Editor’s Note: The following post is the first in a series meant to both present excerpts from the introduction to a new book, as well as spark discussion among Jewschool readers about the nature of Jewish tradition. We encourage you to read on to see the excerpt and share your comments.
I met some people from Parabola magazine at Book Expo a few months ago, and I was taken most by how, in the midst of a frantic net of marketing hustlers and gung-ho young buy-my-book! writers, there were a bunch of….well, congenial-looking professor types. They were eager to talk to anyone who looked curious, and incredibly friendly, but not potential used-car salesmen like everyone else around. They passed me a copy of their forthcoming volume, The Inner Journey: Views from the Jewish Tradition, and said it would be good for me.
They were right.
That’s kind of Parabola’s approach to their subject matter. The Inner Journey series is a hallmark of this attitude: books that portray different religious experiences that are accessible, but not condescending, and function less like Cliff’s Notes and more like
Views from the Jewish Tradition is no exception. Contributions come from the expected high-profilers (Elie Wiesel on myths) as well as some canonical folks (Buber, Heschel, Rebbe Nachman) and surprising luminaries (Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s insightful and multi-layered take on the Messiah). The editor, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, is the founder of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, and has spent his life negotiating Judiasm’s relationship to other religions and cultures, from his childhood as a Holocaust survivor to his recent negotiation to relocate the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, and his work getting the Vatican to ask forgiveness for their role in the Holocaust.
Jewschool is proud to present a series of excerpts from Rabbi Bamporad’s introduction.
BY JACK BEMPORAD
Judaism affirms that human beings are by nature religious. They
require that certain basic psychological and spiritual needs be
fulfilled, and it is religion that, for better or for worse, attempts
to fulfill them. For in all of us there is a constant quest for some
explanation of how things ultimately hang together, a sense of the
whole of things. We need an explanation of the world, but more
importantly, we strive to understand our place in it, our role in
this vast cosmos of which we are a part.
Science tries to explain parts, sections, certain domains in our
universe. But there is a need to put these domains together and this
needs a perspective that can connect facts and values; the true, the
good, the beautiful, and the holy. This is beyond the work of
science. A religious perspective is needed that tries to incorporate
all these values into some over all framework to give us a sense of
the world and our place in it.
Everyone has a profound need for reassurance; that things are going
to be all right, that our lives are and will continue to be secure.
Also we need recognition. We need to feel that on some level we are
special and worthy of love and respect, that we are important and
that our lives have meaning and significance; that we are valuable
human beings; that in some sphere we can and will make a difference,
and we spend our lives trying to find ways that will enable us to
gain a sense of self that defines our humanity.
Finally we need a feeling of connectedness. Not just to our fellow
human beings and the world but to a transcendent reality that
connects us to something higher than ourselves, more noble, richer,
more inclusive and valuable.
There are authentic and inauthentic ways of providing answers to
these questions and one of the major teachings of Judaism is the
delineation of how these ways differ.
One can act so as to ascend to a higher level which is the path
toward a fuller sense of self toward a dimension that links us to the
true, the good, the beautiful and the holy; toward the divine. Or, we
can descend, giving up the higher for the lower so as to become less
than that which we potentially can become.
The prophets Jeremiah and Hosea said we take on the character of what
we pursue. Jeremiah says if we go after things of naught, then we
become naught. Hosea says if we go after detestable things we become
detestable. The prophets defined evil as the perversion, frustration
and degradation of all that is the divine in us. Its opposite, the
good, is the development of the image of God within us, giving us the
strength to turn away from vanity and to aspire to a higher ethical
and spiritual life. But spiritual growth, the spirituality we are
concerned with, is not and cannot be reduced to a growth in
knowledge. It has to do with a growth in being, a transformation of
Personally and socially, Judaism makes the ethical the central focus
of life and gives us a blueprint for living a meaningful life. It
rejects intermediaries and hero worship of any single individual. In
practicing Judaism, it is never an individual, be he Moses, Buddha,
Jesus or Mohammed, who determines and defines our lives or acts as an
intermediary or savior. Instead, there are many individuals–
prophets, sages, ordinary people, including non-Jews, from whom we
can learn how to live. As Ben Zoma says, the wise person is the one
who can learn from everyone and everything.
Next time: Spirituality — or, how to create a world.