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Ethics Versus Ritual

John D. Rayner
Summer 2004

Deed and Creed  

“Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed.” That slogan, commonly attributed to Moses Mendelssohn, has been repeated by writers about Judaism, in so many words, ever since. There is much truth in it, but also some exaggeration.  

It was gently ridiculed by Israel Abrahams when he wrote: “Since the time of Moses Mendelssohn the chief dogma of Judaism has been that Judaism has no dogmas.” He went on to concede, however, that “dogmas imposed by an authority able and willing to enforce conformity and punish dissent are nonexistent in Judaism.”1  

That there is nevertheless some emphasis in Judaism on correct belief, can easily be demonstrated. There is, for instance, the admittedly uncharacteristic statement of the Mishnah that three categories of people - those who reject Resurrection, Revelation and Morality - have no share in the world-to-come.2 There are the various medieval attempts, based on that statement, to formulate a Jewish creed.3 And there is the fact that one of these, by Maimonides, found its way into the prayerbook. In any case, it is clear that the Shema is a declaration of faith, and that, since Maimonides, converts to Judaism have been required to affirm ‘the fundamentals of the faith,’ which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry.4  

Belief, therefore, is not unimportant in Judaism; but it is certainly true that the greater emphasis in Judaism has always been on action rather than belief, on deed rather than creed.  

Learning and Doing  

If there is anything that rivals action in Rabbinic thought, it is not so much belief as learning. A well-known passage, after listing various commendable actions, delivers the punch-line, “But the study of Torah is equal to them all.”5 That, however, is a deliberate paradox, which modern commentators have rightly resolved by explaining that the study of Torah is equal to them all only in the sense that it leads to them all.  

There are indeed many Rabbinic teachings to the effect that study without action is useless, or worse than useless.6 Characteristic is the saying of Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel: “Not study but action is the essential thing.”7  

Defining Ethics  

If Judaism is primarily, though not exclusively, concerned with doing rather than believing, or even learning, what kind of doing are we talking about? It is here that we come to the dichotomy which is the subject of this paper. For there are two kinds of doing which Judaism, like other religions, expects of its adherents: ethical and ritual.  
What then is ‘ethics’? That seemingly simple question is not easy to answer. Obviously, ethics deals with such concepts as good and bad, and right and wrong. But the trouble is that these terms are also used in non-ethical senses. For instance, a painting, a song, a motor car, and even the weather, can be said to be good or bad! Similarly, there is a right and a wrong way to close down a computer, to eat spaghetti, and to address an ambassador. Yet in none of these cases is any ethical judgment implied.  

It would seem, then, that ethical issues arise only where there is free will, hence in human behaviour; and only when the intended or unintended effect of the action is to benefit or harm another person.  

In terms of Jewish tradition, the realm of the ethical corresponds to what the Rabbis called the obligations of one human being to another - except that we need to add that ethical issues arise also in our treatment of animals, because they too are sentient beings, and of the environment, because that affects the well-being of future generations.  

Defining Ritual  

What we mean by ritual is also not easy to define. For different institutions of society - political, legal academic, etc. - have different kinds of ritual. To address an ambassador incorrectly, for instance, is a breach of the protocol governing diplomatic ritual. But in the area of religion, which concerns us, rituals are essentially actions deemed to be required by, or conducive to, the relationship of the individual - or of the community - with God. They therefore correspond to what the Rabbis called the obligations of human beings, not to one another, but to God.  

At their most typical, we think of rituals as symbolic actions involving sight or sound or taste or smell or movement or touch, or any combination of these, In a Jewish context, lighting candles, singing psalms, eating unleavened bread, smelling the Havdalah spice-box, performing hakkafot (circumambulations), and building a Sukkah, are all obvious examples.  

But there are other, less formal actions which also pertain to the individual’s relationship with God. One we have already mentioned is learning: the study of religious texts. Another is private prayer, even inward attitudes. Maimonides, for instance, in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, includes among the first few of the Positive Commandments, the obligations to love God, to fear God and to cleave to God.  

