Mitzvot: Contemporary Thought

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

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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. The following is 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.

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