The centerpiece of the portion this week is the Ten Commandments, the sacred laws our tradition teaches were revealed by God at Mount Sinai and faithfully recorded by Moses. The list begins: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
For non-Jewish Bible readers, this statement functions as a preamble to the commandments that are to follow. But strikingly, the rabbinic tradition accords this statement full pride of place as the first commandment.
What does it mean for "I am the Lord your God" to be a commandment? The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides writes in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot: "By this injunction, we are commanded to believe in God; that is, to believe that there is a Supreme Cause who is the Creator of everything in existence."
That Judaism regards "I am the Lord your God" as the first commandment is all the more striking when you consider that Judaism isn't a creedal religion, and that faith plays a far less prominent role in Jewish life and thought than in many other religious traditions.
In fact, American Jews describe themselves as atheists or agnostics at a much higher rate than the population at large, and it has been my experience that many Jews become uncomfortable when God is brought up in conversations, in newspaper columns, even in synagogue.
Why should this be so?
I think one reason is that we don't often take the time to reflect on what we mean by God beyond simply asserting belief or a lack thereof. God provokes a strong and complicated reaction that is difficult or uncomfortable to explore, and so just what we mean by "God" often goes unexamined.
It is worth noting, for example, that Maimonides — steeped as he was in Aristotelian philosophy — conceived of God differently from, say, a Jew in Jerusalem in Temple times. That Jew, in turn, conceived of God very differently from a Jew in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, who, in turn, understood God very differently than Jews do today.
It is vital that we recognize that all our conceptions of God are precisely that — conceptions, and as such, gravely limited. As God tells Moses in a few weeks' time: "No person may look at me and live." God is beyond understanding, comprehension or even language; thus, any of the terms or images we use to try to understand God are pale reflections of the larger reality — not unlike the proverbial blind men who feel around the elephant and believe they are coming to understand the nature of the beast. What they don't have are absolute truths.
It is natural that we create metaphors and mental images of God as we try to grasp what lies beyond our ken. But it is also vital that we don't come to believe any particular conception of God so fully that we forget it is precisely that — a conception.
If we substitute our own limited understanding of God for the larger reality of God's being, then we can find ourselves violating the second of the Ten Commandments: Worshipping something created by humans rather than acknowledging God.
I think many Jews shy away from discourse about God because we instinctively recognize — and thus, reject — the dangers and hubris that stem from absolute certainty. But affirming that God exists is not the same as saying we are certain what God is or what God wants. We are told only that God redeemed us from Egypt — that God is compassionate, and a force for justice and freedom in the world.
The first commandment tells us to ally ourselves with these forces, and not to think that we ourselves control the world, that we possess all the answers. By acknowledging something larger than ourselves, we open up to wonder and possibility — and that's a commandment we can all get behind!
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the religious leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.