Religion and faith are neither mutually exclusive nor co-extensive. Belief and practice are not to be separated, but they are nonetheless distinct from each other. This is the root confusion that all people have about all world religions; namely, most of us cannot discern those who are devout from those who hold nominally to the belief. Think about, most people who say they belong to a particular religion, usually know very little about it.
As a result, our world, which lacks this discernment, divides us into categories based upon the religion to which we ascribe ourselves, not ultimately based upon the beliefs themselves. This series will widen our view so we can see that there is something transcendent that all humanity discerns which is poking through and partially accessed via religion.
Judaism as we know it today is a world monotheistic religion whose adherents range from truly devout to those who hold only to it’s cultural heritage. It’s not the first monotheistic religion, but is the religion which benchmarked sacred text by establishing the Torah. The Torah is not merely a collection of stories chronicling the rise of Israel. It goes well beyond historical documentation. The Torah establishes a cosmology and anthropology which will be adopted, imitated, shared or admired in many cultures and peoples. The Torah provides moral teachings, rules for healthy and egalitarian society, how to govern and lead people, and perhaps most importantly, how to self-govern through faith in the Devine. Along for the ride comes a host of Mosaic and Levitical law which pertain to how humanity is to relate in covenant with our Creator.
It’s all about how humanity is to relate with God, each other and the world.
Beyond the Torah (often referred to as the pentateuch, or first five books) is a collection of Hebrew Scripture commonly understood as the Old Testament or Old Covenant, which detail the rise and fall of Israel and how this faith and covenant with God brings with it blessing when upheld.
This is all revealed through historical events which are chronicled in the lineage of Moses, the Judges, the Prophets, Priests and the Kings of Israel. As the tribe and religion grew, the weight of governing and stewarding this huge group became a greater challenge. How does Israel maintain solidarity to the covenants of it’s forefathers with new generations? The answer has been to increase the number of rules along with increasing the local means of regulating the practice of these rules. Traditions are established and become indelibly intertwined with the faith. Going back to my opening statement, this can become a problem.
This simple problem is found in every religion: How does one generation confer on the next the “EXPERIENCE” without a structure to encapsulate it in? We often assume one causes the other. They don’t. This is the archetype of religious obedience and tradition.
Obedience to a covenant with one’s Maker is the hallmark of fidelity or faith. However, what all religions seem to easily overlook is that their founders had fidelity to God prior to an established covenant. In other words, the founders of our religions came to know God and listen to God’s voice long before the religion took shape. The form follows the experience but religion focuses on recreating the form rather than the experience.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Abram (meaning Exalted Father) is later changed to Abraham (Father of Nations) and without question, many people think of him as a Jew. But his name is changed to reflect that his faith is the hallmark of nations (plural) clearly pointing to those outside Israel alone. If this were not true, no American, nor those outside the lineage could name Abraham as a spiritual father. Abram’s obedience to the call or voice of God established the covenant, God will bless you if you obey. This occurs long before the Ten Commandments, the Levitical law, or any tradition, ritual, or practice of Judaism. It’s not even till many years later that his son, Isaac’s name is changed to Israel. Abram (exalted Father) had no children, yet alone a nation.
The clear point of this message from the Torah is this: Faith, or fidelity to God was not intended to be co-extenstive with religious practices or traditions. What we learn from the Torah and Hebrew scripture is that the practices and traditions are intended to inspire fidelity to the the prominence and voice of God in the life of all people. The goal was to preserve that which Abram experienced. Religion instead, went far, far, beyond that as it always does.
This is why Judaism is an archetype for all world religions. Whether a religion predates or postdates Judaism makes no difference. Judaism sits front and center for the nuanced relationship between God and humanity. It’s pitfalls are the archetypal pitfalls of every religion. Whether we are talking about Greek Mythology or something as modern as Mormonism, Judaism illustrates how a religion in and of itself is not bad, but only limited to serving as a container or pointer to that which is beyond it. Those places in our human history where the container (and its preservation and power) are more important than it’s contents, reveal the dark side of religion which has not helped humanity but harmed it. We know this as fundamentalism, which always stems from institutional power.
The meta-narrative that runs through Hebrew scripture is the revelation of God which shines through countless, diverse individuals as each, in their own way, in their own time, in their own culture discover the love of God which heals them, liberates them, and transforms them. Religion is supposed to remind us of this truth, NOT obscure us from this truth. That is what the Jewish traditions are to do which become archetypal for all religious practice. What we discover in the Hebrew scripture is that the voice of God was never intended to be limited to one tribe, people, or religion, but to be an experience for each person both personally and corporately.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (name means: “Strives with God” again pointing to all people not just this tribe) after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31: 33-34)
This is truly a wide-angle lens, but with it, the larger, wider truth emerges. Every rule, every tradition, every ritual and every practice is a branch that at one point sprang from this idea that God can speak to anyone in anyway because there is a sense in which all people know the voice of this deeper inner reality. However, as people began policing, governing an controlling this inner experience with God, those in power instituted external measurements so that others could be validated by the collective. All low-level religion relies upon institutional power plays, fear, guilt and manipulation to make itself distinct and therefore confer upon itself the idea that it is the sole possessor of the true way to live. This is something which does not exist in Abraham, nor in any founder of any religion.
So why would we accept that for us today? Because we are trapped with a fake Id given by institutional power.
Judaism as archetype gives us the perfect lens to see both the good and the bad of every religion. Focus too much on externals and the faith dies and is replaced with sterile, dead ritual and guilt laden religious practice. However, if we keep the focus on that which is just beyond the container, we discover that all people (rather than be excluded) are invited to experience a personal covenant with their Maker.
This can easily be proven in one example. Suppose only the book of Psalms or Proverbs existed for all religions. While these books do not provide ritual for any particular religion, they clearly provide a way of being in the world and in relation to one’s Maker. They offer a cosmology and anthropology that would perfectly preserve each and every religion on earth, without any tribal distinctions or exclusionary power plays.
Now if this is possible with only one book or two, it is also possible in all of Hebrew scripture. Why stop there? We will circle back to the New Covenant later in the series, but for now, I hope you can see precisely how converting to a religion can bring about the wrong end, although not necessarily. If we can hear the voice of God calling through in one place, we can train our ears to hear it in all places.
The beauty of the Hebrew scripture is that it shows this amazing love story bubbling through the evil and failing of human history. It reveals the higher, more transcendent reality to which we must all strive and allow to soften our hard hearts and look closer. If we capture this, then the experience of Abram has become our experience too. All peoples of the earth can be “grafted” into this faith, with or without the structure that comes after its founder.
Once that happens, we are rescued (saved) and the world becomes new again.