Acting Like a Jew…

The barista at my local coffee shop hands me an extra dollar and I immediately hand it back. I see someone struggling with a baby carriage trying to open a door and I rush to help. I make room for a car to enter my lane of traffic. I clean out my pantry and donate a few cans of food to the local food bank. These sound so mundane; behaviors that every “good citizen” should do. They’re also behaviors that I would label mitzvot.Would you?

Perhaps we’ll up the ante…

Last year I had cancer. People brought me dark chocolate and lots of goodies, and provided me and my family with dinner. Colleagues called me and sent me books, cards, and cute gifts. Friends visited with me during chemotherapy or sat with my husband while I was in surgery. Parents spent many months schlepping my children to basketball and lacrosse practice. Obviously these are mitzvot, right?

I hate to break the news; attending to a cancer patient does not trump any other kind act or take away the power any kind act has to permeate our universe with goodness. All of these acts are mitzvot, as they fit under the macro category of “ethical mitzvot.” And they are all sacred acts. What makes such acts “Jewish” is not the acts themselves, but the fact that our tradition commands us to seek them out and fulfill them with heart. And for Reform Jews that inserts them firmly into the category of “obligation.”

What a minute there! We are Reform Jews! No one tells us what to do. Are we not the liberal progressive Movement that touts “personal autonomy” and the “freedom to make individual decisions”? The answer is yes, but…

Because these are ethical mitzvot, we are eternally bound to observe them, whether they’re simple kind acts that take a microsecond to do (g’milut chasadim) or the difficult task of visiting a sick person in the hospital (bikur cholim). This is what I love about being a Reform Jew: it demands that I live a life where my seemingly secular behavior is elevated to a sacred level. Whereas I may choose whether I want to observe the “ritual mitzvot,” such as lighting Shabbat candles or keeping kosher, I am obligated to guard and keep the mitzvot that demand my best and most ethical behavior. It is a way of adding holiness to my life, a concept that does not always resonate for Reform Jews, because the word “holiness” may seem too pious or relegated to other types of Jews.

As Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben says in his book Raising Jewish Children in a Contemporary World: The Modern Parent’s Guide to Creating a Jewish Home upon reflecting on “The Holiness Code” in Chapter 19 of Leviticus:

“Judaism has never seen holiness primarily in such otherworldly terms. To be “holy” in Judaism means to act in such a way as to bring our highest and noblest ideals and values into play in our everyday lives. It’s about mystic meditation, it’s about clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the elderly and frail, treating people with dignity and compassion and justice. That’s holiness for Jews.”1

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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Rabbi Vicki Tuckman

About Rabbi Vicki Tuckman

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman is the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Life at URJ Camp Harlam, one of the Reform Movement’s 13 overnight camps, in Kunkletown, PA. In addition, Rabbi Tuckman will begin serving as the spiritual leader for Temple Micah in Lawrenceville, N.J. in the next few months. She and her family are currently proud members of Har Sinai Congregation in Pennington, N.J.

21 Responses to “Acting Like a Jew…”

  1. avatar
    Richard Myerowitz Reply May 25, 2012 at 8:01 am

    Pardon me for being professorial or picky since I am a layman and you are a Rabbi. However, you have confused the meaning of the word mitzvot several times in your piece. Mitzvot are commandments not good deeds. Is is true that the word Mitzvah is often used colloguially to mean a good deed. But that is incorrect usage. As you know, most of the kind acts you discussed are Gemilut Chasadim i.e. Acts of Loving Kindness, one of the three legs upon which the world is built.

    • Rabbi Vicki Tuckman

      Richard & others,

      I welcome your comments! How honored I feel to have people thinking & interacting with my words!! One need not be a Rabbi or a Jewish professional to offer a thought or opinion.

      I wanted to let you know that I define the word “mitzvah” as “sacred obligation”. I do NOT ever (here or when teaching or preaching) translate the word as “good deed” (even though a mitzvah happens to be a good deed). For a “mitzvah” is so much more than a good deed!!

      The word “mitzvah” comes from the shoresh (root) – Tzadee, Vav, Hay – which means “command, charge,order”.(source: BDB Hebrew English Lexicon, p.845) Hence, why I use the word “obligation” in my definition. The “sacred” comes from both the sense of kavanah (intention) I put into the mitzvah, plus, it is my sacred tradition, i.e. Judaism, that obligates me to perform/observe such an act.

      As a child I was taught that a “mitzvah” was a “good deed”. I am blessed to be who I am from my childhood teachers, but I am happy the Reform Movement has moved towards defining the word “mitzvah” as “sacred obligation”.

      Rabbi Vicki

  2. avatar

    This is such a powerful concept — brought into clear focus by your story.

