Excerpted from Gateway to Judaism: The What, How and Why of Jewish Life.
One of the most commonly voiced criticisms of Judaism is that it pays too much attention to details; that it is obsessed with hairsplitting and legalities. An initial look at Jewish law appears to justify this claim. The Torah comprises 613 commandments, divided into 365 prohibitions and 248 obligations, with hundreds of rabbinical decrees and customs that govern every aspect of life. There are volumes upon volumes of detailed guidelines specifying how one should dress, eat, work and even talk. Of course, no individual Jew is obligated to fulfill all the commandments — unless that Jew is both male and female; single, married and divorced; Kohen, Levi and Israelite. All simultaneously.
This intricate structure can definitely give one the impression that the Torah is overly legalistic and that it places excessive demands on human beings without leaving them enough freedom to relax and enjoy life. Judaism’s seeming obsession with laws and technicalities also makes one wonder about the point of it all. How does not eating lobster make one a better person? Why would lighting Shabbat candles bring one closer to God?
In order to comprehend why Jews have tenaciously adhered to this way of life for close to 3,500 years, we must gain a better understanding of the purpose of the commandments, called in Hebrew mitzvot (singular, mitzvah).
Being Like God
We believe that our primary obligation as beings created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) is to imitate God and to “walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9). What does this mean? The Sages defined the goal this way:
Just as He is merciful and kind, so you should be merciful and kind. Just as He clothed the naked, so should you; as He visited the sick, so should you; as He comforted the mourners, so should you; as He buried the dead, so should you. (Talmud - Sotah 14a; Jerusalem Talmud - Peah 3:1)
Each of the above statements refers to an instance in the Bible in which God demonstrated these qualities. The Sages are indicating that just as a parent teaches a child by doing rather than by preaching, God intentionally incorporated these instances into the Bible to teach us the behavior He expects of us.
Although Maimonides lists the obligation of “walking in God’s ways” as just one of the 613 commandments, it is also understood in the general sense as an underlying rationale for every one of the commandments. In order to have a complete relationship with God it is necessary that we be as “Godlike” as possible. We must develop a similar intellectual framework, inculcating in ourselves the attributes of God, and act as He acts.
Imitating the Creator is not an easy task and it is not always obvious what “being good” really entails in a given situation. You may want to extend help to a needy person, but what is the best form for this kindness to take? Should you give him money, a loan, or a job? Should you give a large sum to one person, or small sums to many? How much of your own income is it appropriate to give? To address these complexities, God provided us with the ultimate guide to becoming like Him — the 613 commandments with all their attendant details.
Judaism accepts as axiomatic that neither the human being nor the world in which he lives is perfect. Rather, just as this world is incomplete and designed to be perfected, the human being is also designed to strive for perfection. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) recounts a discussion concerning this idea between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman official Turnus Rufus: Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “What is better, the deeds of God or the deeds of man? If you say the deeds of man are better, then you are a heretic! If you say the deeds of God are better, then why do you circumcise your children? If God wanted them circumcised, why are they not born without a foreskin?”
Which is better – raw wheat or cake?
Instead of answering directly, Rabbi Akiva showed Turnus Rufus a stalk of wheat and a piece of cake and asked him, “Which do you think is better? The deeds of God (the inedible, raw stalk of wheat) or the deeds of man (the delicious cake)?” The Roman was forced to admit that the deeds of man were better.
Rabbi Akiva demonstrated to Turnus Rufus that just as the wheat is inedible until it goes through many steps of refinement and is turned into bread or cake, the human being also needs refinement and perfection physically, morally and spiritually. The purpose of the commandments is to refine the human being and bring him closer and closer to perfection.
Several ideas related to this process are expressed in a seemingly simple verse in Proverbs (30:5): “All the commandments of God are tzerufah (refined).”
The Midrash explains that the purpose of the commandments is the process called tziruf. (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 44:1) The Hebrew word tzerufah (from which tziruf derives grammatically) bears two opposing explanations. Depending on the context, the word can mean smelted, as in the method employed to separate the ore from metal through the application of heat. Alternatively, it can mean joining, as in soldering, where heat is used to join metals.
In the present verse, these two explanations are to be taken metaphorically: i.e., God’s commandments represent the source of heat, and the person represents the metal. Just as heat burns away waste matter, God gave us 365 prohibitions (“thou shalt not”s) to help eliminate the negative character traits contained within a person. And just as heat has the power to merge metals together, God gave us 248 obligations (“thou shalt”s) to consolidate positive traits and to connect human beings to a higher level of consciousness.
That humans need refinement is not a novel concept. Look at any infant: Is he or she a finished product? In our society, children receive 13 years of schooling before they are expected to contend with the challenges of life. Judaism believes that learning how to perfect oneself (and how to perfect the world) takes even longer — an entire lifetime of training.
All of us know adults who have yet to make the transition from infancy to adulthood. Their actions are governed by the instincts of a newborn baby. If they think that an object or a position or a title belongs to them, then by definition it must be theirs, and they will stop at nothing to obtain it. This adult code of behavior, “The Infant Rules of Ownership,” is employed liberally at every level of our society.
