Judaism is not a Religion


I remember vividly a realization that hit me at the age of 18, after my first few months of learning in Yeshiva after high school. I was at Yeshiva University in New York, and every evening I spent two hours in the bet midrash (study hall), studying Talmud. We were learning Masechet Bava Kama,which deals with property damages. The particular chapter I was studying at night dealt with theft and robbery, and the procedures to be followed after catching a thief.  One night, at 10 pm after my two-hour learning session, as we were getting ready to recite Maariv (the nighttime prayer), I thought to myself: “I’ve been learning here in this bet midrash for three or four months now, and the only time God’s name has been mentioned in this room was during Maariv!  The sign outside this bet midrash says that I’m in a “theological seminary”, and I thought I was coming here to learn about my religion – but it’s not true – I’m learning about theft and damages.  I’m not in a theological seminary – I’m in law school!”

In the opening video of this series, I explained why it’s a mistake to think of the Jews as a religious community.  There’s a parallel mistake that many people make when it comes to thinking about the Torah itself, which is to view it as the source of a religion (that they call “Judaism”).

Just as the Jews aren’t a group of people who observe a religion, our holy book – the Torah – is not a book of religious doctrine. Now don’t misunderstand me. The Torah does, of course, speak about religion. But that is only one part of what it addresses. If we examine all the laws in the Torah, we see that it includes different types of laws:

  1. “Religious” commandments like those that tell us how to worship God, including laws about bringing offerings in the Temple, Shabbat and holidays, prayer, and the like,
  2. “Ritual” laws (like the rules applying to kosher food, for example),  and ALSO
  3. Matters of a completely different nature, such as the judicial system, civil lawsuits, politics, military matters, and more.

Therefore, a better way to look at the Torah is to see it as the constitution of a nation and a blueprint for a society. The Torah addresses every aspect of national life and instructs us how to build those institutions in a way that will be true to the designation “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

A better way to look at the Torah is to see it as the constitution of a nation and a blueprint for a society.

It’s fascinating to look at these parts of the Torah, to imagine a society that would use these rules as its guide and the basis of its laws, and to think what such a society would look like.  This is a fascinating topic worthy of its own video series at the very least – maybe in the future. But for now, let me give you a brief summary of just a few examples of the inspiring models the Torah presents for how to build a perfect society:


Let’s start with politics and government – areas that aren’t usually associated with “religion”. Among traditional commentators, there is a debate about what system of government is ideal from the Torah’s perspective, but at least one option it describes (which according to many is the ideal) is a monarchy.

But this monarchy is very different from most such systems in the ancient world, when the Torah was given.  The Torah envisions a kingdom led by a king “from among your brethren” who – uncharacteristically for kings – is limited by various restrictions. He “must not obtain too many horses,” (which were essential military equipment in ancient times), he may not take “too many wives” (which – in the ancient world – limited his ability to forge diplomatic agreements) and he also must not “keep large amounts of silver and gold.” And most importantly, he is commanded “to write a copy of the Torah in a book…and read it all the days of his life, in order that he will learn to fear God…so that his heart not rise up above his brothers, and that he not stray from these commandments" (Devarim 17:14-20). 

It’s clear that the Torah is striking a delicate balance between two competing objectives. 

On the one hand, it’s important to provide for the king’s legitimate need to control military and diplomatic power as well as vast economic resources, to command the people’s respect, and to even live with a degree of splendor and glory, as his honor is the people’s honor. 

At the same time, though, the Torah addresses the reality later expressed in the famous insightful quote by 19th-century British politician Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As powerful as he may be, the king is a human being, with all of the weaknesses inherent in human nature. 

Fascinatingly, the prohibitions enumerated here apply only to the king – fundamentally, no other person is subject to such restrictions. Precisely because he is so unusually powerful, and the temptation to corruption is so strong, he requires extra restrictions to balance that out. 

It’s also significant that the Torah does not quantify the number of horses and the amount of wealth that the king is allowed to obtain; the prohibitions are simply against “too many” and “large amounts”. (Although it’s not explicit in the verse, the rabbis did quantify the maximum number of wives and concubines a king may take. In general, though, the entire notion of polygamy is quite foreign to us – understanding this requires a separate discussion, so I’m not focusing on it here.)  Presumably, this is because different situations will require more or less of these things. The idea seems to be that he may work to become as wealthy and powerful as legitimately necessary to carry out his duties; but not more than that.

The requirement to write a Torah scroll and read from it daily further emphasizes that the ultimate purpose of these laws is to constantly remind the king of the true limits of his power and abilities, that he is accountable to God and will ultimately be judged for his actions, and of the fact that it is his responsibility to serve the people – not the other way around.

In a kingdom like that, the king is not a tyrant or dictator, but a noble servant of his subjects, and – most importantly – a servant of the God he represents.


The Torah has a unique vision of how the nation’s capital city should look, and the functions it should serve. 

