This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, is full of discussions about mitzvot (commandments), chukim (laws), and mishpatim (rules). Many of the 613 commandments of the Jewish tradition are set forth here, and we are also urged to “do what is right in the eyes of God” if we don’t happen to remember the commandment that applies in a particular circumstance.
The whole idea of being commanded is a problematic one for Reform Jews, and may be the issue that makes a Jew philosophically Reform. Indeed, the first statement of principles of the American Reform Movement, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, specifically threw out the commandments having to do with “diet, priestly purity, and dress [which] originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
The 1885 Platform, however, reaffirmed the commitment of Reform Judaism to “moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.”
Reform Judaism has come a long way since then. Its most recent statement of principles, issued in 1999, has no division of categories of traditional mitzvot, or a blanket rejection of some of those categories, as did its 1885 ancestor. In fact, the 1999 Platform states: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot (my emphasis),” but make a commitment to fulfill, not that whole array, but only “those that address us as individuals and as a community.” It is still up to the individual Reform Jew to decide what mitzvot s/he will commit to; or to the community as to what mitzvot the community will follow.
The current statement still avoids translating the Hebrew word mitzvah as ‘commandment,’ which is its literal translation. One current translation, “sacred obligations,” comes close to that. But I think another translation of mitzvot in the 1999 Platform, says it better: “the means by which we make our lives holy.”
This tracks something that I have been doing for some years now, in translating the beginning of a brakha, a blessing, that ubiquitous short form of prayer that we are encouraged by the tradition to say whenever we want to recognize the specialness of a moment.
Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu…. That is the formulaic beginning of all blessings having to do with mitzvot. The common translation of the first six Hebrew words is fine: “Blessed (or praised) are You, Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of the universe…” But the literal translation of the next four Hebrew words is problematic for some: “Who has sanctified us by the commandments, and commanded us to…”
To avoid that problem, I have been using the following paraphrase: “…Who has given us opportunities for holiness in our lives, by calling on us to…”
Reform Judaism, even in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, was willing to accept a sense of being commanded by the ethical mitzvot, but rejected what it deemed ritual mitzvot. Modern Reform Judaism invites each one of us to study all the mitzvot in the Torah, and to take into our daily lives those “sacred obligations” that we find “make our lives holy.”
The key here is to study the traditions, in order to figure out which of them address us sufficiently to add a sense of sacredness, holiness, to our lives. This is the essence of Judaism generally, and of the Reform Judaism to which we as a congregation subscribe.
As a new year on the Jewish calendar approaches, we will be announcing many opportunities for such study, for every age group in our community. Jewish learning is a life-long commitment, as the principles of Reform Judaism affirm.