Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro and thinking about Mitzvot

I want to try something a little different this time. This week is Parashat Yitro, where the 10 Commandments (Aseret Hadibrot) are given at Sinai, thus beginning the extension of Mitzvot to Israel. For many of us as modern Jews, the idea of Mitzvot is a challenge, especially the narrative of a supernatural Person giving legislation after intervening in history. I know this because this past week, when working with my confirmation class kids, I gave them various Jewish values or ideas on index cards and asked them to put them in order of most essential to least essential. God was rarely in the top 3. But in one case, mitzvah was at the top, and God at the bottom!

So is there another way to look at mitzvot and our relationship with God? Let's find out. Below I'm going to post Roland Gittelsohn's (z'l) article "Mitzvah without Miracles" from Gates of Mitzvah. Read the article and respond below. Does this theology work for you? Why or why not? What assumptions does it require? What challenges you about it? And if you're coming to Torah Study on Saturday, bring your comments along!

Mitzvah Without Miracles
Roland B. Gittelsohn

What can mitzvah mean to a modern Jew who is a religious naturalist? Perhaps a prior question should be: what is a religious naturalist? Briefly, he or she is a person who believes in God, but asserts that God inheres within nature and operates through natural law. A religious naturalist perceives God to be the Spiritual Energy, Essence, Core, or Thrust of the universe, not a discrete Supernatural Being.
What, then, can mitzvah mean to such an individual? Certainly more than custom or folkway, more than social covenant or mores. Mitzvah, by very definition, must be cosmically grounded; it must possess empyreal significance. For the religious naturalist, as for all believing, practicing Jews, in order to have mitzvah –that which has been commanded—there must be a metzaveh, a commander. That commander, moreover, needs to be more than human ingenuity or convenience.
In the mainstream of Jewish tradition through the centuries, this posed no great problem. The metzaveh was God. A mitzvah was God’s will. It had to be performed because God wanted it. It may have made sense to the human mind or not; these things were not important. It had to be done, plainly and simply because God had commanded it.
But how can an Energy or Essence, a Core or a Thrust, command? For the religious naturalist, who is the metzaveh? Answer: reality itself. Or, more precisely, the physical and spiritual laws which govern reality. Mitzvot must be observed because only by recognizing and conforming to the nature of their environment can human beings increase the probability of their survival in any meaningful way. Mitzvot are not man-made; they inhere within the universe. Our Jewish mystics suspected this long ago. Mordecai Kaplan has summarized the view of the Zohar as holding that “mitzvot are part of the very process whereby the world came into being.”
I agree with David Polish…that mitzvot are binding upon us “because something happened between God and Israel, and that some something continues to happen in every land and age.” What makes me a religious naturalist is interpreting the “something” to be a historic encounter between the Jewish People and the highest Spiritual Reality human beings have ever known or felt. No other people has been so persistent as ours in seeking that Reality and its moral imperatives.
It is easy to illustrate the cosmic nature of mitzvot on the level of physical reality. The universe is so constructed that, if I wish to survive, I must have adequate oxygen, nourishment, and exercise. God “wants” me to breath fresh air, ingest healthful foods, and regularly move my muscles. These, therefore, are mitzvot.
No less is true in the realm of ethical mitzvot. Honesty is a compelling mitzvah. Human nature (which is, after all, nature at its highest level of development) is such that in the long run the individual or the social group that consistently flaunts the dictates of honesty risks disaster. The struggle for freedom is a compelling mitzvah. Only the person who is capable of giving and receiving love will ever be fulfilled. These things are true, not because we want them to be and not because they were decreed by a human legislature, but because they are ineluctable aspects of reality. Hence the recognition, acceptance, and observance of them constitute mitzvot.
Most of the mitzvot spelled out in this guide [Gates of Mitzvah], however, deal with ritual observance rather than physical law or ethics. Are they, too, related to cosmic reality? In a less obvious but equally bidning sense than the physical or moral imperatives suggested above, yes. Human nature is such that we need to express our emotions and ideals with our whole bodies, not just our tongues. We need also to be visually and kinetically reminded of our noblest values and stimulated to pursue them. As otherwise lonely and frightened individuals, we need common practices and observances which bind us into meaningful and supportive groups. All of which adds up to the fact that we need ritual as something more than social luxury or convenience. For us as Reform Jews, a particular ritual may not be  mitzvah. But the need for a pattern of such rituals, this—because it grows out of and satisfies our very basic nature as human beings—is mitzvah. And this we desperately need.
A concrete example at this point may be more instructive than further paragraphs of theoretical exposition.  The most elaborate—and perhaps the most valuable—mitzvah in our tradition is the seder ceremony. A supernaturalistically oriented Jew celebrates at his seder God’s miraculous intervention in nature and history.
The seder means no less, however, to the religiously naturalistic Jew, who rejects miracles. Plugging into centuries of his people’s tradition as well as its unique pursuit of freedom, he visually, audibly, and dramatically commemorates that pursuit and rededicates himself to it. His metzaveh is triune: his very special human need to be free, both as a person and a Jew; his equally human need to augment speech with memory and motion in reinforcement of his highest values; and his specifically Jewish need to identify with his people’s destiny.
Permeating our theological differences is the common understanding that God, however divergently we interpret Him, is the Core Spiritual Essence of Reality. In this sense, God is the metzaveh of the religiously naturalistic Jew, who eschews the supernatural not only in theological speculation but also in his approach to mitzvot. He responds naturalistically to his own essence and to that of his universal setting. Mitzvot for him represent the difference between talking or philosophizing about Judaism and living it. They bind him firmly, visibly, to his people and his tradition. They speak to him imperatively because he is Jewish and wants to remain so.
Plaut, Gunther, editor; Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR Press, 1979) 108-110


  1. Further Questions:

    Think about your own relationship with mitzvot. Do you prefer a naturalistic approach to mitzvah or a supernaturalistic idea? Do we need God to be a Person who intervenes in History or can we encounter God in some other way, and how does that change the way we observe mitzvot? Does Sinai still speak to you, and if so, how?

    1. Rachel Gittelsohn expresses my own philosophy almost totally.

      I do not perform mitzvot because God commanded it, but because the need for the mitzvot is inherent in the world as is the impulse to do mitzvot. I do not view God as a commander or one who controls, but as the highest spiritual level, one that is beyond our knowledge and reach, from which emanates the human impulse to perform the deeds that are demanded by the inherent nature of the world.

      If God is not a controlling omnicient being that commands, the Torah/commandments are no less valid as the words of Torah reflect the inherent condition of the world and the actions we must take to work toward the well-being of humankind in this world.