BET MIDRASH VIRTUALI
of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
HASHKAFAH STUDY GROUP
Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published: October 1st 2002 / Tishri 25th 5763
A Masorti (Conservative) Theology
Rabbi Simchah Roth
I N T R O D U C T O R Y N O T I C E
This series of essays does not claim to be an "official" theology of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. It is one rabbi's personal viewpoint, and this should always be borne in mind by the reader. Nevertheless, I do hope that even those points with which the reader might disagree will afford him or her an opportunity for thought and evaluation.
Halakhah & Mitzvot
If Torah represents the will of the Deity, it is only natural to assume that it should be obeyed. Indeed, according to the concept outlined in previous parts of this series, it would seem that it is the conviction of the collective conscience of Israel that a certain requirement is imperative that makes it so certain for us that it is the will of God. Here we come up against one of the greatest problems of the modern age. In part 1 we spoke of the great changes that the advent of the modern age has brought to our collective life-style. Perhaps one of the greatest differences between ourselves and our ancestors in the pre-modern age is in the matter of behaviour motivation.
Our ancestors were content to conform to what they perceived to be the will of God because in matters of faith at least they were heteronomous. By that we mean that in past ages people accepted the imposition of control over their behaviour patterns from without: they did what was right because it was the perceived will of God, not necessarily because they themselves thought that it was right. They did what they thought was required of them, what they ought to do - rather like religious fundamentalists in some parts of the world today. In our modern age however, we are autonomous. By that we mean that we make our own judgement the arbiter of our behaviour patterns: we prefer to do what is right, not because it is presented to us as the will of God, but because we think that it is the right thing to do, because we want to. (Even when, for reasons of social convenience such as our conformity with the law of the land, we actually do permit heteronomous regulation of our behaviour, we justify this 'betrayal' of our autonomy by reference to the democratic processes that created the authorities that make the laws that we obey. If those processes are absent we deem it lawful, even imperative, to resist and to rebel.) In my native England heteronomy and autonomy are beautifully illustrated in the cliché-like conversation that is deemed to take place between the British 'bobby' (police officer) and the representative of the stalwart Britons, who 'never shall be slaves'. "You can't do that there 'ere!" says the bobby, representing heteronomy; "Oh no? And who says I can't?" challenges the autonomous citizen.
It seems to me that we have here arrived at the crux of the matter. The modern secular person is emotionally prejudiced against submitting to the will of God since he is autonomously motivated by education and environment. And this is the basic difference between religious and secular motivation. The religiously motivated person is content to submit his will to what he perceives to be the will of God. From the moment that he is convinced that he has identified God's will through autonomous intellectual activity or through a heteronomous educational process from childhood, his own will (and anyone else's!) ceases to be of importance. The more certain he is that he has identified God's will, so much the less will he place any importance in the opinion of anyone else, and becomes what the rest of the world calls 'a fanatic'. The secular mind, however, almost by definition, does not perceive God, let alone God's will; furthermore it will always maintain its autonomy, willingly submitting to outside compulsion only after becoming convinced that this is really its own free choice.
The rank and file membership of the Masorti movement in Israel (and of the Conservative Movement in general the world over) is secular in its general weltanschauung, and is autonomous in its attitude to behaviour patterning in particular - even though it belongs to a religious movement. Therefore the rank and file membership of the Masorti movement in Israel evinces misgivings concerning rabbis and the mitzvah framework. These misgivings derive from the tension that exists between the natural desire for autonomy in personal behaviour on the one hand and respect for the rabbinic and halakhic tradition on the other. There is an unspoken fear that the rabbi might tell you to do something that you don't want to do, or that acceptance of the mitzvah framework might require you to do something that you don't want to do. Then you will have created a conflict for yourself. I believe that this is a very real anxiety which must be recognized as such. At the same time we must understand that if we wish to remain within the fold of traditional Judaism we cannot dispense with either the halakhic framework of which the rabbi is the licensed practitioner, or the mitzvah framework which is the hallmark of traditional Judaism.
Traditionally the rabbi is a posek, a decisor, a teaching authority qualified to state what the law is. To an autonomous secular Jew that can be threatening. The rôle of the rabbi could be seen less and less as that of the traditional posek and more and more as that of an expert whose services are called upon by the autonomous client. The rabbi could be perceived as being similar to the physician whose expert knowledge is sought by the patient needing medical advice, or the advocate whose expertise is sought by the client needing legal counsel. In both these cases the expert gives authoritative advice as to what should be done under the circumstances, often presenting more than one possible avenue of approach. Just as, in theory, the patient can ignore his doctor's advice and the client can ignore his legal counsel should they choose so to do, so the layman can maintain his autonomy even after consulting his rabbi. The task facing the rabbi is to bring his or her laity to recognize that they should ask she'elot, halakhic enquiries. By carefully explaining the background and sources that may lead to an answer or to answers, and by discussing the probable consequences of selecting each of the possible options, the rabbi should be able to fulfill his or her duty towards halakhah and yet leave the layman with his autonomy intact.
