I had a couple of very relevant conversations last week surrounding Judaism and choice.
The first was at Community Day School this past Monday morning. I was there for what seemed to me a very curious thing: to promote the wearing of tefillin. Now this might seem totally normal – after all, I promote Jewish observance every day of my life. I in fact promote that particular mitzvah quite often during our weekday morning minyan – when there are men who enter to worship and do not have tefillin, I offer it to them. They rarely take me up on the offer, and I do not push. There is, it seems, something particularly alien about putting on tefillin for those for whom it is not a regular mitzvah.
And just to be clear, the mitzvah of tefillin is on par with all of the other positive, time-bound mitzvot, like the observance of Shabbat, wearing a tallit, sitting in the sukkah, eating matzah and maror on the first nights of Pesah, studying Torah, daily prayer, etc. There is nothing that distinguishes this one as compared with any other particular mitzvot – that is, it is just as valid, and still applies to Jewish adults.
But what was challenging for me about this discussion was not the promotion of a mitzvah, but rather the assumption that it is a choice for post-benei-mitzvah kids in a Jewish day school whether or not to wear them, particularly while it is not a choice for them to fulfill the mitzvah of daily prayer.
Now, it is not my intent to criticize CDS – I think that they are doing a wonderful job endowing our children with Jewish learning. My intent is to examine where we are today as Jews, a subject that many of you know is exceedingly important to me.
The second conversation was here at the Religious Services Committee meeting on Thursday evening. Among the topics discussed that evening was the question of whether women in our congregation be required to wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin during our services. Now, I do not need to go into the halakhic / Jewish law issues surrounding this question – we’ll save that for another day. (Suffice it so say that it is a very interesting question, but of course we know that traditionally women have not been considered “obligated” to wear these ritual items, but the Conservative movement has said that they may take them upon themselves if they desire.)
What emerged during the conversation is the question of those men who come to weekday morning minyanim and wear a tallit, but no tefillin, to which they are clearly obligated under Jewish law. Generally, we do not force anybody to do anything. So if we were to insist that women were to put on these ritual items, we would have to insist that these men do as well.
The question upon which I am focused is not tefillin, per se, but the idea of choice. Because the way that Judaism has traditionally been understood, we do not really have a choice. God has placed the mitzvot in front of us (613, as you may know, although this is a debatable figure), and it is our obligation to fulfill them. “Kol asher dibber YHWH na’aseh ve-nishma,” said our ancestors back in Parashat Mispatim. “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will obey.” (Ex. 24:7) That’s what the covenant, the berit, with God is all about. God gives us good things – rain, abundant harvests, fertile livestock, etc. – and we perform the mitzvot. (Why do we call circumcision a berit millah? Because millah / circumcision is the sign of that covenant, that berit with Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Ya’aqov and every Israelite who came after them.)
The traditional way of thinking in Jewish life is that if we choose not to fulfill our side of the covenant, God’s expectations of us, we have clearly transgressed.
Now, it is DEFINITELY NOT my intent to make anybody feel guilty about what they do or do not do. I don’t believe in guilt – it’s not a part of my religion.
Nonetheless, I think we do need to feel out this concept of choice. We are not living, after all, in the second century CE, when the early rabbis were codifying these principles, or even the 19th century, when the modern movements (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) are beginning to crystallize. Today we are in a very different place, both in our relationship to Jewish tradition, and the wider society’s relationship to religion. And, as we all know, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.
So the question comes down to this: Do we, in fact, feel “obligated” to the mitzvot of Jewish life? Do we feel compelled to fulfill our end of that berit, that covenant? Can we even understand God in such a way that makes the whole idea of berit work?
I have been a lifelong Conservative Jew, and mitzvot such as tefillin have never been presented as optional. On the contrary, it was clear that although many Conservative Jews clearly did not keep kashrut or Shabbat in a traditional way, there was always the expectation that, at least in the synagogue and other public Jewish contexts, the communal standard of observance was higher. To this day, of course, we mandate that food served in the building is kosher, that tefillot are recited thrice daily, that hilkhot Shabbat, the laws of Shabbat observance, are observed, and so forth. In short, we offer an environment in which it is clearly possible to fulfill the mitzvot. And we encourage people to do so, regardless of what they do once they leave.
When I was a camper at Camp Ramah, an arm of the Conservative movement, boys who were post-benei mitzvah were required to wear tefillin at morning services. There was no choice. I did not mind this – as you may imagine, I’ve always enjoyed putting on tefillin. It is likely that not everybody was where I was.
But when I was not at camp, I only rarely put on tefillin as a teenager, and only when I was at a weekday morning service, which happened perhaps three times in high school (the morning of Purim, since I was a regular megillah reader).
Let’s face it: the highest value in American society today is choice. Have you purchased any toothpaste lately? While it used to be that there were about four toothpastes available to the American consumer, today there must be hundreds. What could possibly justify so many choices?
I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA describe America as, “Choice on steroids.” And all that choice has transmogrified our brains. We expect it in all corners of our lives.
Is this good for the Jews? When we have seemingly infinite choice, isn’t it natural to assume that we will have it in our relationship with Judaism as well? Ours is not really a tradition of choice. It is a tradition of mitzvah, of commandment.
The reality, of course, is that we have choice in Judaism, and I don’t merely mean davening at Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom, or Poalei Zedek. There was a brief period in American Jewish life when converts to Judaism were referred to by the politically-correct-sounding, “Jews by choice.” But today we have to acknowledge that we are ALL Jews by choice, even those of us born to a Jewish mother and steeped in tradition.
So how, then, may we understand mitzvah? This is a particularly relevant question today, when we celebrate a member of our community becoming bar mitzvah, i. e. one who is now endowed with the opportunity for complete spiritual fulfillment of the 613 mitzvot of Jewish life.
There is no question in my mind that the mitzvot are an obligation; some rabbinic writings refer to them as a “yoke,” (ol malkut shamayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, the Empire of God). The very word mitzvah means commandment – something that God has effectively ordered us to do. But these are all alienating terms. Perhaps those of us in the know should refer to the mitzvah as a holy opportunity.
With every potential fulfillment of a mitzvah, with every available holy choice, we have the opportunity to raise our own personal holiness quotient. When you wrap yourself up in a tallit, when you bind the words of the Shema to your arm and your head, when you place a mezuzah on your door frame, when you avoid certain foods or avoid spending money on Shabbat or have a holiday meal with family, you raise your holiness quotient. Whenever you take an opportunity to fulfill a traditional ritual, you elevate yourself and your community just a little bit.
Here are five possible reasons for continuing to take those holy opportunities. Perhaps one of them speaks to you.
- Mitzvah. Berit / covenant. The traditional conception of obligation.
- Tradition. My ancestors have done this for millennia. Perhaps I should too.
- Boundaries. Healthy living requires limits.
- Physicality. We need daily reminders of being Jewish to connect us to our tradition, and physical acts (eating, wrapping tefillin, etc.) are the best reminders.
- Qedushah .It makes you feel holy.
Ultimately, even though it’s not a choice, many of us perceive it to be. But it’s the right choice, the set of choices our people have been making for perhaps as long as 2,000 years. And maybe, just maybe the reason we are still here, thousands of years after the Roman Empire, the Babylonians Empire, the Persian Empire, even the Ottoman Empire (OK, so it’s only been a century since that one fell), is because we have continued to pursue this path of holiness, because we have continued to make the holy choice when it has been presented to us, to act on those sacred opportunities. The Empire of God, malkhut shamayim, is still here.
(To read part 2 in this series on the concept of mitzvah, click here.)
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/21/2016.)