Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary
Essay 8 of 18    |   View All Posts »
Mitzvah July 5, 2011 / 3 Tamuz, 5771

Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, The Jewish Theological Seminary

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The commitment that 21st century Jews make to the life of mitzvah is decidedly countercultural.

We moderns are raised to prize autonomy, resist authority, and jealously guard options. Commandment and obligation seem antithetical to personal freedom—and many contemporary Americans approach them warily. Jews are not immune to this tendency. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen and I heard numerous unsolicited protestations from “sovereign selves” in the course of doing research for our book, The Jew Within. “No one can tell me what to do as a Jew.” “I elect to observe Judaism as I elect to observe it.” Sovereign selves believe they have a right to exercise such choice when it comes to Jewish observance and commitment. In their eyes, it would be wrong not to do so: they would be “dishonest” or “inauthentic” if they engaged in any practice that is not personally meaningful at the moment they perform it. Each mitzvah—far from being obligatory, part of a larger pattern to which they are pledged—must, as it were, make the case for its own observance, every time.

Most Conservative Jews understand this. They recognize that partnership in the Sinai Covenant entails a thoroughgoing discipline of practice; an all-embracing way rather than a set of discrete “good deeds.” I think they have learned from experience that mitzvah—because it is comprehensive—provides a wholeness to life that would otherwise be unavailable. How we eat is connected to the rhythm of the week and the year; how we learn Torah is inseparable from the good we try to do in the world; all of these flow to and from encounter with God, however one thinks about and tries to serve God or the Ultimate Truth of existence. A great many Conservative Jews resolutely take the “leap of action” to mitzvah and by doing so acquire the gift of wholeness to life. At least as many aspire to do so, or to do so more often.

We all know that more than duty alone inspires Jews to make sacrifices on behalf of Israel or to devote hours beyond number to service of synagogues, schools, Federations, or other causes. Belief in revelation at Sinai is also not what drives most Jews, most of the time, to undertake those responsibilities. We do such things—and take on many other mitzvot—because we are grateful for the life that Torah makes possible, thankful that we have resources that we can share, pleased we have the chance to give back to our community, loyal to the ways of parents or grandparents. The combinations of motive are many and not always well-understood. Some Jews act in obedience to God. Some heed conscience. Others believe that God speaks to them through conscience—or in the voice of the community. All find meaning and joy in a life governed by Torah. That is why commandment is not an adequate translation of mitzvah, any more than good deed captures the matter. Mitzvah means so much more than either of these. It is, like Torah itself, a pattern, an ennobling source of wholeness, a way.

What is distinctively Conservative in this understanding of mitzvah? How shall we increase performance of mitzvot among Conservative Jews? These questions are the subjects of next week’s post. Print This Essay

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Featured Responses

Bradley Artson

Bradley Shavit Artson

"Most Conservative/Masorti Jews don’t believe in a God who verbally commands orders, but many do recognize that the mitzvot connect them to the divine. Most Conservative Jews, when they light Shabbat candles, or eat a kosher meal, or contribute tzedakah or feed the hungry, do celebrate that they are linking themselves to something beyond themselves—God, Jewish values, creation as a whole, holiness."   Read More »

Nina Kretzmer

Nina S. Kretzmer

"In Commentary’s 1966 publication entitled “The Condition of Jewish Belief”, then-JTS Professor Seymour Siegel wrote, "In a real sense the halakha is constantly reevaluated by the aggada" (225).  Read More »

Joel Roth

Joel Roth

"As a 21st-century American I, too, “prize autonomy, resist authority, and jealously guard options.” And for me, too, “commandment and obligation seem antithetical to personal freedom.” But, as a 21st-century American, I also know that I am bound by American law, and that American law is determined by a legal system that obligates me even though it often restricts my personal freedom. Recognizing this obligation regularly pushes me to attempt to understand and appreciate the underpinnings of the laws that bind me, so that my observance of them becomes more than blind obedience, but I also understand that my inability to do so, and even my disagreement with those underpinnings when I do understand them, do not entitle me to ignore or violate what the law demands of me. That is ultimately what it means to be bound by a legal system." Read More »

David Saiger

David Saiger

"I recently moved out of my Upper West Side JTS apartment, and while the movers (one of whom is a practicing/believing Christian and one of whom has left Christianity for “logic and secular ethics”) and I were taking a break from lugging boxes of books to the moving van, we started schmoozing about the place of religion in contemporary America. I tried to make the argument that while secular society has produced many great ideas and institutions, the Jewish tradition, along with other religious traditions, provides its adherents with ongoing, deep conversations. These conversations often transcend nation, language and culture, and challenge us to refine—both morally and spiritually—every part of our lives." Read More »