Mitzvot: Contemporary Understandings

For Jewish religious thinkers in our time, the question "why observe mitzvot?" has become a central and critical concern. Some answers echo earlier periods, some are new.

Print this page Print this page

The stress placed on act over intent is not [universal]. Kavvanah (intention) is of enormous importance in prayer. The Chafetz Chayyim remarks despairingly of the many mitzvot that “slip through our fingers” for lack of intent. But many rabbis would probably concur with their colleague Shmuel Boteach, director of the L’chaim Society of Oxford University, who recently wrote:

[W]hen it comes to perfection of the world outside us, our motivation is wholly unimportant. This is the reason why Judaism insists that one must do a good deed even for the wrong reasons. If a businessman or woman gives a million pounds to an orphanage because they wish to be knighted, although they might not be construed as singularly humanitarian after their good deed, their actions have brought the world so much closer to redemption and for this they deserve our respect and admiration and never our scorn…In Jewish thought man’s first obligation is to make the world a better place…This is why all people must do good deeds even if it is for misguided or selfish purposes.

At the same time, though, the mitzvot, by their very pervasiveness, their focus on the quotidian, are designed to place before us at every point in our day our obligation to “be holy” as God is holy. Thus, our intentions are not to be dismissed completely from a consideration of performing mitzvot. But it is a keystone of Jewish belief, as the words of the Israelites at Sinai remind us, that one can only come to understand the mitzvot by doing them, by imitating God.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.