Like all nations, of course, the Am Levadad needs a central location to serve as the seat of its government and the headquarters of its national institutions. In the book of Devarim (12:2, 4-11) there is a description of just such a place, where the king and the Supreme Court are based, and to which all the people are to gather multiple times a year. This place is called "המקום אשר יבחר ה' לשכן שמו שם” - “the place that God will choose to rest His presence there”; at its center is the Temple – which stands as a powerful symbol and reminder of the imperative for the worship of God to remain the focal point of everything that happens.

The Torah also commands the people to ascend to the Temple three times a year during the pilgrimage festivals – unique institutions that combine the natural celebrations of an agrarian people at key points of the agricultural cycle with rituals designed to pass on the nation’s historical memory and sense of mission to its children. 

Anyone who visits the capital city – whether coming for the pilgrimage to the Temple, to attend a hearing at the High Court that sits in the Temple courtyard, for a political meeting at the king’s palace adjacent to the Temple, or simply as a traveler or tourist – all of those people would see, in the very architecture of the city with the Temple as its heart, a tangible expression of the idea that this nation is, indeed, a kingdom of priests.


The Torah also includes a system of taxation, to provide funds for the needs of the public, the poor, and the priestly class – and there are a number of novel aspects to this system of tax. For now, we’ll discuss only one particularly unusual tax, called maaser sheni – the Second Tithe, which demands that farmers set aside approximately 9% of their produce during four out of every seven years, and eat this produce themselves in Jerusalem.

It's required to set this tithe aside (so it is a tax) and its use is restricted, but the farmer doesn’t give it to anyone; he keeps it for himself.  What could be the purpose of that?  Because it may only be eaten in Jerusalem, it essentially creates a “vacation fund” that enables and encourages everyone to spend some time in the holy city, absorbing its unique atmosphere, visiting the Temple, and being influenced by it. And if a farmer is blessed with so much produce that the maaser sheni is too much for him to eat, he will thereby be required to invite others to join him in this wonderful spiritual opportunity.


The country we’re describing is so unusual, primarily because it belongs to an unusual people –the Am Levadad – that unique nation that needs to be a sovereign nation in its special homeland, but nevertheless can exist in exile, without its own land when necessary and for as long as necessary. 

This understanding helps explain another strange phenomenon: When a non-Jew joins the Jewish people, in Hebrew, we call the person a ger/giyoret and we use the related word giyur to describe the process. The common translations “convert” and “conversion” are really misnomers: One converts to a religion, and therefore those terms derive from the mistake we mentioned earlier – viewing Judaism as a religion.  But Judaism is not a religion, and a ger is not converting to a religion; he or she is becoming a naturalized citizen of a unique nation – the Am Levadad. And as in many countries, obtaining citizenship includes accepting all of the laws incumbent on members of the nation. 

Actually, the word “immigrant” is a closer approximation of what it means, and indeed – the Hebrew word ger does carry this connotation.  But of course, that doesn’t really suffice either, since one doesn’t have to move to a different country to join the Jewish People. Therefore, we are left simply with the untranslatable word ger to describe the unique process of joining this unique nation.

There’s much more to say about this – as I already mentioned, the Torah includes a whole body of criminal and civil law (including those laws I was studying in the YU beit midrash that night that I spoke about at the beginning), instructions about setting up court systems and a police force, an army, economic regulations, and much more.  And as in all the other areas of law, the written Torah includes only basic legislation, which is accompanied by an entire system of halakha – the so-called oral law – which enables its development and application to changing circumstances.  We’ll talk more about this in Video #6.

For now, though, I think we’ve said enough to demonstrate the idea I’m trying to get across: The Torah is not about a “religion” called “Judaism” – rather, it’s the constitution of a nation and a blueprint for a society; instructions for building a singular righteous, just, and holy nation.

In our next video, we’ll discuss how these timeless laws, first given thousands of years ago, remain relevant as time passes, many things change, and the world increasingly internalizes its messages.

Dive deeper

I actually think the polytheist and the atheist are quite similar to each other – in fact, they’re almost identical! One might even describe atheism as a special form of polytheism.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s realize that in classic polytheistic conceptions of the world – even if there was often a “head” or “chief” god, there was no single ruler in charge of everything. Instead, the polytheist viewed the universe as a chaotic place controlled by various powers, which he personified and called “gods”. While the specific names and mythologies varied from one region or culture to another, there were striking similarities between them. They all believed in a pantheon of gods, each of which was thought to be responsible for a different natural or human phenomenon: there was usually a sun god and a moon god, a god of wind, a god of rain, a god (or often, goddess) of fertility, a god of war, a god of love, and so on. And at least in ancient times, these gods often looked and behaved very much like humans: They were jealous of each other, fought with one another, formed alliances, and deceived one another.
To survive in such a world, the polytheist would worship the various gods and try to figure out what they needed so he could win their favor and entice them to act in his interest. He might also engage in magical rituals that he believed could harness various forces to help him.
Now let’s compare this to the way a modern atheist sees the world. Unlike the polytheist, she doesn’t believe in gods with personalities and emotions. But beyond that distinction, her vision of the world is very similar. She also sees a chaotic universe in which various forces interact and clash with one another. Her universe, like that of the polytheist, has no ruler, and nobody in charge.

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