However, there is another question that must be addressed, and that is the question of motivation. Even if a modern person accepts that a certain conceptualization of the Deity will not compromise their intellectual secularity, and even if he finds an attitude to the rabbi as posek that he can live with - there will still remain that one other question that must be addressed: 'Why should I observe Judaism at all? All this ritual is far removed from my secular life-style. It means nothing to me.'
Here we have a question and two statements. With regards to the two statements I can only express sympathetic understanding. I would reply somewhat to the following effect: I understand that the ritual of Judaism is strange to you. Since you are an intellectually honest person you will admit that this is at least partly because you have estranged yourself from it by choice. You will agree that there might be parts of it that could appeal to you if you were prepared to meet the issue half way. That Judaism means nothing to you I can also understand. I hope that here too you will be honest enough to admit to yourself that this is not only because you have been educated in a different atmosphere, but also because you have wanted a situation in which it means little or nothing to you. Surely the real issue is not how far removed from Judaism and its ritual you are, for that is merely a factor deriving from your initial question. It is your question itself that is the really important thing in what you said. The real question is 'Why should one observe Judaism at all?'
I would like to put before you three arguments. Doubtless other people could bring many more, but I will bring three in the hope that at least one of them will seem to be intellectually acceptable and sufficiently compelling. Try to be as objective as you can. Remember, we are not discussing the details of the observance of Judaism and its ritual; we are here only concerned with the basic validity of the proposition that Judaism should be observed in some form or another.
The first argument that I would like to put forward is that if the Jewish people is to survive it can only be through the Jewish spiritual and cultural heritage. Being Israeli is not the same as being Jewish, just as being English, for example, is not the same as being Christian. This series of essays is written for those people who yearn for a version of Judaism that will meet them half-way between ancient and modern without denigrating either. It is written for the 75% of the members of our secular society who try to fast on Yom Kippur; for the 82% who favour the celebration of a bar-mitzvah in a religious ceremony in a synagogue; for the 80% who say that they think it is important that marriages be conducted by a rabbi. I have in mind those who are interested in passing on Jewish religious tradition to the coming generations, (the 62% favouring an increase in studies concerning religion and Jewish heritage in the schools). I am writing for those who understand that the overwhelming majority of the population of the State of Israel has become completely estranged from any kind of true Jewish values whatsoever and that if nothing is done, within a few decades there will be nothing authentically Jewish left in the Jewish State - except for a dedicated minority of religious extremists.
In part 1 of this series I wrote that this ultimate demise of Judaism in Israel can only be prevented by the conscious (and painful) re-adoption of Jewish values and their practice by members of the secular majority: "Only an awareness that our very survival as Jews is at stake, only a conviction that if we do nothing our grandchildren will cease to be Jews to all intents and purposes - only this can hope to penetrate the hard hide of habit, self-serving, cultural inertia and intellectual scepticism to get to whatever is left of the Jewish heart underneath."
The second argument that I would like to put before you is that Judaism is the civilization of the Jewish people. It is the way we have evolved our spiritual and cultural heritage over the centuries. We should remain faithful to it because we are Jews and it is our way of life. Zionism has re-established Jewish national and political self-determination in our ancestral land: the purpose for doing so was - and is - that we may live our lives as Jews in our own society. I repeat that being Israeli is not the same as being Jewish, just as being English is not the same as being Christian. Zionism is not only about the physical safety of the Jewish people: that could have been assured even in Uganda!
However, I think that we must go further and present a third argument. If I were to ask you, as a secular humanist, what you think is your duty to the rest of mankind, I am sure that you would answer something similar to 'I try to be nice to other people'. That is, in fact, the biblical command [Leviticus 19:23] 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'. But when you start to think about it, I hope that you will realize that it is not easy to do this, even with the best will in the world. In Europe in the Middle Ages, people were burned at the stake and made to suffer other tortures in order to save their souls. The priests who condemned heretics to die were not doing so out of hate, but out of love (or, at least, that was the official teaching of the Church). Clerical reasoning went something like this: 'If a heretic dies peacefully, his soul will be eternally damned; if he suffers in death, he will thus exculpate himself and his suffering will atone for his wicked deeds, and thus he will be found worthy of life eternal in the hereafter. Condemning him to the stake, therefore, is really an act of love!'
