“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)
When I was in college, I spent part of a summer at a program called Brandeis Camp Institute (today Brandeis-Bardin Institute). It was an intense immersion program for college students to experience Judaism of all forms, from secular Zionism to Chabad. We had a wonderful scholar-in-residence through the summer, Dr. David Weiss.
Dr. Weiss was a professor of immunology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A native of Vienna, he was trained in the United States before moving to Israel. As well as a prominent scientist and author, he was an Orthodox Jew who chose an observant life. I was privileged not simply to learn from him that summer, but to correspond with him for several years (remember sending letters through the post office), and to visit him in Israel. He certainly influenced my decision to become more observant and enter rabbinical school.
I vividly remember one lecture he gave us that summer. He said that it is possible to look at different cultures and religious traditions and find one word which summarizes their outlook. I remember him mentioning “faith” to describe Protestants and “sacraments” to describe Catholics. In speaking about America, he used the word “rights.” One can continue the exercise. In speaking about Muslims one can use the word “submission.” Turning to Eastern religions, Hindus would probably use the Sanskrit term “Brahman” or ultimate reality. Buddhists may speak of “attachment” which is the cause of all suffering in the world.
The heart of Weiss’s lecture was his description of Judaism. The key word to understand Judaism is “action.” Or as the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, Judaism requires a “leap of action.” (Compare this to the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith.”) When Jewish mystics speak of the four worlds in which we live, the closest one to us is the Olam HaAsiya “The World of Action.” What we do in the World of Action effects all the higher worlds. Jewish tradition is far more concerned with what we do than what we believe.
Perhaps this idea is best demonstrated by a scene in this week’s portion. The Israelites have fled from Egypt but are trapped at the sea. With the sea before them and the Egyptians in pursuit behind them, Moses prays to God for deliverance. Then God tells Moses, enough prayer, it is time to take action. Move forward. According to Rabbinic tradition, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the sea. (Sotah 37a) When the water reached his neck the sea parted, and the Israelites were ready to move forward. The crossing of the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds formerly translated as the Red Sea) occurs following a leap of action.
Dr. Weiss’s lecture on action became an important part of my understanding of Judaism. I often tell people to take that leap of action and simply do something Jewish. A woman once told me that she would consider lighting Sabbath candles if I could prove to her that God exists and that God wants her to light the candles. I answered, just light the candles. Ideas do not lead to action. Ideas grow out of action. Ultimately we find meaning not in what we believe but what we do.
This description has entered our daily parlance. If we want to speak of a Christian who practices his or her religion, we say “a religious Christian.” But regarding a Jew who practices his or her religion, we would say “an observant Jew” or a Jew who is shomer mitzvot “keeps the commandments.” We are a religion built around action, going back to the actions of Nachshon at the crossing of the sea.
Unfortunately, I lost track of Dr. Weiss. In preparing this message, I looked him up and discovered that he passed away in 2016 at the age of 89. I pray his memory be for a blessing. I hope he knew that he deeply influenced at least one rabbi.