Moral Mitzvot

by Lawrence J. Epstein

I believe that the Reform Movement should adopt a binding system of moral mitzvot. Currently, individual members of the Movement decide for themselves which mitzvot to follow. A binding system of moral mitzvot would obligate Reform Jews to follow certain moral commandments independent of their personal views. Such an obligatory system would separate moral mitzvot from ritual ones, which are seen as customs or folkways of particular times rather than divine obligations.

An obligatory system of moral mitzvot is true to the central ideas of Reform Judaism. It is derived from the basic founding ideas of the Movement. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, Reform Judaism’s original statement of principles, is the assertion that “we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.” Therefore accepting moral mitzvot as binding is not a radical departure but embedded in the Movement’s very birth.

There are many benefits for the Reform Movement should it choose to adopt a required system of moral mitzvot:

  • Constructing such a system would enable Reform Jews to focus on what is so morally crucial that it should be obligatory.
  • Constructive activities will lead to increased study to discuss the value of particular obligations.
  • Such an obligatory system deepens the meaning of Jewish activities and separates them further from non-Jewish activities.
  • Such a system strengthens the bonds to Jewish tradition without accepting traditional halachah.
  • It also underscores the Reform Movement’s argument that it is not sectarian and has not separated itself too much from tradition.
  • Adopting a system of moral mitzvot clarifies the crucial distinction between religion and fundamentalism.
  • It also increases international unity in the Movement by offering a more precise definition of its character.
  • Seeing the moral mitzvot as obligatory gives the spiritual and ethical a more tangible and prominent place in the lives of the Movement’s members.
  • In turn, this system may help shield members from isolation and guide them to resist inappropriate temptations.
  • Finally, such a system can provide an organizing principle and prism through which to re-examine all of Jewish theology and structure a modern Jewish world view.

There are disadvantages, too, the greatest of which is that adopting a system of mandatory mitzvot by definition means the voluntary surrender of some personal autonomy or freedom for Reform Jews. But by choosing to join a faith community, Reform Jews already surrender some individual autonomy. For example, most do not have multiple denominational affiliations, so they choose to give up being called Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated. This choice carries some specific theological restrictions. We can’t, for example, accept Jesus as the messiah and authentically be termed Reform Jews. The question, then, is not whether some individual autonomy should be surrendered, but rather how much? In what circumstances? For what benefits?

Would a required system cause current members to leave in greater numbers than such a system will attract new members to join? This issue arises every time a Reform leader releases a statement since there is some risk that members might be offended. That possibility doesn’t and shouldn’t stop the Movement from taking stands and discussing new ideas. Therefore, a discussion of moral mitzvot will, in and of itself, not pose any unique dangers. Additionally, most Reform Jews already believe in Jewish moral ideas or they wouldn’t identify as Reform Jews. They follow the rules they personally believe to be important. Seeing others follow them adds to their sense of being part of a community.

Having a required system of moral mitzvot may make it easier for traditional but unaffiliated Jews to join the Reform Movement because such a system is analogous to the halachah they are used to following, which might, in turn, increase membership. As long as there are no sanctions beyond the call of personal conscience punishing or expelling members who don’t observe the Movement’s obligatory mitzvot—and there is no suggestion that such sanctions should be employed—it is difficult to imagine any significant numbers of departing members.

There is a related problem, however. Will a required system alienate those in the Reform Movement who don’t adhere to the moral mitzvot by making a distinction within the Movement of those who follow the mitzvot and those who don’t? This is an area worth exploring as this idea is considered.

We should be aware of all of these problems but also realize they can be overcome, and that the benefits of creating a mandatory system of moral mitzvot will enhance our Movement.

Lawrence J. Epstein is a member of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, NY.

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12 Responses to “Moral Mitzvot”

  1. avatar

    And how do you intend an “obligatory” sytem to be enforced?

    And where do you draw the line between moral and ethical? Is abortion moral or ethical?

    The only enforcement method Reform Judaism has at its disposal is self-obligation. And that’s where are right now.

  2. avatar

    to Apikooros: Thanks for your comment. Any obligatory system can’t and shouldn’t be enforced. The system is meant to be a guide not rules accompanied by sanctions. I think a guide to moral expectations would help all of us think through difficult moral issues.

    You’re exactly right to ask about the borderlines of what is moral, including the question of abortion. But wouldn’t it be a benefit to ask these questions and take some stands, even if they are complex and nuanced?

    Self-obligation is fine in theory. But suppose I decide I have no obligation to refrain from stealing. Without any obligatory moral rules, my decision is morally equal to my friend’s who decides not to steal because we each decided without any outside guidance.

