Mitzvot: Contemporary Thought

On history, spirituality, obligation, and standing at Sinai.

The thinkers below, from a variety of Jewish perspectives, reflect on how contemporary Jews– imbued as we may be with a sense of the importance of freedom and individual expression–should understand the practices and obligations which have traditionally been understood in Judaism as “commandments. “

Mitzvot Emerge from Jewish History

Mitzvot are related to historic experiences in which the Jewish people sought to apprehend God’s nature and His will. They are to be observed not because they are divine fiats, but because something happened between God and Israel, and the same something continues to happen in every age and land.

Mitzvot thus emerge from the womb of Jewish history, from a series of sacred encounters between God and Israel. When a Jew performs one of the many life-acts known as mitzvot to remind himself of one of those moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, and what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life.

— Rabbi David Polish founded and led the Beth Emet Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. Reprinted with permission from “History as the Source of the Mitzvah,” in  Gates of Mitzvah, ed. Simeon J. Maslin, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Mitzvot Help Us Recapture the Sinai Experience

The question is not how many of the hundreds of mitzvot you choose to follow. The question is whether you are interested in doing what Jews have always done, recapturing the feeling of standing at Sinai, bringing holiness into your life by sanctifying even its ordinary moments, especially its ordinary moments. Over the centuries, ordinary people, people who were not saints, people who were not scholars, managed to do that, for God’s sake and the sake of their own souls. To paraphrase a familiar slogan, a soul is a terrible thing to waste.

— Rabbi Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and a best-selling author. Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, published by Little, Brown & Co.

Revelation Imposes Obligation

To the committed Jew, the experience of revelation, at Sinai or at present, is not simply a momentarily rapturous encounter. It is enthralling in both senses of the word. It imposes binding obligation. The Torah, although it includes sizable narrative segments, is, in its quintessence, normative. Indeed, the rabbis felt constrained to explain why it had not begun with the first command addressed to Israel (Exodus 12) rather than with the story of creation. At its core, the Torah is a body of law. Halakhah, its heart and soul.

To respond to the Torah, at whatever level, is not just to undergo mystical or even prophetic trauma, but to heed a command. Or rather, to heed God as the giver of commands. To the pure ethicist, obligation may perhaps be rooted in an autonomous moral law. Religiously speaking, one is bound to the person-to-person encounter. Not just the law but the King, not only the mitzvah [commandment] but the m’tsaveh [One who commands]. “Why [in reciting the Sh’ma] does the portion of Sh’ma [Deut. 6:4-9] precede that of v’haya im shamoa [Deut. 11:13-21]? In order that he [who recites] should first accept the rule of the Kingdom of Heaven and then the rule of mitzvot.” This is the crux of the precedence in Exodus 24:7 of na’aseh, “we will do,” to v’nishma, “we shall hear,” which the rabbis saw as being so basic to Israel’s acceptance of the Torah.

–Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Ph.D., formerly Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, is rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. Reprinted from The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, composed by the Editors of Commentary Magazine, by permission; all rights reserved.

Writing the Torah — and Accepting It — Was a Religious Experience

I believe that the Torah is a document of revelation; but I am not a fundamentalist. I believe that the words we read in the Torah were written by men; yet I am not a nontheistic humanist. The men who wrote the Torah wrote it under the impact of a religious experience—an experience of God’s concern for Israel, of God’s incursion into history. And not only the men who wrote it. The experience was shared by the men who accepted it—or there would have been no such acceptance.

Moreover, it is not merely a question of a written text. Torah, for the Jew, is the oral as well as the written Torah; and it is the function of the oral Torah to keep the moment of revelation alive, to apply the underlying principles of Torah to circumstances and conditions which could not have been described in the original written text. With Franz Rosenzweig, I would distinguish between “legislation” and “commandment” in the Torah. The “legislation” can be a mere matter of academic study for me. But it need not be. Approached in the right frame of mind, Torah “legislation” can yield commandments addressed to me.

I am aware of the danger of religious anarchy inherent in such an approach, though I am not sure that it is really a “danger.” I can respect the Jew whose pattern of religious observance differs from mine, if only his observance derives from a like desire to hear God’s commandments. Yet there are also laws in the Torah which should be observed by all Jews—whether or not they feel personally “addressed” by them. For it is one of the functions of the Torah to be the “constitution” of the holy community. The preservation of that holy community is itself a positive value of supreme concern to the Torah and, as I believe, to God.

Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, 1925-1991, was Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Theology at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Reprinted from The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, composed by the Editors of Commentary Magazine, by permission; all rights reserved.

We Obligate Ourselves

I believe that the ultimate locus of authority for what we believe and how we practice as Jews is in ourselves. That is the irreversible gift of modernity. I also believe that we can and must voluntarily surrender some of that authority, primarily to our communities—for without a community we would be totally bereft (without a minyan, I cannot genuinely worship as a Jew)—and ultimately to God as we experience God in commanding relationship with us. But we reserve the right to determine how, and in what areas, and to what extent we surrender that authority. In the last analysis, we obligate ourselves.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, Ph.D., is the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York Reprinted with permission from, “I Believe,” Sh’ma 14/456 (September 3, 1993).

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