    I love this line:
    Whereas I may choose whether I want to observe the “ritual mitzvot,” such as lighting Shabbat candles or keeping kosher, I am obligated to guard and keep the mitzvot that demand my best and most ethical behavior.”

    Thank you for framing this so poignantly.

  3. avatar

    Actually, Ellen, I am baffled by that very line. It doesn’t seem intellectually honest and consistent to choose which category that is obligatory and which is optional. The same Torah that makes acts of kindness an obligation makes the “ritual Mitzvot” an obligation too. Either we respect the Torah for it’s call and it is all our responsibility, or we don’t respect the Torah’s dictates and it’s all optional (at best).

    • avatar

      I understand what you’re saying.

      The part that is compelling for me is the reminder that the “spirit of the law” should not be overshadowed by the “letter of the law.” We all know people who put far more emphasis on saying the prayers, in the right order, at the right time — and less focus on being menschen.

      Here’s a question to explore: if you have two hours free, and only two hours, do you cook and take a meal to a sick friend or get to the maariv service on time? How is that decision made by people in different communities? What factors come into play? In your tradition, how would you make the decision? (I’m trying to listen and learn more this year, so I appreciate all points of view.)

    • avatar

      Shmaiss, you argue that that Torah is either all mandatory, and thereby we respect it, versus all optional, and thereby we do not respect it.

      Respectfully, this is a straw-man (straw-person?)argument. The 1999 Pittsburgh Platform clearly articulates the official Reform view of Torah, as follows, in part:

      “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” One of the basic tenets of our movement is our daily challenge to choose from Torah.

      In the words of Rabbi John Sherwood, z”l, your argument places you “across an epistomological abyss.” Your assertion that the entirety of Torah must be followed (because it is divine?) identifies you as following a different Jewish theology.

      While you are not wrong to think thus (for, who can be wrong in theological debate?), you are incorrect to impute this view upon Rabbi Tuckman, and thereby, call her intellectually dishonest.

      • avatar

        Michael, I too believe Torah is Divinely inspired. It wasn’t handed over neatly packaged at Sinai and is the result of the redactors, but the hand of God guided the process to make sure that His message remained intact.

        I believe God gave Torah to man. I’ve heard my rabbi bring up that thought many times (although he too believes in the documentary hypothesis). My rabbi and I are both Reform. I attend a Reform synagogue.

        I believe his comment to Rabbi Tuckman is perfectly reasonable. If YOU do not believe Torah is God given, then why is any of it mandatory? That’s not an unreasonable question. If you start saying “these mitzvot are binding” and “these are not”…then what is the criteria and reasoning?

        Those aren’t ridiculous questions and they’re not alien to the Reform movement. We are not outsiders.

        • avatar

          Gidon, you raise a good point that I originally missed. Rabbi Tuckman talks about “ethical mitzvot, (that) we are eternally bound to observe.”

          I agree with you that one cannot pick and choose which mitzvot bind us. While the notion of “ethical mitzvot” is compelling, it is not doctrinal, despite the prevalence of this assertion. As Reform Jews, we make educated choices from a palette of proposed mitzvot, and none are more, or less, eternally binding.

          That having been said, I think that Rabbit Tuckman is absolutely correct in the intent of her statement. I believe that the problem is in the language. Perhaps referring to the necessity of ethical behavior as “mitzvot” confuses the issue, and begs your question. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the pursuit of tikun olam, a Jewish obligation set forth in the 1999 Pittsburgh Platform, which presumably underscores the definition of modern Reform Jewish practice, requires ethical behavior.

        • avatar

          Gidon is right. Asking why some or any of Torah is mandatory is a perfectly reasonable Reform question. And practically speaking, the Reform answer is that we don’t demand what we can’t enforce.

          Fortunately for our commitment to the ethical commandments, we have the civil authorities as enforcers on at least some of them (e.g., murder, theft, perjury). But even giving the dollar back to the barista is mandatory only if one chooses to make it so. And being strictly shomer shabbos is mandatory only if you choose to make it so,although iot may come across as mandatory if you live in a community where peer pressure is the enforcer.

          Do I believe Hashem will reward me for the mitzvot I fulfill, or punish me for those I fail to fulfill? No, but I still do what I can, and my reward is strictly internal.

          • avatar
            Jordan Friedman May 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm

            Being “strictly shomer shabbos” is not part of a Reform commitment, because even if a Reform Jew were to basically do (or not do) all the same things as an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, it would have to be for different reasons. Even if we are behaviorally orthoprax, we cannot be “shomer shabbos” because that term refers to taking on mandatory obligations when one believes they were literally commanded by God.

            The fact that you refer to God as “Hashem” on a Reform blog is symptomatic of a larger issue, and requires a response so extensive that it would be inappropriate and off-topic to address it here. OY!

