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.

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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.”

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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.