Mitzvot: Contemporary Thought

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

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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.

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