          • avatar

            @Jordan_Friedman – Why can’t someone be Shomer/et Shabbat and consider themself a Reform Jew? I believe that Reform Jews can (and perhaps should) observe shabbat, on stipulation they are not observing it out of a sense of obligation. However, it would not be problematic to observe it out of love of Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu. At services in my Reform Temple, a prayer called *Ahavah Rabbah* is recited (before the Shema), in which there is a plea to the Almighty that we should be able to observe, do, and fulfill (lishmor ve-laasot, u-lekayeim) all the words of Torah *be’ahavah*. Be’ahavah is with love, and not with obligation (be’chovah). Should *Ahavah Rabbah* be omitted from Reform Siddurim? I don’t think so! Because God did nice things for our forefathers because of His abundant love for them, so too do we pray that God instill within us a sense of love. The divine love that He establishes within us can inspire us to imitate Him to do nice things for other people (mitsvot beyn adam lachaveyro – ethical commandments), as well as inspire us to imitate our ancestors who used to perform rituals pleasing to the Supreme God (reyach nicho’ach). Obviously, God does not have feelings of love or pleasure the same way humans do – this is a phenomenon known as Anthropopathism ( ). But as long as one is not judgmental towards non-observers and does not consider his observation to be an obligation, then I don’t see why a sabbath observer would not be considered a member of the Reform community? Or am I completely off-base with my analysis? If so, then please tell me.

  4. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you for using such strong and bold language to re-assert that in Reform Judaism, the ETHICAL demands of historic Dual Torah Judaism are completely non-negotiable and mandatory, even though the RITUAL commandments are totally optional (such as Shabbos candles), and in some cases, even run counter to the spirit of the Tradition (such as, in my opinion, traditional Kashrut).

    Rabbi Yoffie did a good job of proclaiming that even in Reform, some things are non-negotiable, and in that sense (if in few others) he was really hearkening back to the strong sense of religious obligation fostered by Classical Reform. Unfortunately, it may be the case that using this plain, firm language is alienating people from Reform Judaism who don’t want to feel “commanded”, and as you say the traditional language of “piety” can turn people off because it seems too “religious” or “traditional” or “old-fashioned” to them. I say, so be it. There is nothing inherently illiberal or unmodern about piety–it can take many forms, including a Reform form. I am glad that rabbis are still proclaiming it.

  5. avatar

    Obviously, the ethical commandments too are open to interpretation and “negotiation.” As an observant Reform Jew, I believe I have an ethical obligation to raise my children to be obedient, good Jews, and good citizens of their communities — but last week, when my son refused to go to religious school, I did not take him out and stone him. On the other hand, I believe Shabbat is non-negotiable. I can decide whether I want to go to services, drive, turn on lights, or light candles — but I am commanded to zachor, remember, Shabbat, and shamor, guard it, at least to the point of remembering it is Shabbat.

    Reform Judaism almost killed itself off by killing off ritual, which is among other things the way we demonstrate our piety, both to ourselves and to others. The heirs of the universalistic nutniks of yesteryear are now scrambling to find the right balance of ethics and ritual to keep the authors of the Sacred Platform from turning in their graves while still bringing folks through the doors to express Judaism, not just ethicism.

    • avatar

      I am not sure whether you are simply operating under an innocent misunderstanding of my terminology or actively twisting what I said–I hope it is the former. My statement that ethical commandments are non-neogitable is indeed true, because the commandment to stone disobedient children and others like it are not ethical commandments–they ask us to do unethical things! Lex Talionis, for example, could be said to be a set of “ethical commandments”, but clearly it is not according to our modern, enlightened understanding of justice. Things like the Decalogue, Micah 6:8, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa, etc. are ethical and non-negotiable, though of course they may be interpreted and put into practice in many ways. The only option we do not have is to ignore them. Shamor v’zachor can be interpreted in this light

      The statement that RJ “almost killed itself off by killing off ritual” is not just a gross oversimplification of a very nuanced situation, but also patently false on several counts. First, because we never completely killed off ritual, and second, because the admittedly hyper-minimalist minhag that became normative for a while was not the main cause of the “crisis of relevance” anyway. A “piety” which needs to be demonstrated to others via ritual is not piety at all, though I cannot argue if some people claim the need to express things to themselves through ritual.

      Your disrespect for the “universalistic nutniks” of yesteryear, despite your indebtedness to them or the very existence of American Reform Judaism, is nauseating. Their contributions to progressive Jewish thought included far more than the ritual minimalism you decry, and their writings are full of spirituality that rivals that of the Hasidic masters. Even during the “Classical period”, there was concern that Reform Judaism was in some places starting to look more like Ethical Culture than Judaism, and those very same “nutniks” were aghast at the prospect. They had harsh words for atheists and humanists. Indeed, worse than throwing out Judaism in favor of ethicism, is throwing it out in favor of ETHNICISM, which is what is happening today as part of a decades-long push to distance the Movement from its past. The pendulum has swung WAY too far in the other direction.

