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.

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William Berkson

About William Berkson

William Berkson's is author of Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life (Jewish Publication Society 2010), He is Director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family,, and lead developer of its Becoming a Mentsh courses on Jewish values for teens. He is also designer of the typeface Williams Caslon Text (Font Bureau, 2010).

4 Responses to “Reforming Reform: 1. The Debate over Reasons for the Mitzvot”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Whether the Sages articulate it or not, one of the reasons for the mitzvot that have no clear rationale is lehavdil, to separate us from the peoples of the earth.

    That, of course, is what the Pittsburgh Reformers couldn’t stand.

    The absorption of once-rejected ritual practices, the use of Hebrew, and the other aspects of contemporary Reform that drive the Classicists bananas stem in part from the nostalgia of refugees from the other Jewish denominations, but also from the need on the part of our congregants, not the least those who have joined us from other faiths, for more than just a connection to God — but specifically to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.

    • avatar

      Larry doesn’t realize that if the “Classicists” had wanted to completely do away with “l’havdil”, we would not purport to practice Judaism, we would not observe Jewish Festivals, we would not worship from a prayerbook that is clearly grounded in the Orthodox Siddur, and we most certainly would not recite, as we do so proudly (sometimes in Hebrew!) the Amidah which praises the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, and Leah.

      It’s all a matter of emphasis. We cannot claim to practice Judaism unless we acknowledge that we are to continue the existence of the Jewish People as a distinctive community (albeit a spiritual, not ethnic or cultural community). We must and do continue to see ourselves as continuing the unbroken chain of Judaism stretching (metaphorically) all the way back to Sinai. Being Jewish involves feeling ourselves to be participants in the Covenant with God and the history and destiny of our People and all the world, but the difference with Classical Reform is that our distinctive Covenant that makes us “separate” is very much bound up in being “or la-goyim”, a light unto the Nations. We are distinctive, but only in religious values, and it is deadeningly disappointing when Jews today fall into the trap of thinking that what makes us “Jewish” is contained in outer forms and rituals rather than in the core of our spiritual and ethical orientation.

      Larry implies that neo-traditional Reform is more attractive to Jews “who have joined us from other faiths” because it offers a connection to the God of Abraham, etc. The problem is, Classical Reform offers the same connection, but framed in a more accessible and inclusive way. Though certainly not intentionally misleading or slanderous, Larry’s false dichotomy of the “connection to God” in Classical Reform vs. the connection to the God of the Generations in neo-traditional Reform is deeply hurtful and offensive, and not at all accurate.

  2. avatar

    “overt mention of a reason for a mitzvah may tempt a person to violate the mitzvah while taking measures to avoid the predicted consequence”

    Beautiful!!! Doesn’t the very concept of non-Orthodox, non-Halakhic Judaism rest on the premise that we have permission to seek alternative means to agreed upon Jewish ends? When we can observe the spirit without the letter (or indeed, sometimes must go against the letter to preserve the spirit), isn’t that immensely preferable? In addition, the practices that express our values are going to change over time–the details of some historic Classical Reform worship modalities may not speak to all people today, but why is the response to that not to look FORWARD to yet newer modalities, rather than backwards to pre-Reform practices?

  3. William Berkson

    Larry, Jordan, sorry for the slow response. Thanks for your comments. I’ll take up the issue of universalism and particularism—and where Classical Reform went right and went wrong—in my next post on the status of mitzvot in Reform.

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