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What defines Judaism?

by Rabbi Eliezer Gurkow


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Why be Jewish?

As a rabbi I am often asked why it is important to be Jewish. A plethora of answers are offered, but only one is intellectually honest. Some argue that Judaism is a religion of ethics. Others say that it encourages free thinking and open dialogue. Others invoke Judaism's old age and tradition. To my way of thinking, these answers do not suffice.

Judaism is ethical, that is true, but so are many other religions. Judaism does encourage open dialogue, but so do many other academic, social and cultural movements. Judaism is the oldest Western religion, but what of other, more ancient religions? Besides, since when is age a criteria for religion?

Since Judaism is not the only ethical, traditional or philosophical tradition, why should we be Jewish? What does Judaism have that no other religion has?

The only honest answer can be summed up in two words: Mount Sinai. G-d appeared to every single Jew at Sinai and gave us his Torah. This is a religious answer that requires a leap of faith, that is true; but what else did you expect from a religious rabbi?

There is scholarship in Judaism, but Judaism is not defined by scholarship. There is conviction in Judaism, but neither is Judaism defined by conviction.
The moment you say that you are Jewish, you have distinguished yourself from every non-Jew on the planet. By what right do we distinguish ourselves? By what right do we establish a difference between ourselves and others? By virtue of the pact G-d struck with us at Sinai. G-d chose the Jewish people, and with that we stand apart from others.

An Accomplished Man

Abraham discovered his faith in monotheism. He examined every possibility and analyzed every faith system before reaching his conclusion. As a young boy, he was renown for his sterling character. As an adult, he gained fame for his morality, generosity and hospitality.

He was beloved for his kindness and respected for his conviction. He was a trail blazer in the philosophy of religion; a scholar of original, even revolutionary, thought, who converted thousands to his way of thinking. He was persecuted for his faith and sentenced to death, but miraculously escaped execution.1

These tales were preserved in the annals of Jewish tradition and documented by the Talmudic sages, but the Torah itself is mute on this era of Abraham's history. Abraham is introduced in the Torah at the age of seventy-five, long after all of the above transpired, when G-d instructed him to leave his birthplace and travel to an undisclosed destination.2

The Father Of Judaism

This is because Abraham is introduced in the Torah as the first Jew. There is scholarship in Judaism, but Judaism is not defined by scholarship. There is conviction in Judaism, but neither is Judaism defined by conviction. The same is true of kindness, morality and even persecution. They all exist in Judaism, but they do not define Judaism.

Abraham was not unique among the people of his day by virtue of his many qualities. He was surely a man of note, but he was not a category unto himself. He was not the father of Judaism. Not until G-d appeared to him and gave him his first commandment.


  • 1. Recorded in many midrashic sources including Bereishit Rabbah and Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer.
  • 2. Genesis 12:1. See also Genesis 12: 4 and Nachmanidies on Genesis 12: 2.


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.