human endeavor to eradicate tyranny and terror and introduce true understanding among Peoples with real differences in culture and faith. For the Prophets, these human strivings are inspired by God's ethical urging and spiritual call, and driven by our commitment to God's teaching of the Primacy of Human Life. The Shofar then symbolizes an era of true and sustainable peace, one based upon an evolved and shared consciousness on the part of all humanity of these three foundational and revolutionary Jewish innovations. Of course, the Shofar does not act as a magical cure, but rather awakens us to action, allowing our prayers to begin our journey of concern and responsive deed beyond the sanctuary, throughout the year.
On Rosh Hashanah, along with all other Jewish communities around the globe, we will awaken to the call of these three sacred values and principles, as we blow the Shofar together as a community. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we will conclude the High Holy Days, united as ever with our People, with a final sounding of the Shofar. Turning toward Jerusalem, as always, we will pray fervently that the concluding Shofar-sounding will stir our hearts to hear evermore the moral-calling of the One God, strengthening evermore our commitment to the Primacy of Human Life with all of its profound and significant implications, and inspiring us evermore in our efforts to work, given our Commitment to a Better Future, for the Jewish People and for all of humanity.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes. To learn more about the synagogue’s inspirational Services and classes, please go to www.nertamid.com or call (310) 377-6986.