Clearly, as we move from the more regulated to the more spontaneous, the word ‘ritual’ becomes less and less appropriate. Therefore it would perhaps be better to speak of ‘devotional’ actions. But since the word ‘ritual’ is so well established in the context that concerns us, let us continue to use it and understand it in the broad sense I have indicated.  

What we want to investigate, then, is the relative importance assigned to ethics and ritual first in traditional Judaism, then in Progressive Judaism.  

The Priestly Tendency in the Bible  

If we begin with the biblical period, we immediately notice two divergent tendencies: priestly and prophetic. They are not mutually exclusive but nevertheless distinctive.  

The priestly tendency is represented mainly by the so-called Priestly Code of the Pentateuch. From this point of view, ritual - represented almost exclusively by the sacrificial cult - is enormously important. This may be inferred from the minute detail in which the construction of the Tabernacle of the Wilderness, and its furnishings, is described.8 Likewise from the meticulous precision with which the mandatory sacrifices, and the priestly functions relating to them, are regulated.9 It may also be inferred from the dire penalties that attended any infringement of the cultic rules. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, were struck down by a thunderbolt because they offered ‘strange fire.”10  

One gets the impression that the Temple cult was viewed as a means of ensuring the continuation of God’s benevolence, and hence of sustaining the cosmos. For instance, it is repeatedly said that the purpose of the burnt offerings was to provide a ‘pleasing odour,’ for God.11  

Closely associated with the laws of sacrifice were the laws of ritual purity and ritual purification, such as the rite of the Red Heifer.12 Ritual purity, in turn, was closely associated with holiness; indeed, it was the chief means to holiness. Holiness, in the priestly legislation of the Pentateuch, is not primarily an ethical concept. It is, rather, a condition attained by scrupulous avoidance of anything defiling, which may be contact with a corpse but may also be sexual misconduct. The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, for instance, includes some sacrificial laws as well as laws concerning garments made of mixed cloth, and shaving. But it also includes some laws of good behaviour and social justice, such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  

Thus ethical concerns are not absent from the priestly portions of the Pentateuch. But they occupy only a fraction of the space devoted to ritual matters, and when, as in Leviticus 19, they jostle each other, one gets no impression that from the standpoint of the author or editor they are of unequal importance - that it is, for instance, more important to refrain from stealing than to refrain from wearing garments of mixed cloth.  

And even if we switch our focus to the book of Deuteronomy, or to the Pentateuch as a whole, we have to say that there is at best only an approximate balance between ethics and ritual, without any systemic distinction between them.  

The Prophetic Tendency in the Bible  

Very different is the Prophetic tendency, at least as represented by the Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. In these books hardly anything positive is said about sacrifices or any other rituals; on the contrary, they are frequently dismissed as irrelevant, or worse, from a divine point of view. Here are some of the key passages, with just a few comments of mine.  

Amos speaks sarcastically when he says, “Bring your sacrifices every morning ... for so you love to do, O children of Israel, says the Eternal God.”13 Comment: People enjoy performing rituals, but they deceive themselves if they think that to do so is to please God. And Amos spells out his quintessential message when he says in God’s name: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.”14  

Hosea, in the same vein, makes God say: “I desire love and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”15 Comment: To know God is to know that only righteousness matters from a divine point of view.  

Isaiah speaks unequivocally: “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Eternal One ... Your new moons and your appointed festivals My soul hates ... Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen ... Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”16  

Micah is equally outspoken: “Will the Eternal One be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? ... Human beings have told you what is good; but what does God require of you? Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”17 Comment: Evidently the ‘human beings’ in question are priests, who have been telling the people what a good thing it is to offer sacrifices.  

Jeremiah, in his Temple sermon, leaves no room for doubt: “In the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, obey My voice, and I will be your God ...”18 Comment: To obey God’s voice is not to perform rituals but to behave morally.  

Deutero-Isaiah ridicules the people’s notion that the way to gain God’s favour is to afflict oneself by fasting. Is not this, he says, the only kind of fast pleasing to God: “to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor to your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”19 Comment: In God’s eyes fasting is nothing, social justice is everything.  