This approach is based upon the well-known interpretation that Jesus of Nazereth gave to the command in Leviticus that we have just mentioned; he said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' It follows that if you were a heretic you would like someone to burn you at the stake in order to save your soul from everlasting perdition, it is but an act of obvious charity to reduce them to cinders if they are heretics! This just goes to show that the cynical Bernard Shaw was quite right when he wrote: 'Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.' (The quote comes from Man and Superman, 1903. Please don't think that this is the only Shaw play that I have read! It is just that the 'Maxims for Revolutionaries' at the end of this particular play contain some profound truths dressed up as cynical observations.) The sage, Hillel, who was a much older contemporary of Jesus, had already realized this pit-fall. In his famous reposte to the non-Jew who wanted to become Jewish on condition that he be taught Judaism standing on one leg, Hillel said [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30a]: 'What is hateful to you do not do to anyone else; that is the whole of Torah, the rest only being explanation'.
How many people do you know that really try to refrain from doing to others what they would not like people to do to them? Be honest! Most people are motivated by selfishness and self-serving (and that includes the truly religious and also the so-called religious). One of the last duties that I performed as a rabbi before making Aliyyah to Israel was to take part in a debate in a public school before the pupils. On the platform we were, apart from myself, a Christian pastor and a secular humanist. We were each given five minutes (!) to state our 'case' after which there were questions and comments from the floor. I will omit here the arguments put forward, for obvious reasons. However, over a cup of coffee in the teachers' room afterwards I did remonstrate with the humanist over one comment that he made about Christianity. He had launched a scathing attack on 'a great State in Christendom' (the U.S.A.) which preached Christian charity but which was waging at that very moment one of the cruellest of wars (in Vietnam). I remonstrated that it was grossly unfair to judge the philosophy by the philosopher. In our case, too, I claim that even if there are (far too many) religious Jews who do not live up to Hillel's dictum, that does not negate or invalidate the dictum per se.
Another point: Shaw's witty truism deprives us of the option of leaving it up to each individual how he will 'be nice to other people'. I hope that you will not find it too bizarre if I pursue the idea to its ultimate conclusion. Everyone will feel comfortable with a statement like 'I will behave according to what I believe is good, and you behave according to what you believe is good'. (This is, of course, rather different from the comment attributed to a Roman Catholic cleric in conversation with a Protestant one: "You worship God your way and I'll worship Him His!") But would you be prepared to continue the sentence thus? - "Personally, I do not want to torture Jews, murder blacks, ridicule gays and persecute people because of their religion or politics; but if you like to do that kind of thing - be my guest!" If you agree that there really is a universal sense of injustice inherent in our being, and if you also find that you cannot accept the logic of my last sentence, you will have to agree that we need some kind of mechanism through which we can ascertain exactly how we are to be nice to other people, and how to train people towards that goal naturally.
In Judaism, which is the Jewish civilization and culture, this is achieved through the mitzvot. In the next few paragraphs I shall be sketching out a rationale for the mitzvot, which are the flesh and bones of the body of Judaism. The mitzvot are the practical expression of Torah as the perceived will of God. If we dispense with the mitzvot, whatever might be left will not be Judaism.
As we have said above, in ages past our ancestors had no problems in accepting the mitzvah framework as imposed from without and binding upon them, even to their inconvenience. The three great revolutions that have fashioned modern times have created a new situation in which modern secular man sees himself as being autonomous. In order for him to be able to find a place for himself within the mitzvah frame-work we must give it a new packaging. The mitzvot, both individually (as a specific religious custom) and collectively (as a system), can no longer be presented on an 'all or nothing' basis: the inevitable tendency will be to take the 'nothing' option! The modern secular Jew must begin to see the mitzvah framework as a reservoir from which he or she is invited to select as many meaningful mitzvot for observance as possible.
The key here is the concept of holiness, or kedushah. We can raise our secular lives into a more meaningful realm by adding kedushah to them. Each time that we elect to perform a mitzvah (as such) we are adding an element of kedushah to our lives, we are removing ourselves, at least temporarily, from the realm of the mundane into incipient transcendence. (On the verse in Leviticus, 19:2 our rabbis comment that the exhortation to be holy means, in practical terms, to be withdrawn, to be unwilling to be completely mastered by the requirements of our physicality, but to leave room in our lives for the possibility of contact with the transcendent. See Rashi, ad loc.) Each time that we elect to perform a mitzvah we are adding to the store of 'Jewishness' that is in our soul.