  3. avatar
    Bobbloggerstein Reply June 2, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    The danger of this is that it can morph into the Reform movement’s social action agenda which is little different from the Democratic platform.

  4. avatar

    To Bobbloggerstein: I hope there would be a vigorous debate so that any system doesn’t have a single slant or focus. Your point is an interesting one. But so much of our morality focuses on our actions toward ourselves, our families, and other individuals, that I don’t think moral questions would be limited only to the relationship between an individual and society or to a single ideology about how an individual should relate to society.

  5. avatar

    Bobbloggersteins’ concerns are well-founded. Lawrence, please review the social policy positions advocated on the this website; can you find a even single one that differs substantially from the DNC? The URJ appears to have very little, let alone “vigorous” debate on social policy. Ironically, these policies diminish the space that voluntary organizations such as synagogues can perform their social justice function. The URJ aligns itself with policies which degrade the voluntary associations that buffer the individual from the state, including religious organizations. A direct consequence is the shifting of moral responsibility from individuals, families and religious institutions (where it properly belongs) to the society and state. This seem antithetical to the divine revelation at the Red Sea.

  6. avatar

    To Mark Z: To me, your very passionate comment exemplifies the need for the debate that creating a system of moral mitzvot would engender. It is precisely the absence of such a system that prevents the positions you advocate from having a public airing within the Reform movement. You may be right that the system created would be decidedly coherent with the views of the Democrats, but let’s find out. Let’s have that discussion.

  7. avatar

    @urj reform judaism is based on autonomy in observance and etical teaching in values. If we fave “duty” we are not differento from other stream

  8. avatar

    I think this goes against Reform Halachah which looks not to set guides of understanding(Which this would be)but to Individual interpretation of the tradition.Issac Mayer Wise himself was stopped by the UAHC for trying to turn it into a Beit Din.My question for the Author is this :Do you look for your Judaism to be a shackle of legalism or a celebration of Freedom .The Emet recalls to us the liberation the Mitzvot give .Why would you want such beautiful liberty hindered ?

    • avatar

      Mostly agreed, but it is mainly on matters of ritual, and other matters of no moral consequence, that Reform Judaism accords full individual autonomy. On trickier and more controversial moral questions, of course nothing is a settled issue and people should make careful, thoughtful, prayerful decisions for themselves, preferably consulting both religious and secular sources of knowledge and advice. On basic issues of morality however, I don’t think it contradicts Reform Judaism to say that we can have non-negotiable values. The original Reformers (and HOPEFULLY most contemporary Reform Jews) believed that the Mosaic Law was human-authored and not a literal set of commands from God. However, certain of the ethical guidelines, such as the Decalogue, were believed to be Divinely-inspired, and they did not shy away from calling it “The Law of the Lord” in Liturgy and other literature. Reform should not be “anything goes”. We should have non-negotiable standards, but it’s important that these remain within the bounds of ethics and don’t extend into the realm of religious practice.

  9. avatar

    The original Reformers, whether Radical or Moderate, ALWAYS insisted that the Ethical Law was non-negotiable and binding not just on Jews, but on all humanity. They separated it clearly form the ritual/ceremonial law, which was largely (and I believe rightly) ignored. I suppose it depends where you draw the line between ethical and ritual. On some level, the Classical Reformers would have thought certain Jewish observances to be obligatory, such as the main holidays in the calendar, even though they are not strictly “ethical” and contain a ritual component. Nevertheless, I feel that mainstream Reform Jews obsess about ritual minutiae, even when to do so distracts from moral obligations.

  10. avatar

    Carl asks me if I want my “Judaism to be a shackle of legalism or a celebration of Freedom.” First, shackles imply a punishment imposed by a violation of the law. I don’t want sanctions. I want moral mitzvot to be a thoughtful guide that enhance freedom by providing the opportunity for thought and the sense of where our peers stand. More abstractly, freedom doesn’t imply an absence of rules. That’s anarchy. I shouldn’t be free to steal from you and you from me. A community couldn’t exist without legalisms. You might say then that you should be allowed to do what you want as long as it doesn’t affect me or anyone else. But as Reform Jews we participate in a faith community. Our individual acts always inform the opinions of those around us. In summary, I don’t want religious laws with sanctions but a communally-agreed upon set of moral obligations that carry no sanctions if individuals don’t follow them.

  11. avatar

    I think the URJ already has that within the platforms they are all guides in reform practice yet not totally binding on all congregations.

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