Not Mere Hyperbole  

I am aware that nowadays apologists for tradition tend to explain these passages away as mere hyperbole, but I am convinced they are mistaken. They argue that because there were cultic prophets in the ancient Near East, therefore all prophets must have been connected with the cult; but of course that is nonsense. Or they reason that because Ezekiel devoted several chapters to setting out a blueprint for the post-exilic Temple, therefore all prophets must have shared his enthusiasm; but that is another non-sequitur. Most probably, these modern apologists simply can’t imagine religion without ritual; but that is only a failure of imagination on their part.  

Sometimes they try to clinch their point by quoting Isaiah saying in God’s name, “I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly”20 or again, “Even when you make many prayers, I will not listen: your hands are full of blood”.21 “Aha,” they say, “these phrases go to show that what, God disapproves of is not ritual as such, but only the combination of ritual with iniquity. Without iniquity, solemn assemblies are positively to be desired, and if the people’s hands were not full of blood God would surely listen to their prayers.”  

In short, ritual plus righteousness is good, but either without the other is bad; in themselves, they are of equal value. But that, I submit, is a gross misinterpretation. It implies that the Prophets didn’t mean what they said. It makes an unwarranted assumption about what they did not say. And it involves imputing to them an utterly banal view: that God is not well pleased with those who offer sacrifices and then proceed to commit robbery or murder. Surely the greatest religious geniuses of human history would not have been guilty of such banality!  

The revolutionary point the Prophets wished to make was that ritual, far from being what religion is all about, as had always been assumed, is not essential to it at all. It is not what God requires of human beings; it is not a criterion by which God judges them; it is not a way of gaining God’s favour. The God of Israel is a moral God who demands righteousness and nothing else. From such a point of view ritual is an irrelevancy!  

I am not saying that the Prophets were necessarily right. It may well be that they underestimated the importance of ritual. It may also be that if the proposition had been put to them that ritual, even if not essential, is nevertheless useful as a means to an end, they would have assented. I only want to insist that we have no right to trivialise the Prophets’ revolutionary teaching by superimposing on it our own conventional understanding of what religion is all about.22  

Ethics Versus Ritual in Rabbinic Halakhah  

We have seen that in the Hebrew Bible there are two opposing tendencies: a priestly tendency, according to which ritual is all-important - or at least no less important than ethics, and a prophetic tendency which considers ethics all-important and ritual irrelevant. Where does Rabbinic Judaism stand in this matter? To answer that question, we need to distinguish between Halakhah, its legal aspects, and Aggadah, its theoretical aspects.  

On the halakhic side, we need to remember that the founders of Rabbinic Judaism saw it as their principal task to construct out of the commandments of the Bible - supplemented by the ancient oral traditions - a legal system governing every aspect of life. Since these commandments are to be found almost exclusively in the Pentateuch, it is to this that they devoted their foremost attention, interpreting it as lawyers interpret a constitution. And since the Pentateuchal legislation makes no systematic distinction between ethics and ritual, therefore the Rabbis didn’t either. Whatever the Pentateuch expresses in the imperative was equally grist for the Rabbis’ jurisprudential mill.  

This is not to say that the Rabbis were not influenced by the ethical teachings of the Prophets. The humaneness of much of their civil and criminal legislation undoubtedly owes much to their influence. Nevertheless, on the issue that concerns us, of the relative importance of ethics and ritual, Rabbinic Judaism on its halakhic side stands essentially where the Pentateuch stood: it makes no systemic distinction between them; it does not subordinate one to the other; it regards both as equally expressive of the Divine Will.  

To this two further points need to be added. One is that between biblical and rabbinic times a huge change occurred in the nature and scope of Jewish religious ritual. In biblical times it was largely confined to the Temple. When that was destroyed, and its place was taken by the synagogue and the home, these became the institutions in which Jewish ritual was henceforth carried on. At the same time there occurred a huge expansion in the number of such rituals. Ninety percent of what we think of as Jewish observance is rabbinic rather than biblical in origin.  

