Action and Ideas: The Sinai Formula


Intellectuals is the title of a book authored by Paul Johnson, the celebrated modern-day historian. The book is a vivid portrayal of the lives of the most influential public intellectuals in Western culture – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, among many others. But it’s no hagiography. In the book, he contrasts the intellectual brilliance of their work with their often-dramatic personal failings; their dysfunctional relationships, their unhappy lives, and most especially, their lack of basic ethics. The point he makes is that brilliant ideas do not necessarily translate into good character or even into creating a better world.

And yet, one of the key Torah teachings is that ideas can make the world better.

We are on the eve of celebrating the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, exactly 3,336 years ago, when G-d unveiled a system of ideas that forever changed the world.

Paul Johnson, himself, acknowledged this. In his monumental A History of the Jews, he writes:

Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might eventually have stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place.

Of course, as profound as these comments are, Johnson makes a major error – he seems to attribute these ideas to the “special genius” of the Jewish people, when in fact they were given to us as a gift from G-d, which we celebrate on Shavuot. How else to explain that a group of desert-dwelling nomads could suddenly produce these revolutionary ideas so many thousands of years ago?

But the transformative power of Torah lies not in ideas alone – but in its unique synthesis of ideas and action. Torah is living wisdom; the intersection between philosophy and practice. When G-d gave us the Torah, He did not only give us ideas, He translated those ideas into a programme of action that we call the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is the product of a powerful idea expressed as a practical action.

This practical action is granular, distilled to the finest detail. The mitzvot are derived from the Written Torah, elucidated in the Oral Torah, in the form of the Talmud, and then devolve into a programme of action which we call the halacha – a system designed to give practical expression to the Divine ideals that are the kernel of each mitzvah.

Thus, the Divine ideal of compassion is translated into detailed practical directives on comforting mourners, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and other ways of alleviating human suffering. The Divine value of kindness is translated into the practical mitzvah of tzedakah, including detailed laws on how much we give, the manner in which we give, and who we give to. The Divine ideal of renewal is translated into the mitzvah of Shabbat, including detailed directives on what it means to “rest”, and on the various practices that enhance the tranquillity and spiritual connection of the day.

Similarly, the ethereal experience of prayer is given shape and practical expression through various halachic specifications around when and how we pray, and through the halachically prescribed words of the siddur. And even the seemingly abstract concept of historical memory is translated into the Pesach Seder with all its stipulations on what we eat and what we do and what we say to evoke the story of the Exodus.

By translating these grand ideas into practical, tangible, real-world action, G-d has given us the means to transform ourselves and the world in which we live. Abstract ideas can be intellectually stimulating but have no impact or practical significance. For ideas to effect real change, they need to be translated into action.

Really, it’s a matter of integrity. The Talmud defines a person of integrity as someone whose “inside is like their outside.” Having integrity means being the person we portray ourselves to be, ensuring what we do is a reflection of who we are, living in accordance with our beliefs. Johnson’s Intellectuals espoused lofty ideals but failed to live up to those ideals. They lacked the programme of action, and the force of commitment, to transport their ideas from the realm of the mind to their heart and soul. 

After all, we are composite beings; intellectual and emotional, physical and spiritual. A person whose life is dominated by their intellect, without a programme of action to bring their ideas to fruition, remains rooted in the abstract realm, their ideas unrealised. On the other hand, actions which aren’t animated by ideas and intellect are lifeless and empty, without spiritual meaning. It is only in the combination of body and soul, intellect and emotion, that we realise our true greatness. It is only through this synthesis of action and ideal that we change the world.  

The Torah is an integrated programme of thought and action that speaks to all the various facets of our makeup. This holistic approach to human development is captured in the two most important two words in Jewish history. When our ancestors stood at the foot of the mountain and G-d presented to them the opportunity to carry out His mission in the world, they responded: “na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will understand.”

These two elements – doing and understanding – are the essence of Torah. They capture the essence of a system of doing and understanding, of action and wisdom, of philosophy and practicality, of ideas and real life.


Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the Chief Rabbi of South Africa.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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