Northern Hills Synagogue-Congregation B'nai Avraham logo NHS-CBA building exterior

YOM KIPPUR 5768 / 2007


Someone once said to me that Jews don’t believe in sin. I replied, “Then why do we spend so much time on Yom Kippur saying, ‘Al het’ (‘For the sin which we have committed before you by …’)?” The person responded, “Well, we don’t believe in sin the way that Christians believe in sin.” Dealing with that retort would take me too far afield today, so I’ll leave it alone.

Similarly, someone once said to me that the wonderful thing about Judaism is that it is not based on guilt. I didn’t reply, but think of our prayer “Ashamnu, bagadnu …”, which means “We are guilty, we have betrayed …”. Certainly, Judaism in general and Yom Kippur in particular assume that there are things that we are supposed to do and things that we are not supposed to do. If we have done something that we were not supposed to do, or if we have failed to do something that we were supposed to do, then we need to do something to fix the situation.

This subject of religious obligation interests me (and maybe will interest you) now in particular for two reasons. The first is that I have been struck by some lapses in communication that have occurred between me and congregants, over the years, and as recently as this summer. They fit into a particular pattern, and I was going to try to make a sermon out of it, alluding to the important book, published in 2000, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen. In the meantime, Prof. Eisen has become the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and, in a move unprecedented for Seminary chancellors in my memory, in his New Year’s message (which, I guess, is something like the Queen’s Christmas message), he called on Conservative rabbis to use the High Holidays to engage their congregants in a conversation about mitzvot.

This morning, as I am standing here before more than 400 of you, is probably not a good time for a conversation, but the quick survey that I sent earlier in the week, plus what I am going to say today, plus things that we may do after Yom Kippur, will, I hope, constitute such a conversation.

I plan first to present the standard traditional understanding of the subject, and then to explain where it seems that most of us are, based on the survey results. Then, I’ll tell you what I believe, and, finally, I’ll suggest where we might go from here.

Speaking from a strictly traditional point of view, God dictated the Torah, that is, the Five Books of Moses, to Moses, either at Mt. Sinai or during the 40 years of the wilderness. That is called torah she-bikh’tav (the Written Teaching). At the same time, He gave Moses various interpretations and additional instructions, which were passed down, as we read at the beginning of Avot, from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. That is called torah she-b’al peh (the Oral Teaching).

Eventually, because of historical circumstances, the Oral Teaching was written down, too, first in the Mishnah, around the year 200 CE, then in various other rabbinic works, culminating in the Babylonian Talmud, which was finished around the year 500 CE. In principle, the fluid stream of oral interpretation goes on, but, since all Jews, in the few centuries after 500, accepted the authority of the Babylonian Talmud, all new interpretation must be based on the Talmud.

The Torah contains 613 commandments or mitzvot, 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones. A violation of any of those commandments is a transgression (averah), wrongdoing (avon), or sin (het), and it is those violations that we confess to God and try to repair whenever we repent (do teshuvah), and especially on Yom Kippur. The full “Al Het” form of the confession includes the phrase “al mitzvat aseh v’al mitzvat lo ta-aseh,” for positive commandments (which we have failed to perform), and for negative commandments (which we have transgressed).

From the Talmud, through the commentaries on the Talmud, the codes of law, and the responsa (answers that rabbis have given to questions about Jewish practice, about mitzvot), the halakhic tradition, the tradition of Jewish law, developed, and from a strictly traditional point of view, the way of performing mitzvot is by conforming to halakhah. Any deviation from accepted halakhah is something of which we should repent and confess on Yom Kippur.

I have purposely refrained so far from mentioning any of the “denominations” of contemporary American Jewish life. If you think that the system that I have described so far sounds Orthodox, you are partly right. Orthodox Judaism unequivocally stands on that theological basis. However, one of the slogans of Conservative Judaism has been “We are a halakhic movement,” so, in principle, we ought to accept something like the standard traditional view as well.

I don’t think, though, that many of us buy that whole system, but we do believe is very interesting and significant. I was totally overwhelmed by the results of the e-mail survey that I sent out earlier in the week. I received a dozen responses almost immediately, and I have got 39 altogether in three days, from more than 10% of the congregation. Here are some of the major themes that emerged from what you wrote.