When a small child wakes up in the early hours of the morning feeling thirsty, he cannot see beyond his basic human instincts, which tell him, “Thirsty — water — drink!” He does not think of his exhausted parents dragging themselves out of a deep sleep in order to bring him a cup of water (without which he could survive for a few hours). Compassion and consideration for others is not a built-in human instinct — it has to be learned and internalized. And like any other complex skill, the only way to master it is through intense training and self-conditioning. But where can a person take a course on compassion?
This is where the mitzvot of the Torah come in — they are God-given tools for refinement. Prohibitions enable people to identify their negative instincts and distance themselves from them, while obligations help channel their positive instincts toward becoming better people.
Consciousness versus Instinct
Another purpose of the mitzvot is to educate people to act consciously, rather than going through their lives on automatic pilot. God wants thinking beings to serve Him, not mindless robots. This is one explanation of what appears to be a strange statement by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: A person should not say, “I do not like meat and milk mixtures...” Rather, he should say, “I would like them, but what can I do? My Father in Heaven has decreed upon me not to partake of them.”
The Talmud (Chullin 109b) explains that Jews refrain from eating pork or meat and milk mixtures, not because they find such dishes offensive or unpalatable, but rather because God forbade them to partake of such foods. The Talmud suggests that a Jew should think, “Pork probably tastes excellent; however God has forbidden me to partake of it.”
The first time I read the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham to one of my children, he or she always asks, “Abba, what is ham?” (For some reason, the child’s mind is not bothered by green eggs; the school cafeteria probably plays a role in this.) I answer that ham is the meat of a pig. Their response is usually, “Uggh, yuck!” At this point I tell them that ham probably tastes very good and that billions of people eat it all the time. I try to emphasize that the reason we do not eat it is not due to its “bad” taste, but because God forbade us to.
I believe that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would approve of my response. We could condition our children to be repelled by ham (yuck, gross!) but then we would merely have kosher robots, or mitzvah machines. This is far from the Torah ideal, which is for thinkers who make decisions about what to do or not to do based on moral commitments, not gut feelings. The commandments are designed to develop people’s ability to serve God consciously, encouraging us not to rely on instinct, but to exercise our power of free will.
I once met a student in California whose major in college was “Revelation.” The goal of such a degree was a mystery to me, as was the curriculum. After speaking with the student about the course, it still remained a mystery. I mentally filed it with a long list of useless college courses, like “Empowering Women With Eating Disorders Through Fairy Tales and Native American Dance Movement Therapy.” The founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, used to say that one has an obligation to learn from everything and everyone, so I tried to learn something from this encounter. After some consideration, it occurred to me that in reality, every Jew is majoring in revelation — our goal is to reveal the presence of God in this world of concealment.
The process of revelation is indeed a primary aim of the commandments. On a mystical level, when we fulfill these commandments we reveal the attributes and presence of God in every aspect of space and time. For example, by doing an altruistic deed, we introduce into the world an aspect of God’s image that was previously concealed: I.e., when a person gives selflessly to another, he is demonstrating that he has a soul (that imitates its Creator), and he is not merely a physical being concerned with his own survival. Upon encountering a truly righteous individual, one recognizes that this person is not merely a “naked ape,” but a being created “in the image of God.”
The table is not an eating trough, but a vehicle for holiness.
Similarly, when we use a physical object to perform a mitzvah, we reveal the concealed spark of Godliness that is contained in that object. When a tree is used to produce paper for a book that inspires someone to reach for higher spiritual and moral levels, the ultimate purpose of that tree — its “spark of Godliness” — becomes obvious to us. When a dining-room table is used as a place for hospitality, kindness and words of Torah, the “spark of Godliness” in that table has become more obvious. It is no longer merely a utensil for eating — a type of trough — rather it is a vehicle for holiness.
Sometimes, by showing that everything in creation has a common goal and purpose in its existence we can reveal the idea that this unified, harmonious whole was created by a unified Being. Thus, every mitzvah that a person performs reveals another facet of God’s existence and introduces it into the human plane of consciousness.
Conversely, if a person acts in a selfish, hedonistic manner, blindly following his baser instincts, his behavior conceals the image of God and emphasizes the animal component of the human. One contemporary American politician is known by the nickname “The Body.” This person, to my surprise, was actually elected governor of a state, despite the fact that the qualities of a leader would probably be better found in someone whose nickname were “The Brain,” “The Soul,” or “The Heart,” rather than “The Body.” Our obligation in life is to act in such a way that we deserve to be nicknamed “The Soul,” not merely “The Body.”
The principal way in which we emphasize the spiritual component of humanity, time and space is by fulfilling the commandments. Through the mitzvot we engage in the process of revelation, of uncovering elements of Godliness in the world and the image of God within ourselves.
The Final Score
In summary, then, the purposes of the commandments/mitzvot are to:
- Become Godlike: to establish and deepen our relationship with God through imitation of Him.
- Refine humanity by helping people to eliminate their negative traits, strengthen their positive traits and connect them to a higher level of consciousness.
- Train people to act consciously as opposed to instinctively. This conditions us to make conscious decisions and not to go through life on autopilot.
- Reveal the unity, presence and the name of God in every aspect of the physical world — thought, speech, place, time and action.