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Sinai and Mitzvot

The parashah begins with Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, showing Moses how to set up an administrative system to govern the newly-freed Israelites, and how to delegate minor tasks to others so that he can focus on major issues. Then the story moves to the theophany on Mount Sinai, the giving of the mitzvot (commandments) to Moses. Much of the rest of the biblical story consists of discussions of the rules and the way they are to be enforced. These two elements, the rules and the mechanism by which they are administered are essential parts of traditional halakhah.

For somewhere between two and three thousand years Jews lived in hierarchical environments where they had a high degree of autonomy with respect to communal affairs, even when they lacked political independence. In those circumstances it was possible for the community to enforce the observation of mitzvot; members of the community obeyed the commandments or suffered some form of punishment.

Enforcement undoubtedly varied over time and from place to place, but it had community support because it was generally accepted that the rules came directly from a supernatural creator, as described in the Sinai story in this week's parashah, even when considerable interpretation was required from the deity's agents (i.e., priests, rabbis).

Enforcement disappeared with Jewish emancipation. Jews eagerly exchanged communal autonomy for citizenship. At that point enforcement of halakhah became a matter of moral suasion, rather than compulsion. Nevertheless, belief in the divine origin of the rules by which Jews lived gave considerable weight to halakhah and encouraged Jews at least to pay lip service to it even if they did not actually perform the mitzvot.

Biblical scholarship of the last two centuries, however, raised serious questions about the origin of Torah. Analysis of the internal structure of the Humash, the five books attributed to God, through Moses, made it increasingly difficult to believe that it was a unitary document. Today, outside of Orthodox Jewish and Fundamentalist Christian circles, virtually everyone accepts the idea that the Humash was put together from at least four different sources. Increasingly, Torah has come to be seen not as the literal word of God, but as a record of the Jewish search for the divine.

Without a mechanism for its enforcement, and without belief in its divine origin, what happens to traditional halakhah? What happens to the idea of mitzvot? If they are ignored, what happens to Judaism?

One of the pillars of Judaism has been the prophetic tradition, the idea that Jews need to stand for something, that we have beliefs so strong that we are willing to risk our well-being to uphold them. This was rooted in the belief that we were commanded by God to do these things. If we do not accept the divine origin of these mitzvot, what happens to them?

The answer is that we must find our own Sinai.

What does that mean?

If we can no longer accept the idea that the impetus for prophetic action comes from a supernatural being, we can still feel commanded by our traditions and our community. If we regard halakhah as the product of our people's search for the best way to live our lives, if we think of it as an ongoing search for what it means to be a righteous person, then it is something we need to regard with some reverence. It represents an evolving set of values that has been central to Jewish survival over many centuries. It is not something to be dismissed lightly. The fact that some parts of tradition no longer seem applicable to our current existence does not mean that none of it applies. Our task today is to understand the tradition and how it has preserved us, and then to preserve those parts of the tradition that bring meaning to our present lives and the lives of future generations. Because this is, and has always been, an evolving system, we will from time to time need to add and subtract but it is something to be done out of knowledge and understanding and not out of ignorance.

Understanding halakhah as a social invention has an important implication. It is not enough to seek Sinai individually. We must each make our own search, but we must do it in cooperation with our community. The theophany at the biblical Sinai was a collective experience and so must our modern theophany be a collective experience, for we will find God in those whom we describe as being made in the image of God. Reconstructionists must search within themselves and within their communities for those shared values that truly matter. We must also go a step further and join with other parts of the larger Jewish community to find those values we all share. Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews are all Jews. It is very important that we be able to say that a century from now and two centuries from now. We will be able to do so only if we can find and preserve those values that we all share.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah