Jewish Journal

The Five Most Foundational Jewish Teachings

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

July 21, 2014 | 1:48 pm

While all of the Jewish tradition is powerful, I believe the essence of the tradition can be summed up in 5 theological and moral concepts.

1. Bereishit (Creation) – We learn that there is only One Creator and that each human being has been created b’tzelim Elokim (in the image of that Creator), giving him/her unique and infinite human dignity. We are taught that humans must partner with G-d in tikkun olam (repairing the world). Jews are given the unique role of an Ohr L’goyim (light unto the nations), to bring moral leadership that will improve society and the human condition.

Humans are paradoxically both modest, mortal creatures, yet also glorious, powerful souls with great potential. In this manner, we become as great as possible while also maintaining humility (anivut) and awe for our small existence (yirah).

2. Shabbat Kodesh (Day of rest) – G-d rested as part of creation, and we are asked to emulate that spiritual practice to renew ourselves. Thus, we are at our best in the physical world when we allocate a unique and sustained time to existing in the spiritual realm.

Furthermore, what is unique is that this is not only a day of rest for oneself but also for one’s worker (labor rights), one’s animal (animal welfare), and for the earth (environmentalism). G-d asks that all of creation be honored and given time to rejuvenate. While all life in creation is given enormous significance, human life is the pinnacle, which is why pikuach nefesh (saving a human life) is paramount, trumping almost all other values in Jewish law. The Divine establishing of Shabbat on day 7 of creation was the first social justice mechanism placed not only into human mandate, but also into ontological reality.

3. Yetziat Mitzryim (Exodus) – The Israelites were set free from bondage and commanded to always remember their suffering as strangers in Egypt. The Torah teaches that the plight of the vulnerable must always be accounted for and the poor, elderly, and vulnerable are our responsibility. Spiritually, we each have bechirat chofshit (free will) to act and choose our own destiny. Freedom is the constitutive means for all morality. That is to say, one can only be good if one can choose between good and evil. It is in the free choice that one attains and actualize’s one’s humanity. Each human being is given the freedom to actualize her/his destiny and each person (Jew and gentile), if righteous, has a place in the world to come.

This gift is not merely freedom from oppression, but also the freedom to actualize one’s purpose to make the world just and holy. Our commitment is V’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha, to love others like ourselves. This love is achieved, indeed enriched, through means such as tzedek (social justice, distributive justice), mishpat (human rights and procedural justice), gemilut chasadim (acts of love and kindness), and being rodef shalom (pursuing peace and creating a more trusting society).

4. Brit (Covenant) – There is a system of holy obligations between individual to individual, individual to community, and individual and community to G-d. One acts out of obligation and complete commitment, not on a simple emotional whim. There must be an unwavering law and structure to sustain a commitment to moral and spiritual values. Even love (ahava) is not built upon emotion but upon commitment and justice (Take the ketubah [wedding contract], for example, which is all about commitments and obligations).
Life experiences include rituals that pause and slow us down for reflection while simultaneously adding sanctity into daily living. Holiness is not restricted to the house of worship but should permeate our existences. One’s speech (shmirat halashon) and one’s basic behavior (derech eretz) are to be elevated from the mundane to the holy realm.
A brit is not only a legal contract but also a holy and intimate relationship. Historically there have been four britot: one with Noah and his family (Genesis 9:8-11), with Abraham (Genesis 15), with the Israelites after the Exodus at Sinai (Exodus 24:1-11), and just before the entry into Israel (Deuteronomy 27, 28).

5. Talmud Torah (studying Torah) – One is never complete. We must always continue to learn and grow. The goal is not merely competency, literacy, and relevancy, but moral and spiritual transformation. Through learning mussar (personal growth study), chevruta (partnered study), chavurot (group study), and kehillot (community-wide learning), we have a relationship to the text, the history, to others, and the Divine. The Hebrew language is central to Jewish learning and expression not only due to the absolute bond with the modern state of Israel, but because it is the language of our ancestors and holy texts. Also, this is not an easy process, nor a complacent one. This learning is not centered upon agreement but upon disagreement (machlochet). It is through the discomfort of examination, inquiry, and challenge that we grow in understanding. In prayer, humans speak to the Divine while in learning Torah, G-d speaks to humanity. Both channels need to be open. Prayer and study must be accompanied by cheshbon hanefesh (self-reflection).

The Torah not only offers these gifts to the Jewish people but to the entire world. They are both particularistic as well as universalistic gifts. They are not to be understood and applied uniformly, but uniquely. G-d speaks not only through universal imperative but also through intimate connection. Each of us must actualize these teachings in our own way. The notions of creation, rest, freedom, obligation, and freedom are keys to success, happiness, and holiness.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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