I was recently asked if I could make a case for Judaism – without comparing it to other religions. First off, I don’t believe in defining religion by what we are and what they’re not. The question also involved personal spirituality and avoiding a retreat to Tevye’s answer to everything: Tradition.
That said, I can certainly teach about the essence of Judaism, but I couldn't make a case for it any more than I can make a case for Catholicism. I don’t think that’s how religion is supposed to work. Also, as far as personal spirituality, that's a term I don't know how to define anymore.
Also, what we refer to tradition in Judaism is actually Jewish law developed over millennia with a goal of bringing holiness into our lives and by extension into our surroundings.
If I had to do this briefly, I'd follow the teachings of Hillel, an ancient sage. A Roman pagan asked him to explain Torah while standing on one foot. He said: "do not do to others what is hateful to yourself. The rest is commentary, go and study."
Judaism is an intricate web of practice and belief -- in which practice generally trumps belief. This extends to ritual observance to helping others, kindness, ethics, etc. For instance, we learn in 'Torah to keep kosher. The system developed over time through rabbis who were basically practicing lawyers and judges -- Jewish law encompasses everything. As far as kosher goes, I believe that God wants me to keep His laws and cares how I eat. It's a way of keeping God before me.
In Judaism, "charity" is referred to as "tzedakah." This isn't the same as charity on a voluntary basis -- the Hebrew word means justice and is a command.
We believe wholeheartedly in peace but are human beings at a loss as how to achieve it. We believe in self-defense -- wars of choice are just plain wrong.
There are a host of divided opinions on Israel. Israel is our holy land. We've been there for at least 3,000 years. How do we live there in accordance with Divine precepts of holiness and survive? We're conflicted, deeply. Ironically, according to the sage Maimonides, Islam is closer to us in theology and practice than any other religion. Obviously, we also share deep roots with Christianity.
I don't remember who first said (and whether Jew or non-Jew) religion should afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. There aren't any easy answers. That's why so much of Bible is troubling, we have to wrestle with the text to understand it. Some of it is history -- and often not history to be proud of but to learn from (and I hate leaving dangling prepositions).
Learning should always continue an ongoing discussion. In fact, Judaism discourages solitary reading and study. It has its place, but it's never fully grasped until it becomes part of a conversation (if then). Every book we read and study will lead to more questions.
I was also asked about Hebrew and making our services more welcoming. As far as the Hebrew: it's simply that this is our particular way of worshiping because that has been our language for thousands of years. I can study texts written over thousands of years – whether from North Africa or Poland – because Hebrew is a Jewish binder. The use of Hebrew in service also means that I can pray at any synagogue anywhere and participate.
Even for those who don't understand the language, in a very deep way, the words are outer garments that carry our thoughts and yearnings to God. We may not even be consciously aware of the process. We sing our prayers, so we don't often have sheet music. But they're prayers and our offerings to God. Who cares if we get the notes wrong or don't say it all correctly? It's a learning process.
It takes a while for many to become truly comfortable at our services. The only way to change that is to alter the distinctly Jewish method of worship. After a while, it becomes second nature. As an occasional experience, service attendance – or prayer in general -- rarely works. It's like a dialogue with your spouse that sometimes is better than others, but if it's not regular, you get out of touch, ie: “Hello dear, we live in the same house but haven’t spoken in months – but why do you seem so distant from me?” It works the same with God.
It’s certainly not a case of trying to make people feel out but to preserve what is distinctly Jewish. While our services may be hard to penetrate, there's a glimpse of eternity in knowing that Jews across the ages and across the world are saying much the same thing at much the same time in praise of God.
In general, there are no easy answers. We live in an uncomfortable world and maybe we should always guard against too much comfort. A spiritual status quo leads to complacency – and complacency is the surest way to end growth.