How mitzvot evolve

NEW YORK, Aug. 25 — Judaism, like all religions, is prone to encourage spiritual excess. But according to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “It is primarily a religion of the ordinary, unexceptional individual who is not necessarily blessed with a spiritual disposition.” Therefore, a primary purpose of mitzvot is to ground Judaism in reality and to ensure that Jews recognize that the strength of the religion lies in its everyday practice. What are the implications of Leibowitz’s explanation regarding both the purpose and source of the mitzvot? The Jewish tradition directly addresses the question: Who is the source of the mitzvot? The Talmud, at the conclusion of Tractate Makkot (23b), makes the following comment based on the verse in Deuteronomy: “Torah was taught to us by Moses, a legacy to the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy, 33:4). Torah, explains the Talmud, has the numerical value of 611 and therefore the Talmud infers that 611 of the 613 mitzvot were transmitted by Moses. On the other hand, the remaining two mitzvot — specifically the first two of the Ten Commandments, both of which are explicitly written in the first person in God’s name and identify God as the one who took the Jews out of Egypt and prohibiting the worship of other gods, and both of which are explicitly written in the first person in God’s name — were recited by God. This well-known talmudic selection identifies a fundamental principle about the origin and transmission of mitzvot. The source of mitzvot is a partnership between God and Moses. The ultimate source of the mitzvot must be God but the immediate transmitter is not God but a human being. This partnership is not insignificant; it is part of the divine design. Human beings are not only receivers of the commandments; they must also be involved in the transmission process. The famous tale of the oven of Achnai (Bava Metzia 59b) describes a debate between the heavenly voice and the rabbinic scholars. In the end, the rabbis claim victory based on the principle that the Torah is “Not in Heaven.” We are then told that God watches this event and smiles saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” While this description of God’s response is moving, it is also surprising. Why must the rabbis defeat God? Is the process lacking if God is victorious? The answer underlies the basic relationship of human beings to God and commandments. God does not expect people to follow the commandments as automatons, waiting for instructions and being punished for disobedience. God expects a cooperative and evolutionary process in which people participate in the formulation of the commandments and thereby fulfill the obligations they have created. God’s willingness to accept defeat, as it were, is a profound expression of this partnership in the evolution of the mitzvot. Based on this appreciation of the partnership model between God and humans, we can understand Leibowitz’s formulation regarding the purpose of mitzvot. If God was the sole source of mitzvot, they by their very nature would be geared to the more spiritually oriented and to those who were more naturally drawn to religion. This would result in a class system vis-à-vis the required observance of Judaism. This is not, however, the way of Judaism. Jewish practice must be accessible and available to everyone equally. Accordingly, the Jewish people must share in the process of developing the mitzvot and defining their application to everyday life and practice. “Judaism is a realistic religion,” Leibowitz writes. “It apprehends the individual in his concrete everyday existence and regards him in light of his reality, and not in terms of a ‘vision’ of the ideal reality.” It is the role of the molders and shapers of religious tradition and practice to keep this idea in mind so that mitzvot will become a tool for the realistic achievement of the religious goals and visions of Judaism.(Rabbi Adam Mintz, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, is President of the New York Board of Rabbis)

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