Let’s start with a game. A serious one. Just one rule: Do not touch your phone, your computer, or consult a book in responding to this prompt. Rather, look into your heart and page through your soul, your mind wandering through all you have learned from those who came before you and those who shall follow in your footsteps. Here we go:
Inspired by literary great Ernest Hemingway (or so it is said) describe your Judaism in six words. My responses vary, different every time I tinker with this simplified exercise. They are drawn from Judaism’s eternal teachings and teachers. (I would love to read your answers. Please share.)
When my answer is shaped from my head relying on an intellectual passion for Judaism:
Repairing world motivated by ancient texts.
A definition might leap from my heart leaning into the emotional impact of being a Jew:
Love the other, care for strangers.
The six words might be chiseled from my embodied Jewish identity that relies on the physical realm:
Braiding challah, separate pots, inhale spices.
There is one answer, perhaps my favorite, that emanates from my soul and these words live at the core of my faith:
Honor soul God breathed into me.
The six words evolve according to the lens through which I view my life in a given moment. What does not change for me – ever – is that at the center of my Judaism lives a robust system of values. Those values, while not unique to Judaism, are drawn from Jewish texts, time, rituals, customs, and culture as bequeathed to me and modeled by my parents just as they were given to them by their parents and so on back to those who first accepted Torah and the values wrapped in the parchment. Shimon ben Lakish teaches that the Torah given from the Holy One to Moses was black fire written on white fire:
אש לבנה חרותה באש שחורה – Eysh l’vanah charutah ba’eysh sh’chorah
One mystical notion is that the white fire is חסד – chesed, loving-kindness. When we embrace Torah, the white fire is a commitment to bring goodness of the Holy Blessed One into the world.
Together, all of us stood gathered at the foot of a flaming mountain in the desert. It is a place and an experience we call Sinai. We accepted the responsibility to bind ourselves to the covenant. Our values invite us to reach deeply into our souls to become our best selves, to be concerned with the needs of others beyond our home, beyond our community. My Jewish values are the points on my moral compass and provide my life direction, the opportunity for reflection, and corrective action. Values are the visible, tangible, and knowable expressions of my Judaism. They guide my decisions and my choices.
While it is one thing for me to articulate them in six (or many more) words, the true test of these values is what others around me would say. Is the white fire of my Torah radiating goodness, love, and empathy? Engagement in Jewish ritual, rigorous Torah learning, and the daily marking of Jewish time – these are my teachers, the disciplined reminders of how and who I want to be in the world, who the Divine wants me to be in the world, and ultimately what our community, in partnership with the Holy One can push the world to become. Jewish values are the enduring building blocks of menschlikeit. For me the first block can be pulled from the Torah’s center, in the book of Vayikra, Leviticus: “va’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”
Hillel famously teaches that this is the essence of being a Jew (shabbat 31a). Rav Hillel’s six words? Let us all live by them.