Understanding Mitzvot

17 Tamuz 5774

So, you all know I was raised Catholic, and that I have some pretty bad spiritual hangovers from having been raised Catholic. One of the worst is the idea that you have to do everything exactly right, and if you don’t, you’re a bad person.

In the catechism of the Catholic church (think of the catechism as sort of the Catholic Talmud, if you will), sin is defined this way:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

Okay, I can get behind some of this as a Jew-ish person, but certainly not all of it. One of the parts of this definition that I have to learn how to fundamentally reject is that bit about “a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

I can want something and not act on it. But in the Catholic church, even wanting something that isn’t approved or okay is a sin. It’s going to take me a long, long time to get past this idea that just thoughts and desires, even when never acted upon, are sins. In Judaism, you’re held responsible for what you do and say, not what you think and feel – at least as far as I understand it.

Catholicism also doesn’t seem to really allow for “working towards being better,” or even allowing for mistakes. This may be one reason why so many Catholics go to confession every week. You’re supposed to avoid ALL sin – thought, deed, and word – or you are not good enough. Since anything can be a sin, that means there’s a LOT of sins to avoid, including inside your own skull.

To me this seems to be “setting people up for failure.” And here’s something that really irritates me (a direct quote from that same catechism): 1870 “[G-d] has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).

Isn’t that cute? According to the Catholics, G-d made it impossible for us to be perfectly obedient. And yet, we’re still expected to be perfectly obedient. And if we aren’t perfectly obedient, we risk hell and damnation.

Setting us up to fail much?

Now let’s take Judaism’s approach to this – and I speak here as someone coming at it from a liberal Jew-ish tradition.

1. Thoughts are not sins.

2. Actions can be sins if they violate the commandments (mitzvot).

3. There are 613 mitzvot, but only about 245 of them (77 positive and 194 negative) can be kept by Jews in the Diaspora who are not Kohanim (priests). Some of them are Kohen-only; some of them are Temple-only (and by this we mean The Temple, the one in Jerusalem, which is currently some rubble under a couple of mosques at the Dome of the Rock, so those can’t be performed).

4. You are expected to strive to keep the mitzvot – to do the best you can do. You are not expected to do it perfectly. Rabbi Adar, over at Coffee Shop Rabbi, has two recent posts about this issue here and here, and I recommend reading them.

This is, of course, a really wild thing for me to wrap my head around. There are no mitzvah police, as Rabbi Adar jokes, that will check to make sure I said the Shema in the morning or before I go to bed. There’s nobody who’s going to make a mark next to my name in a book if I forget to say a brachot because I’m tired, overhungry, rushed, or sleepy.

It’s the difference between having to be perfect and striving to do better. The first is negative and damaging. The second is positive and affirming.

Using those two lists, I’m going to start contemplating them as Rabbi Adar directs us to do in her blog post about the mitzvot. I might even talk about that some, here.

Which of the 245 mitzvot do you find most interesting, problematic, or difficult? Why?



Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

5 responses to “Understanding Mitzvot

  1. OldCutterJohn

    I don’t have anything to say about the substance of this post, but there’s a process I use in evaluating alien spiritual writings that you may find useful yourself. When I come across something like Romans 11:31, which you quote, I start from the assumption that it made sense to the man who wrote it, and I try to find the perspective from which he was writing, in order that I may understand what he was trying to convey. Sometimes it’s impossible, and sometimes the reason is that there’s no sense there, and sometimes the reason is that the writer was simply wrong. But other times, the process offers valuable insights.

    I haven’t run Romans 11:31 through that process. It’s not a line of thought that interests me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott Sewell

    Wow really Informative post thank you and shalom

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Scott Sewell

    Reblogged this on here and now… and commented:
    Helpful insights for understanding. ..


  4. yosefb

    Beautifully said and I agree completely. There is a great story that talks about a man who hates children. He cannot stand them one bit. Every day school children walk by his house and he is often outside when they do. He smiles, waves, and is always kind.

    He chooses to do something that is right instead of yelling and shouting and being mean. It does not matter that he cannot stand being around kids. What matters is that he was kind to them. What we DO is what matters. After all, it’s our actions that repair the world.

    People are not broken or cracked. They’re beautiful in their ability to choose and to affect the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jnbwriter14

      I really like that concept, and your example illustrates your point very well. Our actions, not our intentions, are what affect the world around us.


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