Online Adult Jewish learning

Foundations Course Information:

Course InfoDetailsSyllabusSample Lecture
Other Courses in this Series:

Foundations 2: Responsible Leadership

Foundations 3: Encounters with G-d

Foundations 4: Oral Torah & Midrash

Foundations 5: Divine Providence

Foundations Series:
Foundations of Judaism

Excerpt from Introductory Lesson

Topic: Origin of Judaism

Issue: The Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai: their significance to Jewish life

If someone were to ask you how Judaism came about, how would you respond? Indeed, what proofs do we have of the truths that Judaism teaches about G-d, man and the world around us?

God chose our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to form the basis of a nation that would be dedicated to the service of G-d. He promised them that their descendants forever after would be a living lesson of the Word of G-d for all of mankind. Yet the Torah does not refer to the teachings of the Patriarchs as the basis of our religious beliefs; it points only to the events that surrounded the Exodus, and to the Revelation at Sinai, as the foundations of Judaism.

In this, the first of two lessons that outline the origins of Judaism, we will examine the significance of the Exodus in the establishment of Judaism. In Lesson 2 (to be posted next week), we will explore the role of the Revelation at Sinai, as well as means of perpetuating the messages of these two titanic historical events in the national consciousness of the Jewish people.

In approximately 750 CE, the entire Khazar people (a tribe living in what is today southwestern Asia) converted to Judaism. Legend has it that their conversion followed a philosophical debate between the Khazars king and a Jewish sage. Three centuries later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1080-1145, Spain) composed a monumental work of Jewish philosophy known as the "Book of the Khazar," based on an account of this debate. We begin our study with excerpts from this work, relating the kings initial encounter with the Jewish sage.

Book of the Kuzari (Section 1, excerpts from chapters 10-25)

[Before inviting the Jewish sage to represent to him the foundations of Judaism, the Khazar king had first discussed the origins of Islam with a Muslim scholar and of Christianity with a Christian scholar.]

Khazar king: What is the basis of your religious beliefs?

Jewish sage: We believe in the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Who took the Jewish people out of Egypt through miracles and wondrous deeds. Throughout the next forty years, during which the Jewish people traveled through a barren wilderness prior to entering the land of Israel, G-d provided for all their needs. When the Jews left Egypt, G-d miraculously split the waters of the Red Sea in order to save them from the pursuing Egyptians [Exodus, chapter 14], and forty years later He split the waters of the Jordan River in order to bring them into the land of Israel [Joshua, chapters 3-4]. G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people through Moses, and in later generations, sent thousands of prophets to admonish the Jewish people to observe it. There are countless more details I could relate, but I have provided you here a concise outline of the basis of Judaism.

King: I am disappointed with your response. I had expected to hear that you base your belief in the Creator of the Universe, Who arranges and oversees every detail of life and of the world, and Who supports your existence. That is what I have heard from the Muslim and Christian scholars.

Sage: Allow me to explain my introductory remarks through a parable: If people were to tell you of the outstanding charitable qualities and honesty of the king of India (a nation very distant from the land of the Khazars), for which, they said, he was eminently worthy of praise and honor, would you believe their description of him?

King: I would be a fool to believe such an account purely on the basis of hearsay! Perhaps a king of India does not even exist.

Sage: If, however, emissaries from the king of India were to bring you extraordinary gifts that you knew could be found only in a royal palace of India; and if an accompanying document that undeniably came from the king of India attested to the origin of these gifts from that king, would you conclude that you should listen to what the king of India has to say?

King: Of course. The gifts and accompanying document would have resolved my doubts as to whether a king of India exists, and would convince me of the truth of all that I had heard about him.

Sage: How would you then describe the king of India?

King: I would describe him in terms of the gifts that he sent me, which I had seen myself, and in terms of his character traits that had been proven to me, through the gifts he had sent me.

Sage: My approach, then, was exactly the approach you would have taken! My introduction to the foundations of the Jewish religion was based on eyewitness reports of the encounters of an entire nation with G-d as opposed to theological speculation or intellectual proofs. In truth, my response to your inquiry was patterned after G-ds very first words to the Jewish people when He spoke to them at Sinai: "I am your G-d, Who brought you out of Egypt, from a house of bondage" [Exodus 20:2]. G-d did not introduce Himself to the Jewish People with the statement: "I am G-d, Who created the Universe." On the contrary, G-d forged His relationship with the Jewish People through events that they themselves had witnessed in Egypt and at Sinai.

The Jewish sages message to the king is that Judaism is founded not on hearsay, but on the firsthand experiences of an entire nation. During a forty-year period marked by unprecedented miracles, the nation experienced numerous instances of irrefutable proof of G-ds existence. The parable of the Indian king highlights the great advantage of G-ds having provided each member of the Jewish people with concrete evidence of His existence, and with a clear understanding of His relationship to us. G-d did not wish to base Judaism on the unsupported assertion of one individual, or of a small number of individuals, even if they be the most reliable of holy and wise men.