The other point is that the external situation changed. In biblical times most Jews lived as a majority in their own land. In post-biblical times they became minorities in many lands. As such, they were surrounded by societies which differed from them religiously as well as in other ways. In these circumstances, Jewish ritual, in addition to all its other functions, became an expression of, and a means of maintaining, Jewish identity and distinctiveness.  

Ethics Versus Ritual in Rabbinic Aggadah  

If, on its halakhic side, Rabbinic Judaism followed the Pentateuch in making no systemic distinction between ethics and ritual, on its aggadic side it followed the Prophets in regarding ethics as immeasurably the more important.  

One of the most telling illustrations of this fact is the celebrated story of how Hillel, when challenged to sum up the entire Torah in a few words, said: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others; that is what the Torah is all about; the rest is a commentary on that principle.”23 In the same vein is Rabbi Akiva’s comment on the Golden Rule of the 19th chapter of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” “This is the greatest principle of the Torah.”24  

Equally significant is the talmudic passage25 in which Rabbi Simlai, after asserting that the Torah comprises 613 commandments, shows how they were progressively subsumed under ever fewer general principles, all of which turn out to be of an ethical or general religious nature. Isaiah, for example, reduced them to six: to walk righteously, to speak uprightly, to reject oppression and bribery, and to refuse to listen to bloodshed or to look on evil.26 Micah reduced them to three: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.27 And Habakkuk reduced them to one: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”28  

It is also noteworthy that what the Rabbis called the Thirteen Attributes of God,29 are all more or less synonymous with compassion, and that, accordingly, the ‘Imitation of God’ was understood by the Rabbis as requiring that quality on the part of human beings. For instance, on the phrase “to walk in God’s ways”30 the Rabbis commented: “As God is called merciful so you should be merciful; as God is called gracious, so you should be gracious; as God is called righteous, so you should be righteous; as God is called faithful, so you should be faithful.”31  

If any further evidence were needed, it might be supplied by the ‘Great Confession’ of the Yom Kippur liturgy, which employs the formula “For the sin we have committed before You...” Dating from the Gaonic Age, the number of its confessions has grown in the course of the ages from 6 to 12 to 24 to 36 to 44.32 Yet even the longest version lists exclusively sins of an ethical kind.33 You will not find in it, for instance, “For the sin we have committed before You by eating forbidden food”.  

The Position of Progressive Judaism  

We may then say that the general pattern, briefly summarised, is as follows. In the Priestly Code the primary emphasis is on ritual. In the Pentateuch as a whole there is a parity of emphasis on ritual and ethics. In the Prophets the emphasis is almost exclusively on ethics. Rabbinic Judaism, on its halakhic side, follows the Pentateuch, but on its aggadic side, follows the Prophets. The question we now need to ask is: which of these positions holds good for Progressive Judaism?  

Of course there is no simple answer, for Progressive Judaism has undergone change and development in the 200 years since it began, and not least in the area that concerns us. It is nevertheless clear that in its earlier phases, it emphasised the Prophets rather than the Pentateuch, and ethics rather than ritual. More precisely, it maintained that the ‘Moral Law’ is primary and immutable whereas the ‘Ceremonial Law’ is secondary and alterable. However, since then a renewed appreciation of the value of ritual has slowly asserted itself. Let me illustrate this developing trend with a few quotations from the ‘platforms’ which Progressive Judaism has from time to time adopted.  

At Philadelphia in 1869, the first generation of American Reform Rabbis dismissed the sacrificial cult as having only historical significance, and went on to declare that “inner devotion and ethical sanctification are the only pleasing sacrifices to the All-holy One.”34  

At Pittsburgh in 1885, the second generation of American Reform Rabbis declared: “We accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives ...” And they reiterated this ethical emphasis, with special reference to its social implications, when they added: “We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve on the basis of justice and righteousness the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”35  

