Mishpatim: The Choosing People

“Am Yisrael Chai” – the Jewish People Lives!  Why?

Judaism is very clear about this.  G-d redeemed us from slavery and gave us the Torah (written and oral) to live by in order to bring about righteousness in the world.  Even the most liberal Jewish prayer books include prayers such as the ahava raba (“instill in our hearts to understand, comprehend, listen, learn, teach, observe, perform, and fulfill all the words of the teaching of Your Torah with love”), v’ahavta (“we are to remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them”), and aleinu (“we have a special role/mission”).

Yet, the majority of Jews in the world -- including me -- have not dedicated their lives to fulfilling all of the mitzvot (i.e., those that are still possible to fulfill, many dealing with the no-longer extant Temple).  Rather, most Jews (including me) choose which mitzvot to follow.  Thus, although we are (or have designated ourselves as) the chosen people, in practice we are the choosing people.  Is there then a principled basis for deciding which mitzvot to observe and which to omit? 

According to (my understanding) of the philosophy of Reform Judaism -- the movement in which I was raised -- this decision is left entirely to each individual, albeit ideally made only after careful study of tradition, texts, commentaries, etc.   Individual choice also fits my American upbringing and pre-rabbinical school training as an attorney and historian. 

Yet, intellectually, I do not believe that the equivalent of Adam Smith’s economic theory of the “invisible hand” – that each individual can act from pure self-interest and the whole will benefit as a result – is the best, or even a possible means -- for the survival of Judaism.  If every Jew can choose which, if any, mitzvoth to fulfill or disregard, how can we ensure that we remain a people with common values, customs, standards, traditions, and expectations?  And/or, that we continue to strive to live for the purpose for which Jews were created?

Perhaps sharing my current (and evolving) mitzvoth-choice principle will prompt you to think about your own.  My admittedly still highly subjective principle is this: Which mitzvoth strengthen the Jewish people in the modern world?  

To be (somewhat) more specific, I seek to observe the mitzvot that I hope will model to other Jews (especially my grandchildren) behaviors that will:

1.     strengthen the cohesiveness of the Jewish people as a people

2.     demonstrate Jewish values, including not just ethical behavior but respect for the opinions of others and their ways of practicing Judaism

3.     acknowledge and preserve Jewish history

4.     transmit substantive (not just “cultural” Judaism).  For example, I did not grow up understanding Hebrew well, knowing/saying the daily blessings and other prayers, visiting Israel frequently, or knowing much of what is in our foundational texts (Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Shulhan Aruch, etc.).  I hope that my grandchildren and others whom I might touch will be different in all these regards.   

5.     Help develop spirituality, soul-sustenance, and meaning in life.

In my view, even amid individual choice, strengthening and transmitting what I call substantive Judaism requires not simply picking and choosing which mitzvoth resonate personally, but rather which are integral to the Jewish people as a whole – even if the individual does not believe/like/want to follow them.

The selection process requires consultation with others – especially the wisdom of our tradition and of our sages.  It requires sacrificing at least some individual choice in favor of Jewish community standards.   Which ones exactly?  My opinion is sure to change over time, as I learn from different rabbis and others and deepen my commitment to my principles. 

Individual liberty and equality before the law are the bywords of Western thought.   The very concept of “commandedness” is an anathema to many. “Live free or die” is not just the motto of the state of New Hampshire, but of the Western mind.   So, too, with equality.  But the Jewish people didn’t survive for 3,500 years on modern Western principles of liberty and equality.   Can it survive in substantial numbers for any length of time based on these principles?  As much as I appreciate and benefit from them, I suspect that Judaism can only survive on principles of Jewish community standards, informed to a great extent by our -- not modern Western -- tradition. 

Fortunately, Judaism is not a monolithic religion – in fact, it isn’t a religion but an evolving people/nation with (I believe) an important, spiritual, pragmatic purpose.  

May those of us who choose which mitzvoth we follow make wise choices that not only “resonate” with us and reflect the Western world of the past two centuries but, more importantly, strengthen the Jewish people for the future.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb