On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah” from 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.

Perhaps the time has come to say out loud that we don’t think it is accurate or helpful to parrot a theology we don’t believe. Pretending we thought the mitzvot were commands certainly didn’t succeed in motivating us to observe halakhah in an Orthodox way. Indeed, it is possible that the gap between our convictions and our language was a barrier to a greater observance of the mitzvot.

What if we said what we truly believe, which actually makes sense of our patterns of practice? We affirm that the mitzvot connect us to God; link us to Torah and the best of Jewish values; and forge a relationship between our individual lives, our families’ lives, and the lives of the Jewish people around the world and across the ages. We affirm that the Halakhah provides a system to integrate our newest insights and advancing knowledge into the scaffold of Torah and the cathedral of deeds that Judaism erects in God’s praise and for human betterment.

Now that we’ve been truthful to ourselves and to God, admitting that the connection we feel is what makes the mitzvot seem beautiful, worthy, and compelling, we are in a position to revisit commandedness one more time, but on our own grounds.

Turns out that our problem may not be with commandedness after all, but with what kind of commanding we mean. The distorting assumption we indulged was to assume that commandment had to mean something like the orders of a despot or tyrant. God’s power is coercive in that model, and our service would be a form of slavery. We are right to reject that notion.

But Judaism doesn’t limit its metaphors for God to that of King. Instead, the Torah and the Rabbis call God parent, teacher, lover, spouse, covenant partner, redeemer, fountain, and more. Think of the way the desires of a loved one are imperatives for you—not because you fear punishment, but because you seek their happiness and want to show your love. Mitzvot are commandments, but not the way edicts are, not like bossy impositions of power. Mitzvot are commandments the way wanting to please your parent or spouse is a commandment. The way living up to your mentor’s hopes for you is an imperative. The way delighting a child you adore is something you can’t evade. Mitzvot are commandments because we are loved with an everlasting love, and because we are inspired to yearn for God’s intimacy and illumination. Love creates imperatives that ripple out from the core of our loving hearts. Love obligates from the inside, as caring and nurturing warm from within.

In that way—and only in that way—the mitzvot remain what they have always been: commandments of love, trusted pathways connecting the Jewish people and the God of Israel, beacons lighting lives of justice, compassion, and holiness in a world too often cruel and harsh, occasions of timeless meaning linking us, one generation to the others, in a grand affirmation of the possibilities made real by lives well lived.