Guidelines for Liberal Judaism  

At Posen in 1912, the Liberal Rabbis of Germany issued their Richtlinien zu einem Programm für das liberale Judentum, ‘Guidelines for a Programme for Liberal Judaism,’ in which they began by stating die ewigen Wa hr heiten und sittlichen Grundgebote der judischen Religion, “the eternal truths and fundamental ethical principles of the Jewish religion.” But they went on to declare:  

“In view of the great significance of external forms for the religious life and the maintenance of Judaism, all those institutions and customs should be maintained and revitalized which ... still have the capacity to bring the individual into a living relationship with God; to remind him again and again of the moral purpose of his life ... which sanctify the life of the family ... reinforce loyalty to the faith community and awaken Jewish self-respect.”36  

At Columbus, Ohio, in 1937, the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared: “In Judaism religion and morality blend into an indissoluble unity ... Judaism seeks the attainment of a just society ... It champions the cause of all who work and of their right to an adequate standard of living, as prior to the rights of property ... Judaism as a way of life requires in addition to its moral and spiritual demands, the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value ...” 37  

In London in 1992, the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues published its Affirmations of Liberal Judaism, which declared: “We affirm the ethical emphasis of the Prophets, that what God chiefly requires of us is right conduct and the establishment of a just society. Religious observances are a means of cultivating holiness. As such, they are also important, but not of the same order of importance ...We affirm the need for sincerity in observance. Therefore observances must accord with our beliefs, and individual Jews must be free in this area to exercise informed, conscientious choice.”  

In 1999 the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, popularly known as the ‘New Pittsburgh Platform’, which stated: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfilment of those that address us as individuals and as a community ... We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfil the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all God’s creation ... We reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”  

In 2001 the Union Progressiver Juden in Deutschland, Osterreich und der Schweiz issued its 35 Grundsatze des Liberalen Judentums in which it stated: “We feel obligated to lead a life of Mitzvot. At the same time we insist ... that the observance of Mitzvot must be in harmony with the freedom of the individual conscience.” It also stated: “We affirm the universal ethical teachings of the Prophets. The Torah demands that we conduct ourselves responsibly so as to bring about the establishment of a peaceful and just society, inclusive of all human beings.”  

An Evaluation  

From this survey it is clear that Progressive Judaism, throughout its history, has clung to the Prophetic view that Judaism is first and foremost about ethics, in the double sense of personal right conduct and the promotion of a just and peaceful society. To that extent, the self-description of Progressive Judaism as Prophetic Judaism is justified.  

It is chiefly in the evaluation of ritual that a gradual but definite shift can be observed: from an initial ambivalence to strong affirmation. To that extent the dual emphasis on both ethics and ritual of the Pentateuch and the Rabbinic Halakhah has reasserted itself, sometimes even to the point of obliterating or obscuring the distinction between them. And that is where, in my opinion, the trend has gone too far.  

A reasonable view, I submit, would be as follows. The Prophets, followed by the Rabbinic Aggadah, were right. The God of Judaism is a moral God; therefore the only ultimate values are moral values; therefore the way to serve God, to please God, to merit God’s favour, is to emulate the Divine Attributes of justice, compassion, etc., and to create a society characterised by these values. Everything else is secondary.  

Nevertheless the secondary is also important. The Jewish faith community needs ritual in the broad sense in which we have been using the term, including learning and prayer as well as ritual in the narrower sense. All these things are a means to an end, but not in any simple and straightforward sense.  

Learning, for instance, serves a double purpose. On the one hand, the study of religious texts is for the individual who engages in it a spiritual exercise. On the other hand, religious education is an indispensable tool for the transmission of the tradition from generation to generation.  

Likewise, private prayer is a spiritual exercise for the individual; but public worship has, additionally, a social function. It binds the individuals together into a community, and is at the same time a corporate act of self-dedication on the part of the community to its collective task.  

Jewish Way of Life  

Similar remarks apply to the rich variety of rituals in the narrower sense which constitute so much of what people mean when they speak of ‘the Jewish way of life’. In their totality they promote ‘holiness,’ not in the sense of the Priestly Code with its emphasis on ritual purity, but in the sense of ‘God-consciousness’. And the more conscious we are of God’s presence, the more likely we are to respond to God’s ethical demands. Ritual, we may then say, is a devotional exercise which promotes spiritual and therefore also moral fitness in much the same way as physical exercise promotes physical fitness.  