  6. avatar

    I have a question as to your statement about not having to keep the “ritual mitzvot,” such as lighting Shabbat candles or keeping kosher.
    I understand that we cannot find lighting candles in Torah or in all of TANACH. When you speak of keeping kosher, do you mean the fences such as 2 sets of dishes, not mixing chicken and dairy, etc? I do not attend the reform synagogue in our town as they do not feel the need to guard Shabbat (hence lasck of services) or keep kosher even by just avoiding treif. Thinking you did not mean that when you said ‘keeping kosher’. Hope you can clarify. Toda and thank you for the thought provoking article.

    • avatar

      As far as I’m concerned, lighting Shabbos candles and keeping Kosher belong to two categories. The first belongs in the category of “optional, but to be strongly encouraged” and the second in the category of “optional, but perhaps not a good idea at all”. Ethically, we ought to refrain from eating any foods that were produced in a way that was cruel to animals or human workers. Under this maxim, some foods traditionally considered to be “treif” might well be permissible. In a non-Orthodox context, “treif” ought to be defined as any food that was not produced with respect and integrity. It MIGHT be rationally argued that pork should not be eaten because pigs are extremely intelligent–more so even than cats and dogs. Other than that, our choices need not have anything to do with the traditional dietary restrictions of the Written and Oral Torah, because they were written in a historical context during which less was known about the actual “cleanness” or “uncleanness” of animals, and ethical priorities were very different.

      If the Reform Temple in your town does not have services on the Sabbath, then that is indeed a huge problem, and an embarrassment. If they don’t actively avoid “treif” in their kitchen, then they might well be unique among Reform Temples today, for which I commend them. This is not a case of triumphantly “flaunting” tradition, but rather living out the principle that what is truly timeless and universally applicable in Torah stands out clearly from what is either reprehensible or neutrally dispensable.

      • avatar

        Jordan, You wrote: “Under this maxim, some foods traditionally considered to be “treif” might well be permissible. In a non-Orthodox context, “treif” ought to be defined as any food that was not produced with respect and integrity”..I consider treid as those designated in Torah but just wondered how far ‘kosher’ may be taken. I consider organic beef and chicken perhaps healthier than kosher due to its diet and living conditions, what do you think? But someofmy more ‘orthodox’ friends would only eat kosher even if it may be healthier.
        The local synagogue may not have treif in their kitchen but many of the members eat treif. The have Shabbat morning services about 2x month. Just wanted to clify on that.

  7. avatar
    Practicing Reform Jew Reply May 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Chava, as the various comments on this article indicate, your request for clarification on the status of various mitzvot are not likely to elicit an answer on which all will agree. And even a consensus answer that is representative today may not be representative a generation from now.

    For example, an early generation of Reform rabbis, 125 years ago, discouraged ritual practices that would tend to separate or distinguish Jews from their Christian neighbors, like ritual attire and dietary laws. Today’s posture encourages Reform Jews to understand time-hallowed practices, and to follow those that add meaning to their individual lives.

    In furtherance of this position, most congregations develop a set of ritual standards that are practiced in the temple, knowing that some members will choose to follow what the temple does, some will do more and some will do less; and also knowing that neither those who do more nor those who do less will be made to feel guilty about what they do or do not do. If the Reform temple where you live permits treif (pork, shellfish, aggressive mixing of meat and dairy as in lasagne), I think it’s the exception today, not the rule.

    I suspect there are Reform temples that emphasize Friday evening services and only have Shabbat morning services when there is a bar mitzvah, but even many of those still have groups gathering on
    Saturday morning for Torah study. Is it possible that you are describing the congregation in your town (which you say you do not attend) according to prior practices which may no longer be the case?

  8. avatar

    As to Jordan’s remark “Under this maxim, some foods traditionally considered to be “treif” might well be permissible. In a non-Orthodox context, “treif” ought to be defined as any food that was not produced with respect and integrity” I can only call something treif as that which is designated such in Torah. I believe that eating organic meat (not pork and such) and foul is a healthier option and possibly not treif if treated humanely. Rabbi, would you go along with that?
    To clarify, our local congregation meets about 2x month Saturday mornings. Some members eat pork out though I would think the congregation does not service it. They are very small.
    Again, thank you for clarifying. I think it is always good to try and set our bar a bit higher each year.

  9. avatar

    Thank you, Rabbi Tuckman, for teaching us this important lesson. I quoted this blog post and its comment thread here in part of my comment at Rabbi Student’s Hirhurim blog post about religious inconsistency ( I pray that you should have a quick and complete recovery from all illness presently and in the future.

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