Reflections on My Jewish Theology

by Chaplain Rachel Brott

August 2010

“I will betroth you to me forever,
I will betroth myself to you in righteousness, by following laws,
in loving kindness and in mercy.
And I will betroth you to me in faith
and only then I will know G-d. “

What is being Jewish? What do Jews believe?

Chaplain Rachel Brott

One of the clearest statements of Jewish Theology is Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. These were first stated in his commentary on the Mishnah and, in an abbreviated form, are found in every prayer book. They are the basis of the well-known synagogue hymn Yigdal (He shall be magnified).

Maimonides made it possible for us everyday folks to understand the truths of Judaism by integrating the philosophical knowledge of his time and demonstrating how they blend with the teachings of the Torah. I find it very helpful to peruse these 13 principles.

It is said that “the Torah is deeper than the ocean.” All the richness one could ever want is in Jewish Text or philosophy somewhere. The idea is not just to know or learn about Judaism, but to live it.

In a sense, one of the most important components of being Jewish is the very miracle of Jewish history that has allowed for our survival. Jewish teachings and Jewish Mysticism are a blessing for this world, as are all holy teachings. I delight in showing Jewish people and all people the beauty of my tradition, if they seek such counsel.

I have very adverse reactions to rigidity. My approach to Judaism is a working and flexible one, concerned primarily with “drawing nearer” to G-d. However, I do experience G-d-fearing moments that cause me to carefully reconsider my Jewish observance and to crave more adherence. Specifically, this means taking on more obligations so that I can “crazy-glue” myself to G-d more completely.

The idea that the Torah is exactly as Moses received it at Sinai and cannot be changed, or that people are rewarded or punished based on their commitment to observing commandments, is sometimes presented in a very black-and-white way without any opposing perspective. Let us not forget that one of the most wonderful things about being Jewish is that we can create our own dialogue if there isn’t one in place!

The Shma is considered to be the most important prayer. I say the Shma twice a day. I consider the idea of “listening attentively” to apply to the still small voice within us and without us that guides/tells us which road to take.

To have enough space to listen necessitates discipline. I have to pray, and to practice daily total trust and reliance on G-d. I believe that if I do not take ritual action, I will not be able to hear the still small voice. This means that I will have disconnected myself by my own inaction.

Another crucial Jewish concept is the idea of Lashor Hara, or using the tongue for bad purposes. This goes back to the concept of G-d speaking and the world coming into being. The emphasis in Judaism on guarding the tongue is paramount to living a spiritual life. I must watch what I say; think before I speak, and not speak anything that could hurt or damage someone else.

What we speak and think can come into being. A Rabbi once told me that Abracadabra is based on the Aramaic words: Avra K’davra, which means ‘I create as I speak.’ The utterances of are mouth are POWERFUL! Words and language can be used for holy or profane purposes. We must each choose for ourselves. How else should we live our lives than to be as good as we can?

To me the ritual of Havdallah—distinguishing—expresses the essence of Judaism. This crucial ceremony that separates Shabbat from the everyday also permeates all of the intentions behind each of the mitzvot. All moments are not the same. Shabbat and festivals are holier than weekdays. The level of holiness in the world fluctuates with the calendar. We acknowledge the different moments by doing rituals appropriate to the time at hand.

We must be awake to do this. We cannot live our lives as if we are asleep. We need to be aware of G-d in every way that we can.

This calls for a ritual upon awakening. I rinse my hands in water and say a blessing over washing the hands, because the very act of waking up in the morning is a separation from a death of sorts. According to the Talmud sleep is 1/60th of death. When I wake up I wash my hands of this death and begin the cosmic and mystical process of trying to wake up every moment of my life. This practice alone—of waking up—is a truly profound one.

My personal practice is steadily evolving. I do not need to judge others. I am firm in my own beliefs and do what I need to for my life, but love and support others in the choices they make. If in the process, I can bring others back to or closer to their Jewishness, I would be honored.