What's distinctive about my faith? Faiths Act Fellow Danny explores his Jewish religion
Tucked away in the old city of Jerusalem is a little shop that is famous for inscribing phrases of Jewish wisdom on small silver pendants. Five years ago, I was looking for a bit of simplicity to ease what then seemed like a complex and transitional period in my life. My grandmother had just passed away, and I was especially bent on figuring out what she represented to me – and how this was somehow central to my experience of being a Jew.
I decided to draw upon a section of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages, Mishna 3a) “Know from where you come, and to where you are going…” This is an expression which is generally treated as acknowledgement of mortality – maybe something along the lines of “ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” To me, however, it resonated with a completely different meaning. For me, it represented an understanding of history, and the importance of ancestry within the experience of being Jewish.
Over the years, I have recognized a more profound comprehension of this phrase. Judaism is a faith, which has a unique relationship to time. On one hand it is rooted in the past, at the same time it demands a constant reinterpretation within the present. There are obvious discrepancies over how and to what degree this is accomplished, but the underlying impulse seems distinctly noticeable. For example, Jewish ritual en masse is cyclical yet never repetitive. Every week in synagogue, we sequentially read a section of Torah so as to read the whole Torah in a year. Although it is the same passages of text that are read, each year is meant to bring a new cycle of themes, reflections and interpretations. The text represents a complex web of images and concepts – each of which is seen as infinitely rich and fertile with relevance to the present world. In that way, the reading of Torah embodies an ongoing movement between the past and the present.
Overall then, what I consider distinct about Judaism is this challenge to be at once ancient and Modern, historical and at the same time, forward looking. How does the tradition inform my actions without replacing my own capacity for self-determination? Or even more profoundly, how does the tradition enable my own development as an individual? Again, “Know from where you come, and to where you are going”; for me this continues to be central.