At the same time many rituals serve a more specific purpose. Some, like the Passover Seder, evoke Jewish history and may therefore be described as educational. Some inculcate a particular virtue. Some, like the blowing of the Shofar, awaken repentance. Some, like the blessings before and after meals, instil a sense of gratitude. All of them help to sanctify individual, family and communal life.  

In addition, ritual helps to maintain the distinctiveness of the Jewish people, especially in the Diaspora, where the non-Jewish majority exerts a constant pressure on them to conform to its ways, and so to lose their identity.  

This preservative or counter-assimilatory role of ritual should not be underestimated. But it also holds a danger. The danger is that we may come to value only those things that differentiate us from others, and only for that reason. That way of thinking leads to ghettoism, exclusiveness and holier-than-thou arrogance. It also distorts Judaism. It obscures the fact that the essence of Judaism is in its ethical values, and if these have come in large measure to be shared by other traditions, that does not make them either less important or less Jewish. On the contrary everything else is a means to that end. It is in the ethical sphere that we Jews have a contribution to make to the life of humanity if we have any contribution to make at all; and if not, our survival is a matter of no great interest except to anthropologists.  

Implications for Progressive Halakhah  

If this evaluation of the relative importance of ethics and ritual is more or less agreed, it remains only to consider what the implications are for Progressive Halakhah. It would seem to follow that Progressive Halakhah should concern itself mainly, though not exclusively, with ethical matters because these alone relate directly to what God requires of us. Also, we might add, because unless the ethical problems of humanity are solved, there will be no future for the Jewish people or any other people in which to indulge in the luxury of performing rituals.  

The facts, however, don’t entirely bear out that expectation. For the literature of Progressive Halakhah, as of Halakhah generally, consists to a large extent of Responsa, so that the subject-matter of the literature is largely determined by the questioners. It is, in other words, reactive rather than pro-active. And a glance at the literature reveals that a very large proportion of the questions concern matters of ritual rather than of ethics.  

Of course, many of these questions have ethical aspects, so that it is not easy to draw a clear line of demarcation. To give only one example, the question whether a kohen, i.e., a man claiming priestly descent, should be allowed to marry a divorcée, raises ethical questions about the democratic nature of the Jewish people and the respect due to divorced women.  

Nevertheless, when one looks through the collected responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis as well as those of individual Progressive Rabbis, one cannot but notice how many of them concern questions of ritual. Of course the same would be true, less surprisingly, of modern Orthodox responsa. And that, in turn, is partly due to the fact that the whole corpus of Jewish civil law has been much neglected since the Emancipation because the human relations it deals with have largely become the province of Gentile courts and governments. Therefore in traditional Judaism the scope of the Halakhah has shrunk and nowadays concerns itself mainly with Kashrut, Shabbat, Conversion, Marriage and Divorce.  

Preoccupied with Ritual  

But to this we may add that there is a general tendency for people involved in organised religion to become excessively preoccupied with matters of ritual. In addition, the differences in ritual practice between Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive communities, and even between different branches of Progressive Judaism, inevitably create uncertainty and anxiety, and cause questions to be asked.  

But there is also a pro-active Progressive halakhic literature, and there ethical issues are much more to the fore. That is true of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zemer’s Evolving Halakhah,38 which, for instance, devotes a whole section to the relations between Jews and Gentiles in the State of Israel. Even more significant for our purpose is the work of the Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah, which, in the space of eleven years, has produced, under the joint editorship of Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer, no fewer than ten volumes of essays and responsa. These are: a general introductory one followed by Rabbinic-Lay Relations (1993), Conversion to Judaism (1994), The Fetus and Fertility (1995), Death and Euthanasia (1995), Israel and the Diaspora (1997), Aging and the Aged (1998), Crime and Punishment (1999), Marriage and its Obstacles (1999), and Gender issues (2001).39  

As the titles indicate, every one of these volumes is concerned primarily with human relations and hence with ethical issues. And that, I submit, is exactly as it should be.  

