Listening & Mitzvot

Listening & Mitzvot March 18, 2016

By Gregory

In an earlier post, I discussed the spiritual importance of listening – of taking the time to reflect rationally about nature, including our own human nature, and the rhythms and meanings contained within.

When we stop and attune ourselves to the world, and rest in the quiet of the moment – what do we hear? What does reality tell us?

Many would argue that nature is silent, containing no meaning. There is no “voice” to reality or the natural world.

I take an opposite approach, believing that reasoned reflection of reality yields a consistent message of intertwined meanings. I find the voice of nature to be a metaphor for the voice of God, and vice versa.

At the center of Jewish spirituality is the concept of mitzvot – the notion of commandments or responsibilities that comprise our duties in the Covenant and as human beings. These commandments, traditionally 613 in number, are expressed throughout Torah and codified in Halacha. They include obligations that most modern Jews accept – such as aiding the poor, practicing justice, showing mercy, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Judaism is, however, not necessarily a religion of legal positivism. The mitzvot do not have to be understood as originating only in Torah or being matters of simple Divine command.

Rather, the Mitzvoth are what Jews “hear” when they listen to the world, to nature, and to human nature in particular. Each generation is asked to pause, to listen, and to reflect – so as to hear the voice of the Divine in its own age.

Liberal Judaism, for the most part, accepts the legitimacy of the ethical mitzvot, while downplaying or even rejecting the commandments relating to ceremonial and ritual purity.

Jewish philosophy and theology contains aspects of natural law thinking, a teleological way of looking at the world, and an emphasis on human reason’s ability to intuit the real nature of things, including the goods/values/circumstances required for their fulfillment.

Therefore, it is a legitimate Jewish position to argue that morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority, rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.

For example, when I listen – when I reflect rationally on my own nature, I can begin to understand how certain moral obligations and responsibilities flow from my very being and are rooted in my existing as a person, as a social creature, and as a creature of immense intrinsic worth and dignity.

In a sense, it is the voice of nature that leads me to hear the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, or to pursue justice, or show kindness to strangers. The mitzvot are the words some of us hear when we take time to listen to the world.

Humans experience the capacity of being called/commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. This sense of being commanded is the Jewish idea of the mitzvot.

In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own objective nature calling us toward fulfillment.

Torah is, in part, the record of our ancestor’s moral insights that they subscribed to Divine intention expressed in the world. We remain engaged with their writings because we appreciate their moral genius and realize their limitations and need for ongoing development. We continue to find meaning in the dialog.

We Jews understand these whispers of command that emanate from our own nature and the world as part of the foundation of our moral understanding and religious practice.

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