On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah- Continued” From Noah Benjamin Bickart

I had the pleasure of reading the chancellor’s thoughts on mitzvah at precisely the same time I was completing the study of tractate Kiddushin, so my thoughts about mitzvah in general seem to be suffused with the particular lens of this tractate. I am particularly struck by the chancellor’s challenge to, as he puts it, “meet Jews where they are.” He writes:

Don’t present mitzvah as all or nothing, take it or leave it, black or white. Begin with a few of the many accessible entry points to observance that are features of current practice and give them added meaning.

I tend to think of myself as the kind of Jew who demands full compliance, who views each of the commandments not as a separate, solitary act, but as a load-bearing brick in the grand artifice of creation, the neglect of which threatens the whole project. And yet, right there in M Kiddushin 1:10 is the assertion that:

כל העושה מצוה אחת מטיבין לו ומאריכין לו ימיו ונוחל את הארץ וכל שאינו עושה מצוה אחת אין מטיבין לו ואין מאריכין לו ימיו ואינו נוחל את הארץ.

One who performs one mitzvah, there is good for him, his days are lengthened, and he inherits the land [e.g., is rewarded with living in the messianic era]. But one who does not perform one mitzvah, there is not good for him, his days are not lengthened, and he does not inherit the land.

On the face of it, this mishnah presents a rather simple calculus. The “doing” of a mitzvah, any single one of the 613 mitzvot, is enough to earn both the temporal and eternal rewards that are the hallmark of the Rabbinic system of reward and punishment. Seemingly, the only Jews who are denied these pleasures are those who are completely mitzvahless—a state which, as the chancellor points out, is quite rare. Both Talmuds (JT Kiddushin 1:10 [61d] and BT Kiddushin 39b) are understandably perturbed by the simplicity of this calculus, and both introduce M Pe’ah 1:1, familiar to many of us from its inclusion in the daily siddur, as a contrasting voice:

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם:

These are those Mitzvot, the interest of which one enjoys in this lifetime, and yet the principle of which remains in the world to come: Honoring one’s parents, acts of loving-kindness, and bringing about peace between people; and the study of Torah is equal to all of them.

If it is really true that the first text promises twofold reward for any mitzvah, why does the second text enumerate only these? (In fact, in numerous places in the Rabbinic literature in which this text is quoted, the list of these “super-Mitzvot” seems to expand; medieval scribes and teachers couldn’t help but add a few more that they thought deserved to be there. These have included הכנסת אורחים (hospitality), ביקור חולים (visiting the sick), and עיון תפילה (meditation on [the meaning of] prayer).

Both Talmuds offer essentially the same harmonization of the seemingly different texts: the first text must be referring to the Jew who has fulfilled precisely the same number of commandments she has neglected, and for whom the scale is quite literally balanced. In such a case, and in only that case, the performance of a mitzvah, or the neglect thereof, is enough to tip the proverbial scale in either direction. And so, the apparent anomaly is interpreted away, and we seem to return to the all-or-nothing model.

However, buried deep within the Talmud Yerushalmi’s treatment of this mishnah is another model entirely, one which Rabbi David Weiss Halivni,¹ former professor of Talmud at JTS, believes to have been the original understanding of that mishnah. The Yerushalmi reports that:

אמר רבי יוסי בי רבי בון מי שייחד לו מצוה ולא עבר עליה מימיו מה אית לך אמר רבי מר עוקבן כגון כיבוד אב ואם

Said Rabbi Yose the son of Rabbi Bon, (the mishnah speaks of) one who selects for himself and never fails to fulfill it all his days. What is this? Mar Ukvah said: such as honoring one’s parents.

This explanation sits well with me for two reasons. The first is that it provides a stronger resolution to the challenge that is presented by the mishnah from Pe’ah: there is no conflict between these texts, Pe’ah simply gives concrete examples of the kinds of mitzvot that Kiddushin is speaking about! And second, we see a beautiful example of how historical-critical scholarship, which is the primary way Conservative Judaism demands that Torah be studied, can provide support for what we intuit to be true. According to Rabbi Yose, the framer(s) of the Mishnah envisioned a kind of Mitzvah Project of their own in this text: if we pick a mitzvah of our own, one which is both legitimately important to the broader community and personally fulfilling, we are rewarded both in the here and now and, in some sense, in the world to come.

The vision of mitzvah the chancellor expresses is thus not new at all, and it does not represent some kind of radical break with the past. It is rather very much in line with one significant stream of thought in the multivocal tapestry of Rabbinic Judaism.

1. David Halivni, Mekorot u-masorot: beurim be-Talmud le-Seder Nashim (Toronto: Otsarenu Press, 1993). pp. 660?3.