Conscience or Commandment?

September 4, 2004
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Leonard Fein

What can “commandment” possibly mean in the absence of a commander?

The common presumption is that a mitzvah (mitzvah as commandment, not as good deed) becomes a mitzvah because of the m’tzaveh , its author. That, after all, is how we explain mitzvot that are otherwise entirely cryptic. The reason we don’t eat pig is not because eating it creates a risk of trichinosis; rather, we have been told not to eat pig. One can generate reams of Midrash on the laws of shatnes , mixing linen and wool, but the ultimate truth is that they are arbitrary and make no sense to us, save that they are commanded.

What, then, of those of us who choose to choose, that is, to be selective in our observance of the laundry list of commandments? We can, and some of us do, develop a theology that comes with a small pen and a large eraser, treating shatnes (for example) much as we treat animal sacrifice. Eraser, please. (The pen is small because, although in theory such a theology allows for the addition of new commandments, new commandments are almost never added. New interpretations are as far as we get.)

Once we’ve erased here and there, we have essentially asserted our right, whether as individuals or as a community, to be governed by something other than the heavenly Commander.

Which is essentially the same right that is exercised by those of us who have not developed an enveloping theology: The issue is conscience, not commandment.

But is not conscience a very uncertain foundation for a righteous life?

Yes and no: Neither punctilious observance of externally derived commandments nor informed conscience guarantees life without error, without sin. (Maimonides: You can observe every commandment and still be a scoundrel.) Something more is always needed, and that something is a system of social support. (Hunch: A good heart is not a genetic mutation, but a learned behavior.) Every life is filled with challenges; each day brings new temptations, and most days bring new lapses, failures. The insistent question is how to minimize those mistakes, how to maximize ethical behavior. And the source of the urge to such behavior is not the key question; the key question is the behavior .

Whether theological conviction is more definitive a source of ethical behavior than moral systems gleaned from other sources, is an empirical question. I know of no persuasive data on the subject. All of us have encountered “believers” who are thoughtless, indifferent, corrupt, and others who are virtuous; all of us have encountered agnostics and atheists who are virtuous, and others who are thoughtless, indifferent, corrupt. If either “side” believes it has a marked advantage, much less a monopoly, let it provide the evidence. Absent such evidence, it is silly to argue the matter.

But what of the ritual commandments, those that deal not with ethics but with other aspects of our behavior?

Rituals can be inspiring or deadening. In and of themselves, they have no meaning; it is we who infuse them with such meanings as we choose. For some, the religious rituals are an expression of fealty to Torah; for others, they are appealing if and as we choose to impute meaning to them. Such meaning may or may not relate to ethics. Observance of selected rituals may, for example, be a way of expressing fealty to the Jewish people, or an aesthetic choice, or an appreciation of discipline in one’s life.

In all these cases, the ways of the community are critical. Does the community honor ethical behavior? Does the community wink agreeably when instead of ethics there is money on the table? Is responsibility for the environment a value, whether because God has commanded it or because we are alarmed at its deterioration? Is kindness a norm and justice an unending pursuit, whether because of Micah and Amos or because of Doctors Without Borders and Raoul Wallenberg and Cesar Chavez, or, for that matter, because of the Holocaust?

Who is to say why we feel commanded, and what does it matter? If we feel compelled to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to comfort the bereaved, and so forth, is that not the heart of the matter? Is our ability to cite a text and verse more powerful than a felt compulsion? Do we teach our children best by citation or by example? And if we teach them these things, is it not mitzvah that we are teaching them, and is it not a mitzvah so to teach them?

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Leonard Fein, a Sh'ma Contributing Editor, is a writer and social activist. He is the founding editor of Moment magazine and founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger as well as the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy. He believes that even a Jewish atheist knows very precisely what the god in whom he does not believe expects of him.

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