The soul of man is the Lamp of God, searching all his innermost parts – Proverbs 20:27
When I began my exploration of Judaism, I wanted to understand my family’s history and the social forces that shaped their lives. When I learned about Jewish holidays and rituals, I was struck by the depth and beauty of this tradition, and wanted to know what makes the Jewish way of life so powerful and meaningful that it has survived thousands of years of persecution. I started looking for guides to Jewish ethics. Most of what I found was in books by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. It was certainly not in the bible, full as it is of the violence wrought by a vengeful, frustrated, sad, and angry God who is (understandably, considering He created the universe) frustrated because no one listens to Him. Every act of smiting seems like a cry for help. I wondered: What does God need so desperately? What is God asking of us?
From Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal’s book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, I learned the bible was meant to be studied as a foundation, as background or a point of departure for understanding the Talmud. The bible is the story of the Hebrew temple cult; the Talmud is the story of Judaism. I learned that the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro were like pocket guides to the Talmud for the masses. Books were not as abundant then as now. A complete Talmud is enormous. Owning one is still beyond the financial reach of most communities. Maimonides and Caro summarized the laws but left out the ethical teachings of the rabbis. If we study only their works, we get the letter of the law without the spirit of the law.
Rabbi Segal answers questions about living a God-centered life. For those inclined toward a secular or humanist orientation, it may be useful to think of God as the voice of human conscience – thet part of ourselves inclined toward love, generosity, kindness, fairness, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and peace. If we believe in a Creator, we may also believe the Creator gives us the capacity for free will, and an innate sense of justice to guide our choices. Belief in God, literal or metaphorical, means living according to our highest ideals. It means our highest priority is how we treat our fellow travelers on the road of life. Whether one is atheist, agnostic, or a believer, if we think about it we see that we were born into a world we did not create and cannot control. The ego is like a shell protecting emptiness and keeping God out. The individual “self” is temporary, but God is eternal.