the one essential

I’ve been blogless for too long and it’s time to jump back in with some reflections leading up to the month of Elul and the Days of Awe (for the uninitiated, the 40 days of spiritual focus from the first day of the sixth Jewish month through Yom Kippur, August 30 through October 8 this year).

I’ll start with something that might seem at first tangential, justification by faith, one of the most cherished doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, referring to salvation as a free gift to be received by simply believing, apart from any deeds or human effort at all. Faith is often presented as the Christian (or at least Protestant) response to God in contrast with works, which is the misguided Jewish attempt to earn one’s salvation.

Paul does seem to say this about his fellow Jews: “I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:2-3, NRSV). Or, as he tells the Ephesians (2:8-9), “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But is it true that Paul is contrasting his new religion of faith, Christianity, with Judaism, the old religion of works, as people often interpret him? Or is he speaking as a Jew and pointing out a misunderstanding of the God of Israel and his ways that pops up not just within Judaism, but within religious humans in general?

Some rabbis in the Talmud seem to agree with Paul on the faith vs. works question. They’re discussing how the prophets sought to distill the 613 precepts of Torah into just a few principles. David, in Psalm 15, lists eleven; Isaiah reduces them to six (Is. 33:15-16); and Micah refines them even further to three: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God (Mic. 6:8). Then they continue:

Isaiah came again and reduced them to two principles, as it is said, Thus says the Lord, Keep justice and do righteousness . . . (Is. 56:1). Amos came and reduced them to one principle, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house ofIsrael, Seek Me and live (Amos  5:4). To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one principle, as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4). [Makkot 23b-24a]

Amazing–the Talmud is citing just the way Paul does (see Rom1:17, Gal. 3:11). In all these cases “faith” might better be translated as “faithfulness.” We might think of “faith” as mere belief, or agreement with certain key doctrines, but faithfulness implies more, namely loyalty to the Lord and his ways, staying true through life’s trials and changes. Faithfulness entails belief, but also encompasses our behavior and attitudes. We might call it faith-in-action. The rabbis here don’t portray faithfulness in contrast with Torah obedience, but as foundational to it. It does not negate the many other elements of a life pleasing to God, but underlies them all.

“Righteous” is another key word in Habakkuk 2:4, and this brings us to the Days of Awe, when we are to evaluate and intensify our pursuit of righteousness (I’ll blog some more on that soon). Yeshua defines righteousness as treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Habakkuk reveals that such righteousness doesn’t arise out of keeping a detailed list of does and don’ts, or out of trying harder when we fail. We do need to put effort into righteousness, but it’s a relational effort before everything else, a matter of getting deeply in touch with Hashem and maintaining that connection through the way we treat others; in short, of being faithful to the one who is faithful to us.

To paraphrase Habakkuk, The righteous person is the one who lives a life that is faithful to Hashem. Or to paraphrase from another angle, The one who faithfully stays right with God is really living!


A slightly different version of this blog appears at



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