To recapitulate: I have presented three reasons why a modern secular Israeli might be able to persuade himself to accept the mitzvah framework of halakhah in principle. The cultural survival of the Jewish people, a meaningful realization of the Zionist ideal, and the adoption of a framework which will bring Jewish values into our lives, values which should train us to be more decent people and more Jewish. We have also noted that however cogent one or more of these reasons might seem to be, the spectre of heteronomy will prevent the secular Israeli from taking a positive approach to practical Judaism. This is a problem to which we must now address ourselves.
The suggestion that the autonomously motivated person look upon the mitzvah framework of the halakhic system as an invitation to make an eclectic choice is novel, and it is yet another of the differences between Masorti Judaism and Orthodoxy. For Orthodoxy the halakhic framework of Judaism is a compulsory legal system imposed from without: just as we must obey the law of the land for fear of judicial retribution, so the mitzvot are to be obeyed for there is divine retribution; and disobedience is a sin, in the same way as disobedience to the law of the land is considered a crime or misdemeanour by us. However, I am suggesting here a different approach to halakhah.
To the layman the best known arrangement of practical halakhah is the Shulĥan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo, which was first published in 1565. The term means 'the Laid Table', and the work was so called because the author offered an arrangement in convenient form of all the laws that the pious person might need to know, like a table laid ready for a feast. I suggest that the modern autonomous Jew could also find this an apposite metaphor, but for a different reason. He too should look upon the halakhic system as a Shulĥan Arukh, a laid table: it is all there ready for him to make his selection. Let him taste from any dish that appeals to his palate, that might be of spiritual benefit to him. However, as any gourmet will tell him, his selection should be one of informed discrimination, not the momentary titillation of a possibly jaded palate. Furthermore, one other word of caution is in place: this Shulĥan Arukh of the mitzvah framework must be table d'hôte, not à la carte: you can only make your selection from what is prepared on the table, you can't go dictating your own menu or demanding that your own recipes be used - unless you are prepared to spend long and involved sessions with the chefs-de-cuisine (i.e. the rabbis) to see whether they can create or modify the dish that you are asking for according to the best rules of cordon bleu culinary art (i.e. the halakhic process).
This point is one of the greatest ideological differences between Masorti Judaism and Reform. When the individual Jew is completely autonomous it is possible for him to create his own personal halakhah. Categorically, Masorti Judaism denies its adherents such a possibility. And it is because of this point that I feel that Masorti Judaism offers a better framework for the programme proposed in this series of essays than any of the other streams of Judaism. Even more important is the fact that it seems that the average Israeli agrees with me!
Let me explain this point.
While he does not observe halakhah in his everyday life, the average Israeli does accept the halakhic framework - 'tradition' is what he calls it! - as being valid for those elements of the system into contact with which he does come. He may not be interested in the multifarious laws of kashrut or liturgy, but when he gets married he wants to do so properly; when his son becomes bar-mitzvah he wants it done properly; when his nearest and dearest depart this life he wants their mortal remains disposed of properly - and so on. The average Israeli will not accept the basic philosophy of Reform Judaism in connection with halakhah (that each person must create his own Shulĥan Arukh) just as he will not accept the basic philosophy of Orthodoxy in the same connection - that every single subparagraph of Yosef Karo's Shulĥan Arukh is binding upon him absolutely.
But our average Israeli could find the philosophy of Masorti Judaism here described by me most congenial: feel free to make your own selection of what answers your spiritual needs, but having made your selection carry it out properly, according to time-honoured tradition. We have already noted that in Masorti Judaism this time-honoured tradition is not static: Masorti Judaism believes in a dynamic Torah, a Torah in which this tradition is constantly (and legitimately) being molded by the changing exigiencies of time and place. But the ultimate standard against which everything is judged is God, not man. That is why Masorti Judaism is insistent that the ultimate source of the moral law is truly God, and will not accept the position of Reform Judaism that each person shall 'do his own thing'. On the contrary, it is God, perceived as the personification of the ultimate 'thou shalt', that is the standard against which we must measure our behaviour.
It would be useful at this point to remind ourselves of something that we have already noted. In part 3 (on revelation) we pointed out that it is imperative that the standard against which we measure our behaviour repose in a non-human entity. If the standard were human, each human being could create his own standards and easily be able to convince himself that his present conceptions and needs were the best, and possibly fix his standard at the lowest common denominator. It is therefore imperative that the standard be God, seen as the apotheosis of collective man's noblest aspirations, and the practical expression of this is halakhah, which represents the way that this standard requires us to lead our lives.