First, you mentioned both so-called ritual matters (ben adam lamakom, to use traditional terminology) and so-called ethical ones (ben adam lahavero). Of the ritual mitzvot, the main ones mentioned were kashrut, Shabbat, and prayer (no surprise there). The ethical matters mentioned were varied, but generally involved helping other people, being kind and considerate. The traditional term which you mentioned most often in this respect is “tzedakah”.

This is how the responses broke down by numbers. Seven people mentioned mostly ritual matters, seven mentioned both ritual and ethical ones more or less equally, and 26 mentioned mostly ethical matters. I am not surprised at those results either. Of course, I am not a social scientist, and my very simple, open-ended, questions leave many things open to interpretation. I don’t doubt, for example, that people who gave keeping kosher as their example of a mitzvah, if asked, would agree also that tzedakah is a mitzvah. After I had sent my survey, I found a list of questions that Prof. Eisen had suggested we ask. That list is more precise and probing. However, honestly, I think that my questions served my purpose.

A second theme that appeared in your responses is an emphasis on inner intention. One of you wrote that “mitzvahs [sic] are passions of the heart”. Some of you also mentioned that a mitzvah is something that one isn’t asked to do, that one does without expectation of reward, etc.

Third, you didn’t talk about God very much. One of the possible rationales for doing mitzvot in Prof. Eisen’s questions is “because God requires this of me”. None of you said such a thing explicitly in your responses, and, of the 39 responses, only 7 mentioned God at all, and one of you wrote, “I don't know whether God cares or not whether we do them. But God's opinion does not matter nearly as much as what mitzvot create for us in our lives here and now.”

Fourth, many of you used stories or anecdotes to illustrate your mitzvot In fact, some of you just told the story without trying to give the mitzvah a name. This is a very interesting result. In presenting Prof. Eisen’s thought to the most recent RA convention, Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski used the title “From Wissenschaft to Narrative”. “Wissenschaft” refers to the textually and historically oriented scholarship which past leaders of JTS have represented. “Narrative,” people’s stories, is central to Prof. Eisen’s work.

Finally, several of you were tentative – “I don’t know if this is a mitzvah or not” – or you were apologetic about your own practice. When I read those responses, I immediately felt bad. I had emphasized that I just wanted to hear whatever you think, and yet some of you seem to be so conditioned to being made to feel Jewishly inadequate that you couldn’t just write what you think without a disclaimer. Have I induced that attitude in you? On the other hand, today is not feel-good-about-yourself day. It is Yom Kippur. I hope that our feelings of inadequacy can be turned into something constructive.

Let me comment on your responses and the themes that they represent. First, let me tell you that, based on the research of Cohen, Eisen, and other scholars, you are totally normal, very much in the mainstream of contemporary American Jewish life.

A very interesting issue has to do with the understanding of the word “mitzvah”. In his charge to the Conservative rabbinate, Prof. Eisen reminded us that “mitzvah” means more than “commandment”. I bristled at that sentence, because the Hebrew word “mitzvah” in fact means “commandment”. When some of you wrote that mitzvot are things that you do without any compulsion, it was, from the point of view of the Hebrew language, like writing that squares are things that you draw without making any corners. I suspect that what you may have meant was that mitzvot are things that you do without any external compulsion.

From this theme it is quite clear that the standard traditional ideology of mitzvot is not widely held. Yet, not only is it possible that your beliefs are more traditional than they may have seemed at first blush, but also the traditional material on the subject is more varied than my summary may have indicated. The dominant traditional view is certainly that we do as many of the 613 mitzvot as we can because God commanded us in the Torah to do them. Period. Yet, consider this. In the Talmud Bava Metzia we read that Rabbi Yohanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed because people followed the law of the Torah – and didn’t go beyond the letter of the law. With regard to inwardness, we read in Tractate Berakhot that it doesn’t matter whether one does much or little, as long as one’s heart is directed to God, and we read in Tractate Sanhedrin that God desires the heart.