Differential Treatment?  

It remains only to consider whether ethical and ritual issues call for differential treatment on the part of a Progressive H-Ialakhah. I believe that the answer is yes.  

Ethical matters are of the utmost importance. In the Rabbinic phrase, they are ‘matters which stand at the height of the world’. That is both because they are the only things God really cares about, and also because on them the well being of individuals and societies, and ultimately the survival of civilisation, depends. Therefore they demand the most strenuous efforts to establish, as far as we humanly can, what is right and what is wrong.  

Ritual matters are very different. They don’t belong among God’s primary demands, and they don’t directly affect human welfare. Indeed, they don‘t generally raise questions of right and wrong in an ethical sense. Of course there is, according to Jewish tradition, a right and a wrong way of doing everything - of blowing a Shofar, building a Sukkah, affixing a Mezuzah, etc. But these are matters of etiquette, or protocol or minhag, custom, rather than morality. Therefore they need not, and should not, be taken with the same seriousness as ethical matters. As Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum once remarked, “The ‘Thou shalt’ of the moral code must not be spoken where ritual is concerned.”40  

In ethical matters the argument from tradition carries no weight at all if what the tradition demands - for instance, that we should discriminate against women - is plainly wrong. But in ritual matters, because they do not generally raise an ethical issue, the argument from tradition carries a lot of weight. Certainly it would be foolish and perverse to deviate from the tradition for no good reason.  

And yet the argument from tradition is not always decisive. For there have always been varieties of practice in Judaism, and considerable emphasis on the duty to follow local custom. And if in Progressive Judaism there is even greater diversity of practice than there has traditionally been, that is not necessarily a bad thing. If, for instance, some congregations stand and some sit for a particular prayer, no great harm is done. And in addition, Progressive Judaism recognises individual differences: that a ritual which ‘works’ for one person does not necessarily ‘work’ for another. Therefore it is right that in ritual matters Progressive Judaism should allow, respect, and even encourage, individual choice.  

Mitzvot in Progressive Judaism  

In the light of everything that has been said, let us, in conclusion, take a fresh look at the word mitzvah, and note that it is traditionally used in three different senses.  

In the strict sense of ‘commandment’ it applies, first of all, to the 613 imperatives, which the Pentateuch is traditionally said to contain. But if the Prophets - who lived mostly before the Pentateuch was compiled - are right, only those of an ethical nature can strictly be said to be divinely commanded.  

Secondly, the word mitzvah is sometimes used in the sense of a ‘good deed’, that is, an act as visiting the sick, especially when performed spontaneously and ‘beyond the call of duty’.  

But then there is a third sense in which the word mitzvah refers primarily to devotional acts such as religious study, prayer, worship and ritual, especially ritual. Indeed, it is precisely before the performance of such acts that the tradition prescribes the recitation of those blessings which praise God as having “sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us” to perform the action in question - which may be to recite Hallel, to listen to the Shofar, to dwell in the Sukkah, to kindle the Chanukkah lights, to eat Matzah, or any one of the many acts of ceremonial which constitute the Jewish devotional life.  

This is of course a paradoxical usage in view of the Prophetic teaching that ritual is the very thing which God does not command. And it is even more paradoxical when the action in question is of post-biblical and uncertain origin. The kindling of the Sabbath lights, for example, was an innovation of the Pharisees, strongly opposed by the Sadducees; and the blessing stating that God has commanded us to do it is first attested as late as the ninth century.  

Mitzvot and Tradition  

Nevertheless the usage has come to stay, and nobody has suggested, or would suggest, that it is a mistake. Let us therefore continue to speak of Mitzvot in this sense, but be clear what we mean. These are not actions which are in any ultimate sense commanded by God. Rather, they are practices which our Tradition has devised to remind us of our history, to symbolise particular values, to evoke a sense of God’s presence, to sanctity family life, to lend rhythm and pageantry to the succession of the seasons, to celebrate lifecycle events, to bind us together as a community, and to perpetuate our religious heritage from generation to generation.  