Of course it is true that halakhah is developed by man; but the danger of the appeal to the lowest common denominator is rather limited. The concept Klal Israel makes widespread agreement a requirement, a general conviction that a proposed development is indeed Torah, not the personal whim of one sage or the passing fad of one generation. The organic development of halakhah prevents 'revolution', and assumes that all three aspects of time are represented in the decision - past, present and future. In Masorti Judaism there can be no 'revolution', only 'evolution' - the constant organic development of Torah as representing the perceived will of God, which is seen as binding at any given moment. It is, of course, this aspect of Masorti Judaism that ensures that whatever the stage of spiritual development that any individual Jew may have reached, what is binding on Klal Israel is the present standard set by the halakhic process. The individual Jew can make a free selection from the Shulĥan Arukh, the table ready-laid with spiritual goodies for the Banquet of Judaism. The community (in the narrower sense of the term) is less free to make its spiritual choice, for it must make sure that the menu will suit the palate of all its members. The collective community, Klal Israel is most bound by the standards set by the halakhic process, for these are for the whole Jewish people.
The community as such and the totality of the Jewish people require that these less liberal attitudes to the requirements of halakhah prevail in order that the halakhah be present in any form at all for the edification of Klal Israel. Our spiritual heritage must be guarded for present and future generations by those who cherish it most and observe it most - provided that they recognise two things: the dynamic nature of the halakhic process and the right of the individual to set his own pace in regard to it. It is imperative that the dynamic nature of the halakhic process not only be recognised but also implemented. It is to the elucidation of this process that the rabbi's vocation is dedicated. Masorti Judaism does not present halakhah as a compulsory system on a basis of 'all or nothing'; our Rabbis would do well to remember that secular Jews must find their way to and within Judaism at their own pace and, to a certain extent, on their own terms. I recall in this regard the story told of Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) when he was asked whether he put on tefillin every morning: he replied, 'Not yet'. (See Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.)
We have concluded that Torah is to be obeyed since the conviction of the collective conscience of the age (and of the ages) has made it certain that the Torah is the will of God. There are two questions that stem from this: why do people obey Torah, and what are the possible consequences of disobedience? Actually, these two questions are so closely linked that they may be considered to be one, and they are dealt with in a masterful manner by Rambam in the long and fascinating preamble to his commentary on the first mishnah of chapter 10 of Tractate Sanhedrin.
First of all he introduces us to the famous hypothesis, that God rewards those who keep the commandments and punishes those that transgress them. He then describes several concepts about the nature of reward/punishment (for reward and punishment are merely different sides of the same coin) that were prevalent in his age - and are still very prevalent today!
Firstly, he writes, some believe in Heaven and Hell - that the obedient go to Heaven and the disobedient go to Hell. Others believe in a physical resurrection of the dear departed - that the good will be ressurrected and that the bad will not. Yet others believe that worldly success is a sign of obedience and that disobedience brings about its opposite. Others yet again claim that the obedient will merit living in the Messianic Age whereas the disobedient will not. Rambam also introduces a fifth opinion which is an amalgam of all the previous opinions: we are awaiting the Messiah who will resurrect the dead, we shall all then enter paradise and live happily ever after.
At this point in his discussion Rambam appears to forsake his topic abruptly, for he begins to discuss a question connected with education. What is the real purpose of education? That is, why do we want our children to learn, and why do we want to learn ourselves? The answer is surely self-evident: we learn in order to gain knowledge. But that is tautology: we learn in order to gain learning! In other words, we learn in order to learn! The real purpose of learning is learning, it is itself its own purpose.
A child, however, cannot appreciate the worth of learning for its own sake. We might tell a child that if he learns well we will give him a sweet, or a star on a chart, or a bicycle (or we might threaten to stand her in the corner if she doesn't learn properly) - depending on the child's age and the importance of the learning in the eyes of the adult. The child learns, but not for learning's sake, for his as yet undeveloped intellectual ability will not permit him to perceive the real purpose of learning. He will learn in order to obtain the promised prize (or to avoid the threatened punishment); he will see the learning process as a burden to be borne in order to achieve the 'consummation devoutly to be wished'.
Whenever I have taught this passage of Rambam in the classroom or lecture hall I have always paused at this point in order to ask my students whether they perceive a connection between this discussion on education and the preceding discussion. Usually the matter needs some clarification, but I feel that here I have so presented Rambam's case that the connection is reasonably obvious.
