Jewish Journal

Why Not Follow All the Mitzvot?

by Susan Esther Barnes

February 19, 2014 | 12:30 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

My blog post last week, Why Reform Judaism Does Work, received a lot of views and comments. A few of the comments were from me, in response to questions readers asked.

Responding to comments is always a tricky thing. One can say something in the moment, then think of a better answer after one has had more time to reflect. I don’t think it’s useful to respond to all comments and questions. Many questions may be genuine, while others, as I suspect some of the questions on this thread may be, do not come out of a desire for mutual understanding , but are just intended to try to prove the original author wrong.

One question, posed by two commenters, was in response to my statement that I keep Kosher because it is commanded by God. If that is so, they ask, why don’t I follow all the commandments (or mitzvot)?

Although there is some dispute as to the number of commandments in the Torah and differing lists of what, exactly, those commandments are, it is generally accepted that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. The first, most technical answer to the question of why I don’t follow them all is that it is impossible for anyone living today to follow them all. Nobody, even the most fervently Orthodox, follows them all.

A lot of the commandments are about animal sacrifices and other activities which used to take place in the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists. Therefore, these commandments cannot be followed unless and until the Temple is rebuilt.

There are a lot of commandments I could follow, if I were living in different circumstances. For instance, there is a whole list of them that have to do with farming. For instance, there are commandments about leaving the corners of your fields for the poor to glean, and about allowing your land to lie fallow for one year every seven years.

Now, it turns out pretty much nobody, including Orthodox Jewish farmers living in Israel, allow their fields to lie fallow once a year, any more than they throw out all their chametz before Passover. Instead, they use legal fictions to “sell” their fields (or their chametz) to someone else for the year (or Passover week), and then “buy” them back afterward. Nor do the Orthodox, or any other mainstream groups of Jews of which I am aware, forgive all debts after seven years.

They may say that, by using these legal fictions, they are following the letter of the law. But that claim simply doesn’t pass the sniff test. Clearly, they are not following the spirit of the law. It’s pretty hard to believe that God would have commanded us to let the land lie fallow once every seven years if all God wanted was for us to sell it to a non-Jew once every seven years and then  buy it back, with no fallow period and all else proceeding as it does in other years.

So, even if you set aside all the commandments that it’s not possible to follow in the present day, it’s still pretty rare, if not impossible, to find any Jew who follows all the commandments that can be followed.

Be that as it may, one may ask, since I don’t own any fields in Israel, why don’t I follow all the commandments that do apply to me? And the answer – surprise! – is that, for the most part, I do follow them. You’d be hard pressed to find even a handful I don’t follow.

How can that be true? I drive to services on Shabbat! I don’t have separate dishes for meat and dairy! I do all sorts of other things that many Orthodox Jews would view as breaking the commandments!

So, here’s the rub: Many people conflate the 613 commandments in the Torah, and halacha. The 613 commandments are written in the Sefer Torah, and do not change. Halacha is Jewish law, which was developed over hundreds of years by rabbis in an attempt to interpret the commandments, and changes over time, though slowly. All Jews agree on what words are written in the Torah. There are many differences of opinion, in ancient Jewish texts and in current life, regarding what the laws of halacha are (or should be).

As part of developing halacha, the rabbis were so concerned that nobody break the commandments in the Torah that they built “fences around the Torah.” In other words, if the Torah says God commanded us to do a certain thing, then we should take it one step (or more) further to make sure we don’t break a commandment by mistake.

If God says, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” then we shouldn’t boil any animal in its mother’s milk. In fact, we shouldn’t eat meat and dairy together in the same meal. Actually, we should treat poultry as if it were meat, even though poultry is different from mammals and they don’t produce milk. Just to be safe, we should use separate dishes for meat and poultry in case any of either sticks to the plate and later touches the other. Further, we should wait a certain amount of time after eating any meat or poultry before we eat any dairy, so they don’t mix in our mouth and/or stomach. And so on.

Halacha, then, adds all sorts of rules and interpretation on top of the original commandments. I don’t follow many of the rules of halacha, almost all of which were written by men hundreds of years ago, and many of which don’t appear to apply in today’s world. For instance, if those same rabbis were alive today and saw how well modern dishwashers work, would they still call for separate dishes for meat and dairy? Rather, I follow the Reform Judaism method of learning about the commandments, and making informed decisions about how to best incorporate them into my life. That does not mean I don’t follow the commandments themselves.

I would think any Jew would be glad to see other Jews are following the commandments, to the best of our understanding and ability, even if that understanding does not match their own. And I return to the question I ended with last week:  Isn’t it about time we work together to strengthen the Jewish community as a whole, and stop sniping at each other?

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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