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‘Rabbi, what is the central idea of Judaism?’

Aug 22, 2023

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Christian students who were visiting Israel for the first time. They were here with Passages, a Christian organization that brings Christian college students on pilgrimage trips to teach them about the Jewish people and state. With recent polling showing a sharp decline in pro-Israel attitudes among younger Evangelicals, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work of Passages in promoting a positive Christian-Israel relationship for the next generation.

The organizers asked me to speak about the Jewish-Christian relationship, past, present, and future. I spoke about the history of Christian anti-Semitism, the sensitivities of the Jewish community to evangelism, and the importance of recognizing that which is shared by our faith communities. 

After my talk, I agreed to take a few questions. The first student that I called upon asked me a question I had never been asked before. And I found the question both challenging and fascinating. Fascinating enough that I am writing this column about it. He asked:

“What is the main, central idea of Judaism?”

My initial response, which has been the response of almost every Jewish friend I have told this story to, was to say that there simply isn’t one core idea of Judaism. Judaism is a complex system of laws, faith, history, culture, and nationality. I threw the question back at him and asked him to explain what exactly he meant. He pointed out that Christianity has one central idea, the gospel of Jesus, around which everything else revolves. So, he reiterated, what is the central idea at the heart of Judaism?

My first thought was to say something about faith in God. Indeed, when I told this story to my podcast cohost, Pastor Doug Reed, he immediately suggested that I must have quoted Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” But as I explained to Doug, while this verse is our most fundamental expression of faith in God, it does not capture the full scope of Jewish faith and practice. More to the point of the question asked by the student, this answer is not unique to Judaism. Belief in one God is a feature of other faiths as well. 

My answer was that the central idea of Judaism is what I call “the narrative.” The narrative is the story that begins with the choosing of Abraham and his descendants for a mission to bring faith in God and blessing to all the families of the earth. That narrative runs through the slavery and Exodus from Egypt, the covenant of Sinai, the creation of the nation-state of Israel in the promised land, all the words of the prophets throughout the Bible, the temple, its destruction, the exile and persecution of the Jewish people, the rebuilding of our nation in the land that we are experiencing in our times, and the eventual redemption of all of humanity under the one true God.

This narrative is the story of our lives as a people. It informs every word of our daily liturgy. It dictates how and why we celebrate our festivals. It is the highest purpose and goal of our obedience to God’s law. Moreover, it is the basis for major life decisions made by Jews throughout the centuries to this day.

Unlike the vast majority of people alive today, Jews see themselves as part of the single story known as “history.” I asked the students if anyone in the room was of Italian descent. A few hands went up. I then asked those students if, when studying the history of ancient Rome, they feel that they are studying their own personal history. The answer was an emphatic “no.” I asked the same of students of Greek descent. Same answer. But when we Jews look back at the Exodus from Egypt, we very much identify it as something that happened to us. On Purim, when we read the book of Esther, we fully identify this as a story that happened to our own ancestors. We celebrate the victory over Haman as our own national victory. We went into exile after the destruction of the Temple. We were persecuted throughout the centuries. And now we have returned to our land. The emphasis is on the word we

The centerpiece of the three times a day prayer liturgy recited by all Jews for thousands of years, the Amida, or “standing prayer,” is made up of 19 blessings that express this great narrative. The Amida begins by praising God and recalling His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It then moves on to a series of requests, asking God for discernment, to accept our repentance, to redeem us from exile, return us to our land in prosperity, restore righteous leadership, eventually culminating in the kingdom of the house of David, the rebuilding of the Temple, and peace on earth.

The Bible commands us to “recall the day you departed Egypt, all the days of your life.” (Deut. 16:3) We fulfill this by mentioning the Exodus multiple times a day in our liturgy and in our praise of God after every meal we eat. It is not the purpose of this commandment to ensure that the Exodus is not forgotten. If that was the goal, a single annual day of commemoration would suffice. If God is commanding us to recall the Exodus every day, it means something more than mere preservation of the memory of a historical event. To recall an event every day, multiple times a day, means that one is living one’s life in with the perpetual consciousness of this event. When the Bible tells us to recall the Exodus “all the days of your life,” it’s telling us that we must live our lives in the context of our history. All of our history. And we do just that.

It is this “narrative” that leads Jews, like me, my parents, and so many thousands of other Torah observant Jews, to uproot our materially comfortable lives in countries like the United States and Canada and relocate to Israel. We are part of the story that began with Abraham and will end with the kingdom of God on earth.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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