As Jews in this world, what is our ultimate goal? One very significant aspect of Torah and Mitzvot is that they are tools. We’re taught, at least on those rare occasions where the lectures and lessons go beyond “God said it so stop asking”, that Torah and Mitzvot are the tools we have to achieve an elusive state of being called דביקות, Devekut, which means attaching/harmonizing/”cleaving” to God.
But it’s not enough, we’re told, to only think about our own personal devekut. Rather, we’re taught (B.Talmud Shavuot 39a) שכל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, Sh’Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’Zeh, that all Israel (each Jew) is responsible for each other. For some reason, it’s in our interest for all Jews to achieve this elusive devekut, which, as we remember, is defined as only possible via Torah and Mitzvot.
One reason, we’re told, is that when, through these Mitzvot, we repair the world (this, rather than any particular social/political stance, is what our tradition really means by Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World), we will, at the very least, repatriate the Jewish people from Galut, exile which, in its deepest sense really means heal ourselves from the radical alienation we all experience. (Whether that can only be achieved for Jews in the Holy Land, i.e. the literal meaning of returning from exile, is another topic altogether.) We can either continue to suffer together or we can all be made whole and healthy together.
Although the tactics are often distasteful for those outside of haredi, ultra-orthodox, culture, it’s my overwhelming experience that the motivation of those leaders who attempt to coerce Mitzva-compliance is rarely driven by ego, greed or power-hunger, but, rather, out of idealism, love and desperation (and, quite often, a lack of understanding about the modern, non-haredi world most of us live in) for all of us to get out of the misery that galut has, historically, almost always been.
In other words, the real goal of the traditional, call it orthodox if you will, is for all of us to succeed in observing mitzvot.
And this is why I cannot understand the parallel momentum in much of the orthodox world, even including the more liberal elements of it, to continually define these mitzvot stricter and stricter and, thus, harder and harder to achieve. It makes no sense to me at all.
One doesn’t have to design and engineer a “Mitzva Lite” for slackers, since fairly easy-to-do halachic opinions exist in our fundamental texts of the Talmud and Halacha. The mitzvot can be authentically and legitimately followed with reasonable effort and determination. There is no need to obsess, to become emotionally unhealthy or unpleasant to others in order to live a mitzva-based life. In fact, Torah, as many of our sages through the millennia have said, is a path to life and health. Not only that, but we need to assume that God wants us to succeed! And knowing our capabilities and our tendencies, He would never make it artificially difficult! (For a passionate discussion of this, I suggest reading this tshuva/answer of Rav Yitchak Abadi. Be sure to read it all the way through.)
In a group project, there is no individual “extra credit”. If we continue to allow halacha to be hijacked and presented as harder and harder, not to mention increasingly unpleasant and unhealthy, a very few might benefit by showing off, but more and more of our people will refuse to even begin to join in. Even at its most “optimistic”, coercion will steal the actual mitzva away from the one who mechanically goes through the motions and we’ll all still continue to lose.
Again, we don’t need to make up new shortcuts or Halacha For Dummies. We just need to stop making new artificial obstacles and get rid of the ones that already block the majority of the Jewish People. All of us, deep inside, cry to finally end our exile and alienation. And all of us, working together, can.
שכל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
Thanks, R. Harry. Two things come to mind as I read your thoughtful, compassionate essay. (1) Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan likes to think of the path of “Torah and Mitzvot” as the dual path of “Contemplation and Action.” (2) To restate something you are saying with a different slant to it, one should be careful not to violate interpersonal mitzvot while championing one’s perspective – be it liberal or conservative – on the issue.
Thanks for sharing this. We all need to show Chesed at every opportunity.