Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow – Mitzvah

Jewish culture By Professor Arnold Eisen 07th Jun 2017


The commitment that 21st-century Jews make to the life of mitzvah is decidedly countercultural.

We moderns are raised to prize autonomy, resist authority, and jealously guard options. The very notion of commandment – let alone commandment from God – seems antithetical to personal freedom, an affront to self that many contemporary Americans approach warily. Jews are not immune to this tendency. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen and I heard numerous unsolicited protestations from “sovereign selves” in the course of doing research for our book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America: “No one can tell me what to do as a Jew”; “I elect to observe Judaism as I elect to observe it.” Sovereign selves believe they have a right to exercise such choice when it comes to Jewish observance and commitment. In their eyes, it would be wrong not to do so: they would be “dishonest” or “inauthentic” if they engaged in any practice that is not personally meaningful at the moment they perform it. Each mitzvah – far from being obligatory, part of a larger pattern to which they are pledged – must, as it were, make the case for its own observance every time.

Most Conservative Jews recognise that partnership in the Sinai Covenant transcends the alleged dichotomy between freedom and obligation, “autonomy” and “heteronomy”.

They have come to understand that Torah entails a thoroughgoing discipline of practice: an all-embracing way rather than a set of discrete “good deeds”. I think they have learned from experience that mitzvah – because it is comprehensive – provides precious wholeness to life that would otherwise be unavailable. How we eat is connected to the rhythm of the week and the year; how we learn Torah is inseparable from the good we try to do in the world; all of these flow to and from encounter with God, however one thinks about and tried to serve God, the Ultimate Truth and Source of existence. A great many Conservative Jews resolutely take the “leap of action” to mitzvah despite cultural directions to the contrary and by doing so acquire a sense of wholeness to life available nowhere else. At least as many aspire to do so, or to do so more often.

It is important to stress, as Conservative Judaism has from the outset, that there are multiple sources of Jewish commitment, multiple sources of authority for Torah. More than duty alone inspires Jews to make sacrifices on behalf of Israel of the Jewish education of their children. More than abstract obligation drives them to devote hours beyond numbers to service of synagogues, schools, Federations, or other causes. Belief in the Revelation at Sinai is also not what motivates most Jews, most of the time, to undertake these and other responsibilities. We do such things – and take on many of the mitzvot we perform – because we are grateful for the life that Torah makes possible, thankful that we have resources that we can share, pleased we have the chance to give back to our community, loyal to the ways of parents or grandparents, in love with the life that Judaism makes possible. The combinations of motive are many and not always well understood. Some Jews act in obedience to God. Some heed conscience. Others believe God speaks to them through conscience – or in the voice of the community. All find meaning and joy in a life governed by Torah. That is why commandment is not an adequate translation of mitzvah, any more than good deeds captures the matter. Mitzvah means so much more than either of these. It is, like Torah itself, a pattern, an ennobling source of wholeness, a way.

This Conservative approach to mitzvah accords with a Hasidic midrash on the word that Abraham Heschel liked to cite: a mitzvah is an act done be’tsavtaI (together), with God and fellow Jews. It joins the best of what we know to our best understanding of what God wants. Mitzvah partakes of autonomy and obligation, freedom and responsibility, the interpretations of previous generations and the innovations contributed by our own generation. This partnership, Conservative Judaism holds, is essential to extending the way of Torah into the future.

The convictions on the matter distinctive to Conservative Judaism can be summarised as follow:

  • We believe that mitzvah requires every bit of knowledge, skill, experience, and reflections that we can bring to it, whatever the source: ancient or contemporary, Jewish or Gentile. We know from both tradition and experience that all of us are required, and all of our insights.
  • We recognise that we are obligated by the mitzvot – we are not and would not want to be entirely autonomous agents – and the “ritual” actions such as Shabbat and kashrut are no less a part of that obligation than “ethical” action such as honouring parents and taking care of the poor.
  • Finally, we know that the norms and details of Jewish observance – collectively known as Halakhah – have changed over the centuries, and must change further to retain their force in transformed conditions. Observance is required – and so is flexibility in observance. We treasure the fact that Jews bring diverse meanings to the performance of mitzvot, and we respect the diverse patterns of their observance. We want those patterns to stress ethics as well as ritual, freedom as well as responsibility, obligation to “the creation” as well as duties to the Creator. We hold fast to our distinctive covenant as Jews – and protect the Jewish lives and interests that are necessary means to fulfilment of that covenant – and we seek allies among other Children of Noah, whom we respect in the difference of their own traditions.

Professor Arnold Eisen is one of the world’s foremost authorities on American Judaism, and the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

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