On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah” from 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).

I find the terms above indispensable to any discussion of mitzvah. Halakha is commonly defined as Jewish law. I, like Chancellor Eisen, define it as an “all-embracing way” of life. I do, however, believe that this way of life is made up of individual mitzvot. I choose to define mitzvot as “acts that compose a way of life inspired by the perception of God’s command and word.” These mitzvot are binding because they contain the will of God as perceived through a continuous, not static, dialogue with God. I obligate myself as part of a community that wishes to have a dialogue with God and discern God’s will.

This is my choice. But it is still an obligation.

I define aggada as anything that is not a mitzvah but affects our conception or practice of mitzvot. The modern attitudes of which Chancellor Eisen speaks, as well as the fact that mitzvah gives meaning and wholeness to our lives, are aggadot. My teachers, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joel Roth, argue constantly over whether or not aggada shapes how we think about or practice mitzvot. The goal of halakha is to preserve our communal dialogue with God in order to bring meaning to the life of the members of the community. That we chose from the beginning and continue to ask what God wants of us means that simply discussing and doing mitzvot give meaning to our lives.

It is also important to think about whether or not the specific mitzvot are inherently meaningful in our lives and in our relationship to God. This doesn’t mean that we can just reject specific mitzvot outright because they have no meaning in this moment. But these questions of meaning—these aggadot—remain indispensable.

What I love about being a Conservative Jew is that I get to struggle with obligation and meaning. I grew up without much of a sense of obligation. No one presented me with a communal dialogue about these issues. I still struggle with claiming obligation and meaning, halakha and aggada. But my striving is well worth it, and it is our mandate as Conservative Jews to engage in this struggle.