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.

Excerpted from Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals, published by Pocket Books.

A concern, bordering on obsession, with the commandments is one of the earmarks not only of traditional Judaism, but of its progressive branches as well. Each of the [non-Orthodox] denominations defines itself in large part by its relationship to the mitzvot and the laws that govern them. Abraham Joshua Heschel explains the centrality of the mitzvot brilliantly, contrasting their central place in Jewish thought with the much less important role of ceremonies:

Ceremonies, whether in the form of things or in the form of actions, are required by custom and convention; mitzvot are required by Torah. Ceremonies are relevant to man; mitzvot are relevant to God. Ceremonies are folkways; mitzvot are ways to God. Ceremonies are expressions of the human mind; what they express and their power to express depend on a mental act of man; their significance is gone when man ceases to be responsive to them. Mitzvot, on the other hand, are expressions or interpretations of the will of God. While they are meaningful to man, the source of their meaning is not in the understanding of man but in the love of God. Ceremonies are created for the purpose of signifying; mitzvot were given for the purpose of sanctifying. Their function: to refine, ennoble, to sanctify man. They confer holiness upon us, whether or not we know exactly what they signify. (“Toward an Understanding of Halakhah” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

Heschel cuts to the heart of another important question: why observe the mitzvot? For him it is an existential question. To act in the right way is “to refine, ennoble, or sanctify” humanity. We “confer holiness” upon ourselves by expressing our love—our trust, given that we may not even know what these acts mean—of God. In that statement Heschel echoes the word of the Rav, who seventeen hundred years earlier said that the purpose of the mitzvot was “to refine humanity.”

Of course, other commentators have offered different explanations. In the Torah, the rationale is blunt, almost brutal: humanity is to follow the commandments or it will suffer divine punishment. The punishment/reward schema is certainly an element that comes into play in Jewish thought, particularly in understanding the nature of the covenant between God and the forefathers, and in the writings of the Orthodox rabbinate past and present. After all, there is a midrash that says that when God asked the Israelites if they would accept the commandments, the Almighty held Mount Sinai in mid-air over their heads and made the choice even easier: “Say yes, or I drop the mountain on you.” The Talmud says that one “who performs one mitzvah receives good things.”

But even in the precincts of contemporary Orthodox thinkers, this strain of thought is a minor one. In the Pirkei Avot, the tractate of Mishnah most directly concerned with ethics, it is written, “Be as eager to perform an easy mitzvah as a hard one, for you do not know their merits….” In other words, the mitzvah should be thought of as an end in itself. There are even those who read the passage from the Sh’ma as a parable with an ecological bent: if you do not observe the commandments that govern the just treatment of the land, of the earth, it will become impossible for you to reap the bounty of the planet, you will get acid rain instead of rain for your crops, etc.

David Polish, a contemporary Reform rabbi, offers an intriguing thesis. Her argues that “the observance of the mitzvot reflects a Jewish conception of history,” by placing those who follow them in the stream of Jewish history, harkening back to the events which the practices themselves evoke, “historic experiences in which the Jewish people sought to apprehend God’s nature and His will.”

David Wolpe, a contemporary Conservative rabbi, takes another perspective. He notes that if the text of the Bible is not Divine revelation—a premise about which modern liberal (i.e., non-Orthodox) Jews have a great deal of uncertainty—then where is the obligation to observe the mitzvot? For if the Bible is not the Revealed Word of God, it must be in whole or in part a human product. “In other words—if God did not say it, why do it?” he asks. His answer is that the obligation stems “from relationship,” that Judaism is, as he adroitly puts it, “the language we speak to each other, to history, but most especially, to God.” The mitzvot, then, should be seen as a symbolic expression of our ongoing relationship with the Creator.

There are those Torah scholars who argue that one does the mitzvot because God so commanded; no other reason is necessary. Certainly, there are mitzvot whose rationale is unclear to us, and there have always been two schools of thought on these commandments, divided between those who seek a reason behind a mitzvah and those who abjure such a search.

Perhaps the latter are more in tune with one of the key themes in the consideration of mitzvot in the literature, an emphasis on the doing, the observance, more than on intention. In this respect—the valorization of act over intent—Judaism may be said to be unique among the world’s major religions. Judaism is, as Bernard Raskas, a contemporary Conservative rabbi, has called it, “a hands-on religion,” one in which every Jew is afforded the same opportunity for participation. It is not an accident, Torah commentators say, that when the commandments were given at Sinai, the Israelites told Moses, “We will do and we will hear.” Do first, hear after. As Bar Kapparah, a third-century rabbi says, “Greater are the good deeds of the righteous men than all the creation of heaven and earth.”

The stress placed on act over intent is not [universal]. Kavanah (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 Rabbi Shmuly Boteach, who 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.

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