Reforming Reform: 1. The Debate over Reasons for the Mitzvot
There are three aspects to the intellectual foundations of Reform Judaism. Two are obvious: 1.) our concept of God, and 2.) the practices, both ethical and ritual, that we think are important to perform as Reform Jews. The third is not so obvious, but equally important: the link between God and religious practice.
The traditional link between God and practice in Judaism is the concept of ‘mitzvot,’ God’s commandments as to how we are to live. And the traditional discussion of this link between God and practice have gone under the name of “ta’amei hamitzvot,” the reasons for or purposes of the mitzvot.
In fact, the key weak link in Reform has, I think, been fogginess on the reasons for the mitzvot. In this first post, I will look at the past debates over reasons for the mitzvot, and in the next post look at Reform.
In his fascinating essay, ‘The Mystic and the Mitzvot,’ (in Jewish Spirituality, Arthur Green, Ed.), Daniel C. Matt has told the story of the debates through the ages over the reasons for the mitzvot. Matt points out that the Torah itself gives reasons for a number of Mitzvot. An ethical example is “Do not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.”(Ex. 23:8) And a ritual example is the commandment to observe the Sabbath because “in six days God made heaven and earth,, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day,” (Ex. 20:11) And there is a general reason given for all the God’s statutes: “for our lasting good and our survival.”(Ex. 6:24)
Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Midrash, support the idea that the mitzvot were given “solely to refine humanity.”(Gen. Rab 44:1) However, the rabbinic literature also adds a note of caution. It warns that overt mention of a reason for a mitzvah may tempt a person to violate the mitzvah while taking measures to avoid the predicted consequence.
Medieval sage Saadia Gaon separated mitzvot into those that could be rationally derived and those that were simply revealed in the Torah. However, in a decisive turn in the story, the great rationalist Maimonides argued that all the mitzvot had a rational purpose benefiting humanity. In his Guide to the Perplexed he offered many utilitarian reasons for mitzvot for which no reason is given in the Torah, and said that there were very few mitzvot for which he couldn’t discern the reason. And for those few, such as the prohibition on wearing a weave of linen and wool, he argued that the reason for the mitzvah has been lost, but it must exist.
Maimonides was aware of the danger that people who knew the purposes of the mitzvot might just decide to pursue those purposes in their own way, and neglect to fulfill the mitzvot themselves. He strongly rejected such a move, but still insisted that the wise and fully pious Jew should be aware of the purpose of a mitzvah when performing it.
What happened was that in Spain exactly some did exactly what had been feared: they started acting like Reform Jews later did, rejecting some Jewish law on the basis that it didn’t serve rational purposes well enough. This lead to a strong reaction against Maimonides by traditionalists who argued that in fact there were not rational reasons for the mitzvot, but rather mystical reasons. One of those arguing for mystical reasons was Moses de León, whom scholars think wrote the principal work of Kabbalah, the Zohar. Most of the works of Jewish mysticism were written after Maimonides, and partly in reaction against his rationalism, and the reforming tendencies his view of ta’amei hamitzvot had unleashed.
The mystics in fact won out for many centuries over the rationalists. I am guessing that that is partly because of the persecution and expulsion of Jews from Spain. However, later the investigation of mystical reasons for the mitzvot were also seen as suspect, because of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi, and the Frankists, who thought they could go directly to mystical inspiration and cancel Jewish law. As a result, the “shut up and study” approach was all too common an approach to questioning students—an approach which I suspect seriously weakened Judaism.
In any case, in the 19th century Jews again took up a rationalist approach to the reasons for the mitzvot, and this time were willing to sustain advocacy for a Reform approach against traditionalists. I’ll look at contemporary Reform in my next post.