Judaism: 6 Questions at the Gates of Heaven
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
A. What the Talmudic text says (Shabbat 31a/b) is, “When they bring a person to judgment they say to him, Were your dealings honest? Did you devote time to Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you look forward to salvation? Did you reason wisely? Did you deduce one thing from another?”
On the day of the final account and reckoning when you want to know, “Do I deserve the heavenly life of the next world?”, you will be asked by means of these questions, “Did you aspire towards heaven in this world?
The six things are deduced from the verse (Isa. 33:6),”There shall be 1. faith 2. in your times, 3. strength, 4. salvation, 5. wisdom and 6. knowledge”.
They are basic human activities, not necessarily measures of achievement but marks of commitment. To take two examples, one does not need to become a great scholar but to give time to Torah; one does not have to produce a set number of sons and daughters but to make procreation possible.
In the Talmud, Resh Lakish links each of the six with one of the six sections of the Mishnah:
“Faith” is Zera’im, “Seeds”: a person’s trade or profession must be aspire to be worthy of God.
“Your times” are Mo’ed, “Sacred Times”: every occasion must be dedicated to the Almighty.
“Strength” is Nashim, “Women” (i.e. marriage and divorce): one’s personal and family life must bring strength to the family and community.
“Salvation” is Nezikin, “Damages” (i.e. civil and criminal law): the law must bring peace and quality to society.
“Wisdom” is Kodashim (“Sacred Things”): the intricate rules of Jewish law require careful study and analysis.
“Knowledge” is Tohorot (“Pure Things”): the standards of pure and impure require attention based on study.The six are essential for a good Jew, but they all require the additional dimension of piety, Yirat HaShem.
Q. Can a Jew be an existentialist?
A. In order to answer your question I looked up the word in one of the dictionaries in my study. It told me, “Existentialism: a modern philosophical movement stressing the importance of personal experience and responsibility and the demands that they make on the individual, who is seen as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe”. There are Jewish existentialists like Buber, Rosenzweig and Herberg, but there is no one existentialism and some versions may not accord with Jewish teaching.
One brand of existentialism has a strongly christological approach; think of the names Kierkegaard chooses for his books, names like “Fear and Trembling”, “The Absurd”, “The Crisis”, based on mistrust of human reason and nature. The idea that out of despair man comes to God has its reflections in some Jewish sources, but whilst Judaism is fascinated by the nature of human experience it does not as a whole go along with a doctrine that man is lost in a cold, unfeeling world.
Contrast Kierkegaard’s books with those of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “God in Search of Man”, “Man’s Quest for God”, “Man is not Alone”, etc. As a Jewish philosopher Heschel looks at God and man yearning for one another but finds pathways to God in more “normal” aspects of the human condition such as the feeling of amazed, wondering awe and the mind’s capacity to be stretched.