Generally, people of faith pay good lip service to the idea that they “serve G-d;” but what do they mean by it? Modern Americans are fiercely individualistic. Western European peoples, in general, while also highly individualist are also immersed in a culture that is largely controlled by the state–they serve king and country, as it were–and as those countries are generally secular, serving the divine conflicts with the primary cultural message.
The concept of serving G-d is one that has lost much of its meaning with the rise of individual liberty and equality as values, not because either of those things are bad, but because they allow little room for the concept of service in general. Such a concept must have made much more sense in the past, when absolute monarchies were ubiquitous. Literally, the citizen belonged to the king. Allegiances could change, if you used the right process, but every person served someone else. In Western Christendom, every serf served a knight; every knight a liege lord; every liege lord a king; and every king the pope. Of course, that theocratic system created many problems for Jews, which need not be discussed here; but European Jews were part of that system, indoctrinated into a culture in which every person answered for his actions directly to another person. While the system was different in the Middle East, it was still a system of absolute monarchies with theocratic themes. And all of these systems have their roots in the government systems used in Biblical times.
For Jews and Christians alike, the individual literally belongs to G-d. For Christians, the ceremony of baptism creates a sort of contract between the individual and his G-d, brokered by the church and witnessed by family and community. For Jews, the B’rit accomplishes a similar task. Practicing Jews, however, brand themselves as property of the Almighty on a regular basis, in ways that Christians do not–we wear tzitzit and the Star of David (all though this latter is a new innovation) and the kippa (also not commanded).
In the Torah, we are instructed to wear tzitzit as a reminder of whom we serve. Talmudic Jews also add in other practices to signify their allegiance to their Rabbi(s) and/or Rebbe. We also follow the laws of our “land” (I mean this figuratively): we don’t eat pork or blood and our livestock must be slaughtered in a specific way. The Torah (meaning “law”) is quite literally the legal codex of a people. And those people are united under a specific Entity, even if It isn’t corporeal.
Where this is really going is that my husband and I were recently looking over the instructions for observing Shabat. Not only are we commanded to labor for ourselves six days of the week and rest from that labor on the seventh, but we are also commanded to do G-d’s work on that seventh day. Now that’s a boss with low expectations! We can do whatever we want to put bread on the table all week, so long as we follow His laws, and we only have to do work specifically for Him on that seventh day! Many English translations of the commandments leave out that part of the one regarding Shabat, but it really sheds some light on the concept of service.
The Almighty is our boss, and we are supposed to work for him. More than that, He is our Master in every sense of the word. We do what He instructs us. We dress so as to remind ourselves and others that we are His. We are accountable to Him, and we have no middle men. Our relationship is direct. We put no one and no thing between ourselves and our Creator.
That’s where I really appreciate Karaism. Karaism relies on the plain meaning of the Biblical text. That does not mean we take everything literally. If the reader finds something that appears, in his estimation, to be figurative, it’s entirely reasonable for that reader to interpret the passage in a figurative manner.
In the Torah and the rest of the TaNaKh, many passages refer to the Law as being intended for easy understanding. If we are servants of G-d, and G-d is our ultimate boss, then it stands to reason that a plain meaning reading is called for. If your employer tells you to do something, you don’t go to a lawyer to find the “deeper meaning” of your boss’s instructions, right? The same should go for interpreting scripture.