One of the claims that seems to have been made at different moments in my Jewish education is that Judaism concerns itself with what a person does in the world, and not with what a person thinks. The Torah demands we pursue a life rightly lived over beliefs rightly held. This argument underscores that the project of Torah is concerned with our behavior and not our internal life. Sinful might be a word that describes an act in Judaism, but it is not a word Jews would use to describe thoughts or feelings. A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. The way to God comes by way of the mitzvah—a deed. Abraham Joshua Heschel described Jewish law (halakhah) as a system of the "ecstasy of deeds" through which we may experience the presence of God.
I have celebrated this idea about my Judaism for a number of reasons. First, this understanding puts a premium on behavior, and, intuitively, this seems right to me. What should matter most in our relationships with the world and others is what we do. Second, the emphasis on mitzvah—on the deed—pushes us out of our heads and into the world. Third, selfishly, I also enjoy the minimal boundaries this approach places on my emotional and cognitive life. I am not asked to regulate my mental activity. My mind is free to wander where it likes, perhaps not guiltlessly, but certainly with great impunity.
Yet I increasingly find this distinction between deeds and thoughts religiously and psychologically unsatisfying. While I continue to understand a certain privileging of deed over thought, and the ways in which deeds might actually bring us to a place of faith, removing our internal world from the religious conversation seems to belie a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between our mind and our behavior. Not only do thoughts create the context for behavior, but the more that scientists learn about the brain, the more they believe that our mental activity actually creates new neural structures. Consequently, "even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside" (Hanson and Mendius, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom [Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2009], 5). What happens in the mind changes the brain, both in temporary and in lasting ways. A practice of attention to and regulation of our thoughts is an integral part of the experience of other wisdom traditions and modern understandings of psychological growth. How can we, as Jews, simply ignore the mind in the religious experience?
Interestingly, it was in his commentary to the opening verse of this week's second parashah that the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1810) deconstructed traditional Judaism's distinction between thought and deed. The Torah reading begins with the promise, "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of field their fruit" (Lev. 26:3–4). The next 10 verses go on to detail all the blessings that will result if the Israelites choose to follow God's laws, while the rest of the chapter communicates the increasingly horrible punishments for not keeping God's Covenant. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak draws our attention to the seemingly redundant language of the first verse of our parashah. Asking a question that other commentators before him had posed, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak inquires about the repetitive language. What does "if you follow My laws" add to the sentence that "faithfully observe My commandments" does not include? At first glance, both parts of the verse seem to say the same thing, and, given the interpretive assumption that the Torah uses language economically—never gratuitously repeating words—what does the first half of the verse add to the meaning of the sentence?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggests that with the words "if you follow My laws," the Torah expands its religious claim on the human being. These words refer to a person's thoughts and mental processes. Not only will the performance (faithful observation) of God's commandments—actual deeds—bring blessings; the Torah also insists that the ways in which a person thinks and conceives of the world come under the purview of God, and offers us an additional means by which to experience blessings. In important ways, our thoughts program us to experience the world. Generous thoughts and constructive thinking actually create distinct neural pathways in the brain. Positive thoughts produce blessings, and negative thoughts take us down paths that move us farther away from God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak argues that we can and must attempt to influence our conscious mental activity. Seen in this light, practicing compassion for oneself and others is a creative and religious behavior, even though it might not include a physical act. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak focuses our attention on the internal, and asks that we blur the boundary between thoughts and deeds in order to better appreciate the complex relationship between our internal and external lives.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.