Although we cannot truthfully say that any one of these Mitzvot is divinely commanded, I nevertheless believe that in their totality - provided that they are sincerely carried out - they constitute a way of life which must have God’s approval. If there is any truth in the concept of the Covenant; if we Jews have a providential task to perform in human history; then it must be God’s will that we should preserve and transmit our heritage; and if the doing of Mitzvot can serve that end, that is their justification.  

And yet we need to remember that all these acts of ritual, however important they may be, and however much we may enjoy them, are only a means to an end. The end is what it has always been. The end is that we should learn to respond to the Prophetic demand, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Nothing else has ultimate value, and by no other standard does God judge us.  



1. Judaism (Constable, London, 1917), p. 26.  

2. Sanhedrin 10:1.  

3. See Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism, JPS, Philadelphia, 1945, First Series, Chapter 6, ‘The Dogmas of Judaism.’  

4. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurey Bi’ah 14:1.  

5. Tamid 5:1.  

6. E.g., Avot 3:17; ARN 24; Lev.R, 35:7.  

7. Avot 1:17.  

8. Exod. 25,17, 35-40.  

9. See, for example, Num. 28.  

10. Lev. 10:1-3.  

11. In Leviticus and Numbers the phrase occurs 34 times.  

12. Num. 19:1-22.  

13. Amos 4:4.  

14. Amos 5:21-24.  

15. Hosea 6:6.  

16. Isa. 1:11-17.  

17. Hosea 6:6-8.  

18. Jer. 7:21-23.  

19. Isa. 58:3-7.  

20. Isa. 1:13.  

21. Isa. 1:15.  

22. Any readers who are still in doubt about the point that has been made should read Israel I. Mattuck’s The Thought of the Prophets (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1953), especially chapter 9, and Sheldon H. Blank’s Prophetic Thought, Essays and Addresses (HUC Press, Cincinnati, 1977), especially chapter 1.  

23. Shab. 31a.  

24. Sifra 89b to Lev. 19:18.  

25. Mak. 23b-24a.  

26. Isa. 33:15.  

27. Micah 6:8.  

28. Hab. 2:4.  

29. Derived from Ex. 34:6-7; RH 17b; Pes.K. 57a.  

30. Deut. 11:22.  

31. Sifrei Deut. 49; cf Sotah 14a.  

32. See Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, Jason Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey and London, softcover edition, 1996, pp. 18-19.  

33. Service of the Synagogue, 18th Edition, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, Day of Atonement, Vol. 1, pp. 8-10.  

34. David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, Ktav, 1967, p. 354-355.  

35. Ibid., pp. 355-357.  

36. Cf W. Gunther Plaut, The Growth of Reform Judaism, World Union for Progressive Judaism, New York, 1965, pp. 68-73.  

37. Walter Jacob (ed.), American Reform Responsa, CCAR, New York, 1983 (numbering 172 responsa); ditto, Contemporary American Reform Responsa, CCAR, New York, 1987 (202); Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa, HUC Press, Cincinnati, 1960 (50); ditto, Recent Reform Responsa, ditto, 1963 (50); ditto, Current Reform Responsa, ditto, 1969 (60), ditto, Modern Reform Responsa, ditto, 1971 (54); ditto, Contemporary Reform Responsa, ditto, 1974 (58); ditto, Reform Responsa for our Time, ditto, 1977 (56); ditto, New Reform Responsa, ditto, 1980 (53); Walter Jacob, Questions and Reform Jewish Answers, CCAR, New York, 1992 (246); W. Gunther Plaut & Mark Washofsky, Teshuvot for the Nineties, CCAR, New York, 1997 (72).  

38. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999 (previously published in Hebrew by Dvir, Tel-Aviv, in 1993, under the title ntc rthri).  

39. The earlier volumes were published by Rodef Shalom Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the later ones by Berghahn Books.  

40. The Jewish Mission, James Clarke, London, 1949, p. 39.  

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