On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah- Continued” From Chuck Simon

One of the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for a Conservative/Masorti Jew is to learn how to achieve a balance between flexibility and observance. For this reason I am challenged by the chancellor’s idea that we are obligated to observe the mitzvot.

Personally, I find the system to be confusing and in some instances archaic. I believe that our collective culture has to a great extent, in the past several hundred years and specifically in the last few decades, come to trivialize the meaning of Jewish law and observance. Rather than help us to become better people, it threatens to return us to the Dark Ages.

Maimonides understood the system of mitzvot as something that was necessary to help people live justly. Even though he recognized the inconsistencies of the halakhic system, he accepted it as it was understood in his time. In his commentary on the tenth chapter of the Sanhedrin, Maimonides explains that the purpose of mitzvot as interpreted by men is unclear. He states:

Know that the masters of Torah hold differing opinions concerning the good which will come to a person as a result of fulfilling commandments which God commanded us through Moses our Teacher. As a consequence of their different understanding of the problem, they also hold widely different opinions concerning the evil which the transgressor suffers. So much confusion has invaded their opinions that it is almost impossible to find anyone whose opinion is uncontaminated by error.

And that was eight hundred years ago.

Today, in many instances, the system has been interpreted and reinterpreted in a manner that is so obtuse that it occludes much of what I believe the original purpose was: to help develop ethical human beings. I am embarrassed when one Jew belittles another because they choose to visit a loved one even though it might mean traveling on Shabbat. I am hurt when people are excluded because our understanding of mitzvot hasn’t sufficiently matured to synchronize with our expanded worldviews.

One often hears the criticism that if one observes the mitzvot subjectively (not that anyone would ever do that), they abandon the system. I would challenge that assumption primarily because I begin with a different premise. Mitzvot, for me, create a yardstick against which we can measure ourselves. We require this tension in order to successfully wrestle with the demands of an ever-changing world. Unlike others who feel the mitzvot provide a needed fence to protect them from the outside world, I believe mitzvot provide us with a tension that is necessary for human beings to grow and mature.