We have a perfectly valid objective for learning: learning itself. We study in order to gain knowledge, we learn in order to learn. Because the immature are not motivated by such a consideration we have invented artificial objectives: a sweet, a star on a chart, a bicycle, a report card, matriculation, a university degree, a doctorate ... (When the average person states his reason for learning it is usually an illusion [Rambam, Mishnah Commentary, Sanhedrin 10:1]). What, then, is the purpose of observing Torah? Obviously, the corrollary must be that the purpose of observing Torah should be observing Torah! We should observe Torah for its own sake. If the collective wisdom of Israel throughout the ages has perceived something to be the will of God, that should be the reason for obeying it! But, because spiritually immature people are not sufficiently motivated by such a consideration, throughout the ages we have invented 'artificial' objectives: Heaven, Ressurrection, la Dolce Vita, the Messianic Age - or all of them collectively, or their opposites.
After presenting such a lofty theme Rambam does a backtrack: that highest motivation, Torah for Torah's sake, is a very difficult one for the 'ordinary man in the street', if not impossible. He who comprehends that the best reason for observing the mitzvot of the Torah is the very fact that they are the mitzvot of the Torah has reached the level of saintliness and spiritual sophistication associated with the Patriarch Abraham who loved God for no ulterior motive. Rambam suggests that lesser mortals must be permitted to do right for the wrong reasons. But here we must ask: could it not be that in our modern age the highest motivation is the best motivation, and that it is well within the intellectual ability of today's 'ordinary man in the street'? Indeed, surely it is the invented 'artificial' objectives (Heaven, Resurrection, la Dolce Vita, the Messianic Age) when presented as motivational aids to religious conformity that now have the opposite effect.
We have said in a previous essay that it might be helpful to conceive of God as the personification of the universe in its totality imposing upon us its absolute 'thou shalt': Thou shalt do that which is absolutely and universally right, the right that is not relative but absolute; and you should feel yourself bound to it and by it absolutely'. Vis-à-vis God (conceived as the personification of the universal imperative of righteousness and as the apotheosis of man's most noble and sublime aspirations), man has no rights, only duties. For the Jew his duty consists in accepting the yoke of Torah, which means of his own sovereign will and by his own free choice professing the sovereignty of Heaven over his own autonomy: he (or she) will not act as he pleases, or as his community pleases, but he will engage in the intelligent observance of the Torah as interpreted by authentic rabbinic tradition.
Throughout the ages our sages have perceived differing 'purposes' for the Torah. By that we mean that different rabbis have proposed different reasons why we should observe Torah and keep the mitzvot. In order to illustrate this point let me indicate two diametrically opposed attitudes. Rambam, in his 'Guide for the Perplexed', sees Torah as the means for preparing man for the philosophic contemplation of the divine, which is man's greatest task. Lurianic Kabbalah, on the other hand, sees Torah as an instrument for enabling man to intervene in the divine handling of the management of the universe. My own perception is different. In the past I have thought that one could make out a good case for the observance of the mitzvot for the purposes of self-education. I still believe that for the Jew who observes with intelligence this is one of the best by-products of the system. Before explaining my present position perhaps I should elaborate this point because it is still a valid one.
It should be reasonably clear by now that in my view the Torah (both Written and Oral) is what we perceive as being the divine recipe for making our communal life possible and our personal life worthwhile. It functions as a lifelong education system, instilling, by constant repetition of acts, which we call mitzvot, certain patterns of thought and behaviour. Thus, when practiced intelligently, completely and lovingly, Torah is an instrument for ensuring our progress from being merely human animals into becoming real human beings - through the gradual inculcation of self-discipline and respect for others, which is what we traditionally call 'holiness', kedushah, as I have already indicated. The aim is not the smothering of the animal instincts of man, but their control through sublimation, and the means to that end are the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, is reported to have put it beautifully: 'Where id was, let ego be'. (I understand the term id to be more or less parrallel to the animal instincts I have just referred to, and the educational purpose of the mitzvot when practised as a system to be similar to the ego - 'the gradual inculcation of self-discipline and respect for others, which is what we traditionally call `holiness', kedushah.) It is for this reason that one should try to choose as many of the mitzvot to observe at any given time as one possibly can, and that choice should preferably be made on an ongoing basis, not as an act of eclectic dillitantism.
For the system to work effectively (and assuming that the individual might not choose to observe the whole of the observable system), it is important that we try to observe as many mitzvot as we can - but on a regular basis as a self-imposed obligation that we have taken upon ourselves by our autonomous choice. This, of course, presumes a prior and on-going commitment to study; for one cannot make an intelligent and informed choice to observe without prior study, continuous follow-up and continuous expansion.
