On Sunday, June 13th, the Memorial Art Gallery hosted a Jewish Heritage Celebration Day in conjunction with the current Archie Rand 613 exhibition. As part of the event, the organizers asked local rabbis to write a short reflection on their understanding of the mitzvot. Here are my thoughts:
Growing up as a fifth generation Reform Jew, I regularly heard negative comments about the mitzvot as an antiquated and limiting framework for living Jewishly. It wasn’t until my first year of rabbinical school that I came to a different understanding. Rather than seeing the mitzvot as a series of petty rules governing every small aspect of one’s daily life, I came to understand halachah in its meaning as a “pathway,” empowering us to make meaningful choices within quotidian routine. Despite their oppressed and powerless status, the ancient rabbis were able to conceive of the practice of mitzvot as a world changing process, coming from the grass roots of individual and communal practice.
My current understanding of the mitzvot is based on two additional concepts. One is the rabbinic insight that belief must be expressed in action. Love for God or honor for parents is found in behavior, not thought or feeling alone. In this sense, mitzvot are the demonstration of our values. The other way of looking at mitzvot which I find meaningful is based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea that they are what we owe God in return for the gift of our existence. Striving to live with awareness and intention seems a straightforward, if not always easy, remittance.
However, the rabbinic elaboration of a specific 613 mitzvot is rooted in a worldview no longer shared by the vast majority of Jews, a perspective which marginalized all those who were not able-bodied heterosexual Jewish men. Contemporary Jews are creating a new concept of mitzvah as Jewish obligation rooted in Torah teachings of relationship, inclusivity, care for creation, and social justice. This emerging halachah of the post-rabbinic era is in its infancy but points the way to a Judaism as meaningful to our descendants as it was to our ancestors.
Rabbi Drorah Setel