Making the Case for Mitzvot


After working through a series of scriptural passages on the dangers of intermarriage, I asked my grade eleven students if they understood the text.  One particularly bright girl – and high performer – said she understood the text completely but the text was irrelevant.  She would marry (or not) on the basis of love, not religion.   The future of the Jewish people as a people was important to her, but not at the expense of personal happiness.   Following a unit on Shabbat, another student voiced the opinion that each person should be entitled to personally determine what leisure activities should characterize the day.  It is simply unfair for the rabbis to impose their views on others.  Both students tested well.  Each could identify, describe, and explain the mitzvot related to intermarriage and Shabbat respectively.  But this did not particularly cheer me.   My students knew well what the pertinent mitzvot were and how they were supposed to be observed.  They were simply unprepared to observe them.

This phenomenon is not restricted to day school students.  University students and adults are just as likely to share the same view. Accordingly, I have come to what I call “Allen’s Observation.”  Among the lessons I have learned in my extensive teaching career is that unless you can convince Jews of the value of mitzvot you cannot expect Jews to observe mitzvot.   Making the case for mitzvot must become the single-most important educational strategy for rabbis, teachers, and parents if we are going to preserve Judaism as way of life based on common practice and shared obligations. 


This will not be easy.  Part of the problem is that Western civilization has placed a premium on personal choice over that of group identity.  Individuality is embraced as a supreme virtue.  Independence is valued over conformity.  Moreover, Neo-Kantian autonomy has fostered several generations of Jews who have isolated and enshrined the first part of Hillel’s triadic formulation and live only for themselves.  And yet there are times when Jews are ready to set aside their urge towards individuality.  I experienced one such moment in 1967. 

While we still celebrate Israel’s great victory in the Six-Day War, few remember how unsure we were that Israel would survive.  The months leading up to the war were months of worry, anxiety and trepidation.  I recall going door-to-door collecting money for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in anticipation of the dire needs of the victims.  And I remember that every person without exception made a contribution.  I experienced another such moment in 1976.  There was no Jew who did not follow with concern the fate of the Entebbe captives nor exult with joy and pride at their rescue by Israel’s commandos.  And I felt that same sense of solidarity during the campaign to “Bring Back Our Boys” that sadly ended with the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped yeshivah boys at the end of June.  

There are times when we gladly set aside our individuality in favor of feeling a sense of membership in something larger than ourselves.  The challenge is to translate these rare instances into a normative way of thinking.  The value of mitzvot is that they routinely foster a sense of solidarity and membership.   Knowing that how I observe Shabbat, for instance, is, to a large degree, the way other Jews observe Shabbat builds solidarity.  And solidarity is sacred to us.  It is no accident that the blessing that precedes the performance of any mitzvah links the Hebrew words for commandments and sanctification.

An instructive Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6) imagines all Jews to be in the same boat.  Thus the other passengers can rightfully object to one among them who starts drilling beneath his seat.  One way to read this Midrash is to deduce that the majority may impose their will on the individual in matters of life or death.  Yet there is another way to read this Midrash: what one Jew does affects every other Jew.  I prefer the second reading, though they are not mutually exclusive.  The reason for my preference is that while much has been said in defense of personal choice, more needs to be said about personal responsibility.   And what generates personal responsibility is a connection with a goal larger than personal gratification and self-indulgence.  The mitzvot are designed for precisely this purpose. 

As we enter this New Year, let us concentrate on promoting the value of mitzvot, of exploring and promoting the communitarian aspect of Judaism. 



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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