Before elaborating on my present view of why one should observe the mitzvot, I would like to discuss one other aspect of this philosophy, which was my earstwhile view. Our rabbis saw three basic negative human drives operating within society at the end of the First Temple period and at the beginning of the Second Temple period: idolatry, physical violence, and sexual promiscuity. There is a famous passage in the Babylonian Talmud [Sukkah 52 a-b] which suggests that the unconquerable urge to participate in idolatrous practices which had previously possessed people as an obsession, was numbed at the end of the Biblical period to such an extent that it ceased to be a debilitating drive. That leaves physical violence and sex. It would be folly to suggest that these two have meanwhile ceased to be debilitating drives in the Jewish (and general human) psyche! (To be absolutely honest, I am not at all sure that 'the unconquerable urge to participate in idolatrous practices' is anything more than partially numbed. We still have our idols that simply must be worshipped, except that we disguise them with a superficial sophistication.)
The halakhic way of dealing with what could otherwise be a debilitating drive is to control it, not to smother it, which is the Christian way. (The classical Christian way of dealing with debilitating drives was to smother them: witness medieval monasticism. To this very day in Christian circles which are certainly representative, the holy person is the one who forgoes sex altogether, not the layman who has learned to control his sexual appetite and to channel it into constructive and personality-building paths.)
A couple of examples should suffice to illustrate the halakhic methodology. We may not deny ourselves wine altogether because of our fear of intoxication; on the contrary, we require wine to be drunk in certain amounts and at certain times Kiddush and Havdalah, for example). The consumption of food is also a good example. We are taught self-restraint (that is to be receptive to the idea that the human being rules his appetites whereas the human animal is ruled by them) through the laws which regulate the intake of food. Hunger is one of the most basic human drives, but the Jew who intelligently observes the laws and customs that surround this most natural of activities will be educating himself to self-restraint - sanctity.
Before we put meat in our mouth, for example, we have to consider many things. (I am not suggesting here that the eating of meat is either natural or worthy; I, myself, am vegan in my habits. But would it not be folly for anyone to suggest that the eating of meat is not well nigh universal in western society?) First of all we must know whether the food comes from a permitted source or from a source that is forbidden (is it veal or is it pork?) Once we have ascertained that the meat may be eaten by us, we must then know how it was slaughtered. In a most revealing statement the rabbis of the Talmud point out: It makes no difference to God whether an animal is killed by having its throat cut or being poleaxed; the mitzvot were given to refine our natures. [Bereshit Rabbah 44:1] (This passage is so singular that I quote it here in full: 'Rav says: The mitzvot were only given in order to refine people. For what difference does it make to God whether we slaughter [an animal] from the throat or from the neck!?') Assuming that it was slaughtered properly, we then have to prepare the meat for human consumption according to proper rules and regulations: the removal of blood and forbidden fat. But even then there are considerations that would rule out the eating of meat: for example, meat - however kosher - may not be eaten together with produce of the dairy.
The third really basic human drive is, of course, sex. We do not try to eliminate the sex drive, but we do try to make it an instrument of kedushah through the behaviour modification programme of the mitzvot framework. Sex in Judaism is not only permitted but required and highly praised. But not promiscuous sex. We are limited in certain considerations: with whom we may have sex at all (forbidden marriages), and under what circumstances we may have sex with those who are not forbidden to us (marriage); and even within marriage the sex instinct is continually regulated.
However, this does not mean that the mitzvah framework is unchanging and unalterable in its details. That would suggest that human nature never changes at all! First of all the yetzer (the tendency which exists in all of us to do that which we know to be wrong) must be assessed. There really is a sex-yetzer, of course, but we must recognize that what triggers it has changed. The sex-drive of normal men is no longer triggered (in humdrum circumstances) by a wisp of hair, the sight of female arm or calf, the female voice etc. (I have chosen these because they are among the phenomena that halakhah in an earlier age singled out as being particularly dangerous for the healthy adult male.) There are, of course, circumstances in life where these same things will almost automatically become triggers of the sex-yetzer, but there will also be circumstances where such a reaction is now almost negligeable. The mixing of males and females in most walks of life today is casual, and can take place almost anywhere, and not just within the four walls of the home.
