In two previous posts, I talked about “faith” as a Jewish value.

Here, I want to explore the implications of “faith” in our view of society itself; especially from within a Jewish context.

In this context, I refer again to Rabbi Isidore Epstein’s introduction to the Soncino edition of Masechet Brachot (The Talmudic volume on “Blessings”). 

Previously, I had mentioned that “faith” in Judaism is based on the recognition — a spiritual experience in itself — that One God is managing every thing and every event. Rabbi Epstein describes this as “Faith in the divine ownership of the earth” (and, by extension, of all creation). [1]

“Faith in the ‘Life of the World’ [i.e. the One, unchanging Source of all else], if held with conviction, implies the recognition of God as the owner of the earth.” [2

Why should this be? Because if God is the “Life of the World(s)” [חי העלמים] — or, as the Rambam says, that God’s own “Life” (i.e. existence) is the basis of the existence of everything else — then nothing can ever be separate from God. We are never separate from God; not even for a moment:

“We must therefore realize that the Divine Mind [God] is nearer to man than man may postulate Him to be…The Divine Mind is not only the First Cause of Creation, He is the Daily Cause of Creation; if His presence were withdrawn today, all existence would come to an end.” [3]

If all is God, as the Baal Shem Tov and others have taught, then the earth is God’s, not man’s.

Along the same lines, in the course of his introduction, Rabbi Epstein says:

“In virtue of [the above] principle, the earth, as well as all the gifts of Nature, can never become altogether private property.” [4]

If all is God’s, then all is meant to be shared:

“It follows from this [the principle stated above] as a corollary, that all God’s children are entitled to a share in the land, as their common heritage.” 

This is an amazing, radical-seeming statement, especially coming from within Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Epstein doesn’t say that everything must be shared equally in a strictly Socialistic sense. But based on Torah and Talmud, he clearly states that no one should ever be without the things that are needed to maintain life.

What another might lack, we are meant to provide. 

“The landowner, therefore, while enjoying the reward of his toil and stewardship, must recognize that others, too, have a right to live and that he has a duty to enable them to live.” [5]

It’s popular within Judaism these days to speak of “tikkun olam” as “social justice,” although that was not its original meaning. The term, coming from the Ari’s kabbalah, was appropriated to cover the main political theme of the ’60’s, placing it in a “Jewish” context. Rabbi Epstein’s discussion includes this but goes well beyond it. He points us not merely to the correction — by “man” — of specific social problems but beyond this, to a cognitive and spiritual change in the way we view ourselves and society altogether. 

If one wished for a “Jewish” or “religious” basis for Socialism — or, at least, for the Democratic Socialism of Michael Harrington and Bernie Sanders — then this — the ownership of the world by God — would be it. 

Rabbi Epstein provides numerous examples of how this human sharing based on Divine Ownership is enacted in Torah and Talmud. For example:, the mitzvah of “Pe’ah” (corner of the field):

“When you reap of the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger…” [6]

(I recommend reading Rabbi Epstein’s introduction for further examples.)

On this, Rabbi J.H. Hertz comments:

“Consideration for the poor distinguishes the Moasic Law from all other ancient legislations, such as the Roman Law. The object of the latter seems to be primarily to safeguard the rights of the possessing classes [think of contemporary criticism of the inequities in American Law]. In the Torah, the poor man is a brother, and when in need he is to be relieved ungrudgingly not only with an open hand but with an open heart.” [7]

It is understandable, then, that the Talmud sets no limit to this giving, which is really sharing: 

“These things have no fixed measure: the corner (pe’ah)…” [8]

And the basis of this, as Rabbi Epstein indicates, is that God is the owner; we are merely the stewards. (It’s interesting to note that Rabbi Hertz mentions Rabbi Epstein specifically in his own introduction, thanking him for his critical contributions. They were very similar thinkers.)

Rabbi Epstein then affirms that this faith — in God as the “owner” of the world — is at the basis of Jewish prayer and worship.

Regarding the ‘Shema’:

“For what is the ‘Shema,’ [a Jewish ‘prayer,’ but also the discussion of which opens the tractate on ‘Blessings,’ and therefore introduces the entire Talmud]…but the grand affirmation of Israel’s faith in God’s ownership of the world — His mastery over life and Nature — with His subsequent claim on human service, devotion and love?”  [9]

Regarding the Amidah (the central ‘prayer’ of Judaism, which also corresponds to the daily burnt offering in the Temple): 

“Similarly [to the ‘Shema’], the Amidah…covering the whole range of human needs — physical, mental and spiritual — is grounded on faith in God’s ownership of the Universe [*] wherein He has power to do as He wills and to meet the needs of man in prayer.” [10]

Does this differ in any way from Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein’s definition of “faith” as “…the whole-hearted realization of the Divine Presence accompanied by the conviction of His profound goodness”? [11]

Not really. 

“Whole-hearted…” means in part the denial of any other Source of our lives or Power to which we can turn for help and to which we are accountable.

A Hasidic variation of Rabbi Epstein’s teaching on “faith” states:

“…The non-Chassidic understanding of bitachon [or emunah/faith] is that it means trusting that Hashem is in charge of everything, nothing happens if He does not will it to happen. In this view, Hashem is not beholden to you by virtue of your trust.
In the Chassidic view of bitachon [or emunah/faith], if a person trusts that Hashem will provide him with parnasa or health or whatever it is, Hashem will respond with that which the person seeks [as a result of his  trust or faith].” [12]

“Faith,” then, far from being “absent” or “distant” from Jewish teaching, is at its very heart:

“Faith is, after all, the very pivot of the Jewish religion…” [13]

It is both a personal spiritual experience and the basis for the ideal society envisioned in Torah.

I enthusiastically encourage the reading of Rabbi Isidore Epstein’s introduction to the  Soncino edition of Brachot/Blessings for a further, fuller discussion of this. 

Your reward will be a much fuller understanding of Judaism itself, at the very least.


[1] introduction to Soncino “Brachot;” notes by Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein (as “I. Epstein”):
[Rabbi Ezekiel Isidore Epstein (1894–1962)]
[2] ibid.
[3] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; p. 14
[4] Epstein, as above
[5] ibid.
[6] Vayikra/Lev. 19:9-10
[7] Hertz, Rabbi J.H.; Pentateuch and Haftorahs (single volume edition): p. 499
Note here that Christianity and Islam also speak openly of the need for compassion and assistance for the poor. From the Jewish viewpoint, Torah has influenced later revelations and teachings. This doesn’t negate their spiritual influence.
[8] Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1; also appears in the paragraph “Eilu D’varim” in the daily liturgy
[9] Epstein, as above
[*note: Rabbi Epstein has formerly said “world,’ while implying “Universe.” Here he states it explicitly. We might draw from this, too, that God’s ownership extends to any further “universes” or “dimensions” that might be discovered
[10] Epstein, as above
[11] Lichtenstein, as above; p. 135
(this link does not work on every computer)
[13] Epstein, as above