According to some people, he [Herman E Schaalman] wrote, "the authority of the 'commandment' resides in the people;" they claim that mitzvot are the customs created by our sages. Such an answer would be sufficient, he continues, if "Jews were like any other people." Why is it so? In which way are Jews different? Unfortunately, this question is not answered by the Rabbi, to my satisfaction. He refers to the Hebrew language, with which I am not familiar.
I can’t access "Gates of Mitzvah” other than by buying this moderately expensive book, so don’t know the context of these quotes, but from an overview-level understanding of Abrahamic religions
, suspect that when Schaalman’s and other religious authorities assert “Jews are not like other people”, they are referring to the religious belief that Jews are maternal biological descendants of ancient people who had direct contact and entered into a contract (or “covenant”) with a supernatural being, YHWH
(“Jehovah”, “Yehowah” or “Yahweh”). Jewish and some other sects or religionists believe this contract applies only to the maternal descendants of these ancient people, and identify this group as “Jews”, all other humans as non-Jews (“gentiles”).
Because biological science has shown the assertion of the existence of a “pure race” that doesn’t genetically intermingle over long periods of time with geographical neighbors to be false, I expect that modern Rabbis such as Schaalman seek to redefine what makes Jews unlike gentiles as due to their traditions, which include learning and using the Hebrew language.
But I do know how Spinoza, a 17th century Jewish theologian (2), would answer this question. Spinoza wrote:
I think it’s important to understand that Baruch Spinoza
while a theologian – one who studies one or more dieties – was not an accepted Jewish
theologian. His ideas were considered “abominable heresies” by Jewish authorities, resulting in his expulsion (via a “writ of cherem”, similar to the Christian religion’s “excommunication”) from the Jewish community in 1656.
"By God's direction I mean the fixed and unchanging order of Nature ... so it is the same thing whether we say that all things happen according to Nature's laws or that they are regulated by God's decree and direction." Spinoza would say that people are part of nature, and that desirable ways of behavior, described by sages, were also described by God. Many theological contradictions would disappear if Spinoza's defintion of God were universally accepted. Do you agree?
However, Spinoza’s definition of God is, in short, that God and the underlying laws of nature are the same thing, a belief now known as pantheism
. He rejected the supernatural definitions of God nearly all past and present day Religionists hold.
I think that to most present day theistic religious people, Spinoza and people who accept his definition of God would be considered non-theists (athiests).