As we have said several times already, certain basic changes have occurred over the past few centuries in our society, the most obvious and the most meaningful being the reassessment of the social position of the female. A normal man's sex-yetzer might well be triggered by a wisp of female hair, the glimpse of a female arm or calf, the sound of a female's voice etc - when he is watching a Hollywood movie or a 'blue' video film euphemistically called a 'home movie' (a movie which has been purposefully designed to trigger just that yetzer). However, that same normal man will be able to sit next to a female executive and discuss with her what to do with stocks and shares without that trigger being tripped.
I well remember how my then next-door neighbour, Leah Shakdiel (the first woman ever to be accepted as a member of a Religious Council in the State of Israel), told me of a conversation that took place between a group of her lady-supporters and the then two Chief Rabbis of Israel. The ladies had come to plead Leah's cause and had pointed out to the venerable gentlemen that 'times had changed'. Rabbi Shapiro, feeling that he had scored a very good point, gleefully asked, 'Ah, but has the yetzer changed?' Surely, anyone truly living in the post-Freudian era would not have even thought of asking that question. I know Leah Shakdiel as a religiously observant (and religiously learned) woman: but I am sure that deep down it was her conviction that the yetzer had indeed changed, that it was no longer morally 'dangerous' for men and women to confer together in public places, that persuaded her that it was permitted for her to embark upon her campaign.
Let us reacapitulate. Because Torah represents the will of the Deity it is only natural to assume that it must be obeyed. Modern secular people are autonomously motivated, and therefore they will prefer to obey Torah for its own worth, because it is what it is, rather than because of threats of divine punishment or because of hope of reward in time to come. Their choice of which elements in the system they wish to observe at any given time will be their own, for their own spiritual benefit. The mitzvah framework is the practical expression of halakhah, which represents Divine will. Vis-à-vis God, conceived as the personification of the universal imperative of righteousness and the apotheosis of man's most noble and sublime aspirations, man has no rights, only duties. When practiced with intelligence and love, the mitzvah framework is an instrument for ensuring the gradual inculcation of self-restraint, self-discipline and respect for others - which is what we traditionally call holiness, kedushah. The aim is not the eradication of the animal instincts of man, but their control through sublimation. However, when all is said and done, for modern autonomously motivated Jews none of the above arguments will be conclusive or ultimately convincing.
In my experience there are only two reasons why people observe the Jewish tradition: either because they were educated to love it and appreciate it in their childhood, and that love and appreciation has accompanied them into adulthood; or because their present observance of the tradition is important and meaningful to them for some reason or other. In my opinion no rationale by itself will be sufficient to motivate the unmotivated to mitzvah observance. Like anything that places restrictions on our autonomy we tend to baulk. The habitual smoker will find innumerable reasons for not giving up smoking: he will only actually try to do so when he has convinced himself that this is something that he ought to do for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do. The overweight person will find innumerable reasons for not going on a reducing diet: she will only actually try to do so when she has convinced herself that this is something that she ought to do for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do. Secularly oriented Jews will find innumerable reasons for not coming closer to the Jewish tradition: they will only actually try to do so when they have convinced themselves that this is something that they ought to do for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do.
If someone were to ask me what is the 'purpose' of the mitzvot I would not suggest Rambam's view, that sees Torah as the means for preparing man for the philosophic contemplation of the divine, which is man's greatest task. Nor would I suggest Luria's view, that sees Torah as an instrument for enabling man to intervene in the divine management of the universe. Nor, reluctantly, would I suggest my own former view which sees the mitzvah framework as a lifelong education system, instilling, by constant repetition of acts, which we call mitzvot, certain patterns of thought and behaviour, thus ensuring our progress from being merely human animals into becoming real human beings - through the gradual inculcation of self-discipline and respect for others, which is what we traditionally call holiness, kedushah.
The only true effect of the observance of the mitzvot, in my present opinion, is the strengthening of our Jewish identity. Every time we observe a mitzvah we strengthen our bond to Judaism and the Jewish way of life. Every time we refrain from doing so we distance ourselves so much the more from Judaism and the Jewish way of life.
There is no ultimate way of remaining Jewish except through adherence to the Jewish tradition. Zionism is not enough, living in Israel is not enough, serving in the Israel Defence Forces is not enough. They do not serve to strengthen one's Jewish bonding. It is a fact that the more certain people identify their Jewishness exclusively with something other than the Jewish tradition they do, in fact, become less and less Jewish. When all the chips are down there is only one way in which we can ensure our continued Jewishness, and that is by practicing the Jewish tradition. That being the case, I feel that the philosophy of halakhah and mitzvot that I have outlined thus far is the most congenial for the kind of person that these essays are addressing. We observe the mitzvot, each to his own ability and from his free and sovereign choice, because we want to be just a little more Jewish.