Diving Deeper into the Mitzvot

Diving Deeper into the Mitzvot February 11, 2020


My last two posts have talked about tradition and mitzvot, core aspects of Jewish thinking and identity. I’ve been calling attention to Reform and Liberal approaches to such. Much of my discussion, as usual, is undertaken knowing that I have many Christian, and other non-Jewish readers who are interested in, but not overly familiar with Judaism.

So, let’s continue our conversation by diving deeper into mitzvot.

In my last couple of posts, I have discussed mitzvot and tradition in a general sense, without noting important distinctions. So, let’s do that now, keeping things at a basic level.

Distinctions & Counting

Jewish tradition speaks of three types of mitzvot. Mishpatim (laws) are most of the moral commandments, many of which were understood to be even self-evident, such as not to murder and not to steal. Edot (testimonies) are commandments tied to significant events in Jewish history and often are related to holidays and observances. Examples would include how to keep Shabbat (the sabbath), how to celebrate holidays such as Sukkot with the waving of the etrog and lulav, eating only unleavened bread during Pesach, and so on. Chukim (pronouncements) are commandments of God without reasons being given or being evident. Examples would include some of the rules of kashrut (what exactly does God have against shrimp anyway?), rules on clothing, and so on. As such, the chukim would be something like examples of divine positive law.

Just over half of the commandments are negative – meaning, commandments to avoid or not do something. Less than half are positive – meaning, commandments to do something.

Another distinction applied to the 613 is that of the difference between ethical commandments and ritual commandments. Ethical mitzvot relate to how humans are to treat other humans and other living things. Ritual mitzvot relate to how humans are expected to relate to God, calling out observances and ceremonies that honor the divine.

How did the number 613 even come about? After all, if one were to undertake the arduous task of trying to count commandments in the Tanakh, one would likely find the ultimate count to be a bit ambiguous and confusing. Well, then, why 613? It seems a Rabbi Simlai in the 3rd century, CE, is recorded in Talmud as having taught that the number of commandments are 613. That number more or less stuck. Centuries later, Maimonides reinforced and popularized 613 as the traditional number.

Most modern Jews understand that there really is no clear way to enumerate all the commandments, and that different lists and formulations exist. Despite this, the traditional reference to the collection remains the 613 Mitzvot.

The Reform Approach to Mitzvot

As mentioned in previous posts, Liberal Judaism emerges in large part with the efforts of the Reform Movement. The roughly mid-19th century movement originated in Germany, but really took root and spread in the United States.

Hallmarks of Reform Judaism include an emphasis on individual autonomy, the application of reason, science, and the best of human learning to our religious thinking and theology, and the acceptance of and reliance on proven forms of biblical scholarship, including the various forms of higher criticism, form analysis, and cultural criticism.

The Reform position on Torah/Tanakh, is that the sacred writings are inspired, that our ancestors wrote, compiled, and edited these texts believing that their efforts represented something of the divine vision and will for humans, and Jews in particular. Yet despite being inspired works, the sacred writings are human products, not the result of divine authorship. They remain sacred in their status because of the vital, foundational role they play in Jewish life, not because they are literally God’s Word.

Such views and approaches to Torah will necessarily color one’s views of Mitzvot. From the Columbus Platform of 1937:

Revelation is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age. Yet the people of Israel, through its prophets and sages, achieved unique insight in the realm of religious truth. The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing consciousness of God and of the moral law. It preserves the historical precedents, sanctions and norms of Jewish life, and seeks to mould it in the patterns of goodness and of holiness. Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth … Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.

And from the 1976 San Francisco Platform:

Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.

Given that it is an acceptable Reform position to say that the mitzvot are not literal commandments from God, understanding what is being commanded, and if possible, why it’s being commanded, is essential, as is deepening our understanding of the differences between ethical and ritual mitzvot.

The reality is that many of the commandments cannot be fulfilled without the Temple being rebuilt, and that is highly unlikely, and not even all that desirable from a Reform perspective. Further, many of the commandments relate to the land of Israel and life in that land, exempting the diaspora.

To add another layer of consideration, all mitzvot require interpretation and prudential application. Saying this does not place us within a hopeless hermeneutical circle of subjectivism and relativism. Most of the ethical mitzvot, and even many of the ritual ones are rather clear – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery – well accepted notions. However, there still remains the need for interpretation and prudential application. Yes, adultery is not a good thing, but certainly we don’t condone stoning adulterers, and so on. Literalism always leads to self-contradiction, and usually cruelty.

Diversity Does Not Necessitate Disunity

No text is self-interpreting. Every set of teachings require deeper analysis and explication. The Talmud itself reflects these necessities and the conversations the sages and rabbis began in those volumes, continues today, despite the writing having stopped. And our continued conversations, insights, and even developments and applications are equally as valid when done as organic outgrowths of the tradition rightly understood, and applied with prudence, love, and mercy.

Judaism’s lack of a universal, central religious authority means that every Jew has the responsibility to study, to learn, and to engage. Every Jew is part of the ongoing interpretation. Every Jew has something to contribute. Every Jew has a seat at the table.

Clearly, we’re not all Talmudic scholars or theologians. Not everyone has the time or even interest to dive deeply into these things. But there remains a basic obligation to do our best and remain engaged.

What about our Orthodox brothers and sisters? Many tend to reject higher criticism and modern biblical scholarship. The general Orthodox approach also veers more toward the affirmation of a personal God who commands. Such convictions will continue to leave divisions, rifts, and disagreements.

Hopefully, a spirit of mutual respect and love will remain steadfast. Judaism has never been a monolithic enterprise and never will. The 1976 San Francisco Platform captures something of that spirit:

Reform Jews respond to change in various ways according to the Reform principle of the autonomy of the individual. However, Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it. In our uncertain historical situation we must expect to have far greater diversity than previous generations knew. How we shall live with diversity without stifling dissent and without paralyzing our ability to take positive action will test our character and our principles. We stand open to any position thoughtfully and conscientiously advocated in the spirit of Reform Jewish belief. While we may differ in our interpretation and application of the ideas enunciated here, we accept such differences as precious and see in them Judaism’s best hope for confronting whatever the future holds for us. Yet in all our diversity we perceive a certain unity and we shall not allow our differences in some particulars to obscure what binds us together.



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