With regard to your clear preference for ethical over ritual matters, we know that, in the Musar and Hasidic traditions especially, there are many stories that make the same point, within a strictly traditional framework. For example, there is a story about Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter who was once late for the Kol Nidre service at his synagogue. People went looking for the rabbi and found him rocking a baby. He explained that the baby’s mother had apparently left the baby in charge of an older child, who was, however, unable to deal with him. When he, the rabbi, had passed the house on his way to the synagogue, he had heard the crying and noise and went in to take care of the baby.

Here is another story about Salanter. He was once a guest in someone’s house and, when the time came for the ritual hand washing before the meal, he poured only the minimum amount of water over his fingers, instead of pouring water liberally over his hands. When his host asked why he had done so, Rabbi Salanter answered that he had seen the maid struggling to carry in buckets of water from the well, and he didn’t want to make extra work for her.

The tradition even recognizes, albeit equivocally, the fact that some people recognize the value of mitzvot without necessarily connecting them to God. In one of the prefaces to the Midrash Eikha Rabbah, Rabbis Huna and Jeremiah, speaking in the name of Rabbi Hiya bar Abba, interpreted verse from the Book of Jeremiah to mean: It would be all right if people abandoned God but still followed His Torah, because the Torah will eventually lead them back to God.

Where do I stand on these issues? I would say that accept the traditional system, with a few notes of clarification. First, I separate the authority of our classical sources entirely from the question of their literary origin. I am prepared to accept any reasonable theory of the origin and development of both the Written and the Oral Teachings, because my acceptance of their authority depends, not on any alleged historical events, but on my personal experience. I don’t care whether or not the ancient Israelites went out of Egypt en masse in the 2nd millennium BCE and stood together at Sinai, because I went out of Egypt, so to speak, and I stood at Sinai.

Second, while I am obviously devoted to the halakhic system, I believe that authentic halakhah cannot be divorced from aggadah (the non-legal parts of Jewish tradition) and from the realities of Jewish life. Therefore, among people who take halakhah seriously, I am relatively willing to rely on minority opinions or to reinterpret older sources, within the larger Jewish framework.

Third, although I believe that both so-called ritual matters and so-called ethical matters are mitzvot, I feel differently about them. If I see someone who is very upstanding, who helps other people, etc., but who is not at all ritually observant, I can admire that person, but I may think, “It is too bad that he doesn’t pay more attention to specifically Jewish religious things.”

If I see someone who is punctilious about ritual matters but who is not an ethical person, I get angry, and I think that such a person is a disgrace to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Fourth, although I believe that the halakhic process is the best process for finding out what God wants of us, there is still a gap between halakhah as it is at any given time, a finite, largely human, product, albeit with a Divine core, and the infinite word of God..

I like a phrase that Rabbi Avram Reisner, one of the leading halakhic scholars of our movement, once used. It is “the soul’s dialogue with God,” and it suggests to me that we have a relationship with God, our metzavveh, our Commander, which transcends the accepted halakhah. We should not dump halakhah, but we may do well to push the halakhic envelope from time to time.

Where do we go from here? We are supposed to be having a conversation. If you and I had all just been blown in from all points, found ourselves together, and were about to start a Jewish community, we would each contribute our own knowledge and perspectives, I would facilitate the process, and we would come up with a shared set of principles which would guide us.

In fact, however, the congregation has a history, 47 years of history, a constitution, and an affiliation with the Conservative/ Masorti movement, which has certain standards for congregational practice. I have a history, and we have a 32 history together, plus a contract for professional services.

I think that we should plan a series of conversations on some of the themes that emerged from your responses to my survey. Some of these conversations will be about the underpinning of our beliefs about mitzvot, and some of them will be about mitzvah areas which are important to us, to see how we can enhance our performance of them, as individuals and as a congregation.

We read in the Torah a few weeks ago: “For the commandment (hamitzvah) which I give you today is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach … It is very close to you, in your mouths and in your hearts, to observe it.” Ken y’hi ratzon. So may it be God’s will.


Home  |  About Us  |  PrayingLearning  | Doing |  Giving | Calendar | Contact Us | Facebook logo

Copyright © 2021 by Northern Hills Synagogue. All rights reserved.
Please send comments or suggestions to the