How do we define the word “religion?” The ancient Israelites couldn’t define religion – there was no such thing to them and hence in the Bible there is no word for religion. That doesn’t mean the ancient Israelites weren’t religious – of course they were – but they did not understand religion as a separate concept. For them, Judaism was a way of life, something which is often nowadays called a “cultural system.” But a cultural system could be entirely secular, so we need to include some sense of the Divine in order to define religion.
According to one modern definition, a religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Let’s unpack that. A religion starts with a set of beliefs regarding the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. Most religions have a creation narrative and many have visions of the end of the universe as well, Judaism being no exception to this. Interestingly, though, while the Torah’s creation narrative is perhaps the most famous of all, it has no eschatology – no reference to final days. The rest of the Bible does, in the prophets and the writings, but not Torah. So, even though Reform Jews often focus more on Torah than on the rest of the Bible or on subsequent Rabbinic commentary, our religion has traditionally had a set of beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe, and that becomes rather difficult for us because Reform Jews don’t believe the original beliefs. An ultra-Orthodox Jew can rest comfortably in the belief that the world was created less than 6000 years ago by a deity who created the whole world in six days, but there are very few Reform Jews who believe the same. We take the findings of science, we see that the Earth is millions of years old and that the universe is billions of years old, and we take the biblical narrative figuratively, not historically. What this means is that as Reform Jews we actually struggle to understand the nature and purpose of the universe because we have no textual guide as a literalist does mean that we have to come to understand the nature and purpose of the universe in differing ways. I say literalist because we can never know the true intention of the Biblical text – whether it is intended to be understood more literally or metaphorically. When God speaks the universe into being, for example, is there any way to understand that other than metaphorically? If the Bible is metaphor, though, then the original beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe are also metaphors, which means that they are wildly open to interpretation. That, indeed, is surely one of the strengths of Judaism – it’s constant and expansive interpretive method. The challenge for a traditional with expansive interpretation, though, is that it’s difficult to demarcate boundaries of what is and what isn’t authentically Jewish. The risk of falling outside acceptable boundaries is exactly seen in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, in which Nadav and Avihu offer strange fire to God and are immediately killed. Traditional interpretation says that they erred because they were drunk, which is why immediately following their deaths, Torah warns the priests not to drink while on duty. But that’s just an interpretation of the text. What if they merely understood the fire differently and brought something that was merely outside the norm? Despite Torah telling us later (e.g. Deut. 28:14) not to turn to the right or the left, the essence of interpretation is looking in differing directions and exploring their consequences. So, if anything, while we might say that Judaism says that God is the cause of the universe, the nature and purpose of the universe is open to interpretation even in Jewish tradition, even if it’s guided by at least a formative text, which is the Bible.
But what do we mean when we talk about God? Are we talking about a supernatural agent, as the original definition suggested? Looking further at the Biblical text, reference to God as a supernatural agent make sense but, once again, that’s not necessarily how many Jews have always seen God. A supernatural agency is that which exists totally outside nature but which can interact within nature in order to transform elements within nature. Kabbalists went beyond the literal reading of the text, though, to try to uncover the mystical pathways to connect with that which is, essentially, only crudely described in the Bible using words to guide us towards the indescribable. Many Jews today also see God as more of a transnatural agency – a Deity both outside nature and within nature, perhaps expressed through nature but not only of nature. So, once again, many Jews today find themselves with no strict textual guidance on matters of theology.
According to our definition, a religion also has a set of devotional or ritual observances, but that also leads to interesting questions for Reform Jews. Even up to only a few hundred years ago, it was standard devotional practice for only men and not women to wear certain prayer garments or to lead communal prayer. There were exceptions to those norms, of course, like Hannah Rochl, the Maiden of Ludmir, but the exceptions often proved the rule. Today, however, these restrictions no longer apply, in differing ways depending on Reform, Conservative and even some Orthodox communities. There is no uniformity in Jewish ritual practice… indeed, there definitely never has been. Even in Torah, we see variant practice, just like with Nadav and Avihu. There may have been serious consequences for expressing variant practice, of course, but to speak of one set of devotional or ritual observances is challenging. It’s easier in the orthodox community because a person is defined as an Orthodox Jew if they follow the rulings of the code of law known as the Shulchan Aruch. However, Orthodoxy is not the normative or default position of Jewish ritual observance. So, then, what does it mean for Judaism to have a set of devotional or ritual observances? A set is a collection of things that are not necessarily the same. Therefore, we could say that we have a set of rituals around prayer or a set of rituals around festival observance, or a set of rituals around food such as the laws of kashrut which are expounded upon in our Torah portion. While one Jew may take from each of those sets according to one interpretation, another Jew may take differing observances from those sets according to their interpretation. There are limits on those sets, though, and the limit usually involves symbols or rituals from other faith traditions. That, indeed, may be where Nadav and Avihu come undone – in offering fire that is “strange” in the sense of “more akin to the fire of other communities around them.”
The final part of our definition of a religion is that there is a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Interestingly, this is where I think Reform Judaism has a strength in that we are often just as interested in our ethical conduct in this world as we are our ritual observances. Judaism is not a monotheistic religion, despite what many people say. Judaism is Ethical Monotheism, which means that belief in God – however one understands God – must be accompanied not only by appropriate ritual conduct, as I just mentioned, but also by appropriate ethical conduct.
I appreciate that this was only one of countless definitions of religion, but I find this a particularly interesting one to consider during this week’s reading of the Torah portion of Shemini because of the behavior of Nadav and Avihu which challenged what was at that time considered to be “normative” Jewish “religious” practice. Reviewing this definition, especially in light of this Torah portion, reminds us that Judaism is, and has always been, far more flexible in interpretation of what constitutes normative religious thought and behavior than we might think. Some Jews today might baulk at the idea and insist that there is normative behavior with only specific small variance, but even the presence of widely differing Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom shows that to be untrue. How we eat, what we believe, how we act, how we mourn, how we celebrate…. these are all diverse, wondrous sets of practices from which differing Jews can find comfort at differing times of their lives. With that in mind, then, perhaps we shouldn’t busy ourselves worrying necessarily about defining “What is Judaism?” but rather saying “What is my Judaism?” or, perhaps even better considering the essence of Judaism is in community, “What is our Judaism?”
I believe that our Judaism is a shared and multifaceted response to the varying expressions of Judaism of the past and of the present. More than that, I believe our Judaism speaks in many voices - sometimes answers, sometimes questions. As we read the Torah portion of Shemini this week, then, and as we explore what it means for us to journey through the Omer from slavery in Egypt to full expression of Jewish self at Sinai, let us explore that core question, “What is our Judaism?” for in that exploration, I believe we draw many steps further along that path to religious freedom. May our steps on that journey be guided with strength, and let us say, Amen.