We’ve experienced a dramatic shift in the content of our Torah reading over the past couple of weeks. For the months since Simchat Torah, we’ve been captivated by the gripping narrative that led us from the creation of the world, through the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, down into Egypt with Joseph, then out of slavery with Moses, and finally to the foot of Mount Sinai, where Israel stood at the moment of revelation. Now things get a little more tedious, and we enter the episodes so often skipped in Hebrew School. We find ourselves in a far more legal section of text as we read this month’s parshiyot: Mishpatim, Terumah, and Tetzaveh.
Most American Jews today are probably far more comfortable with the narrative sections of Torah than with the Torah’s legal sections. From high school literature classes and from book clubs, we know how to interpret narrative texts and extract meaning from them (even if we are reading them in a non-literal or non-historic way).
The legal portions of Torah are tougher for us to relate to, because when it comes down to it, the vast majority of Jews have a difficult time connecting their Jewish identity — which may be well-grounded in religious customs, history, and culture — to a legal system. Without the underpinnings of theological commandedness — i.e. the “I must do it because it is what God has commanded” approach — it is far more difficult to figure out how the Torah’s legal material has relevance to our Jewish lives today.
Despite our squeamishness when it comes to the language of “commandment” and “obligation,” law plays an important role in the creation of community and identity. The traditional understanding of Judaism as a legal and religious system creates a great degree of social cohesion. People take time off from work on Shabbat and holidays and live in walking distance of one another. Unfortunately, the loss of such a legal framework obligating these types of behaviors for many Jews has loosened the social fabric of our communities and diminished the authority of Jewish law.
This creates a fundamental dilemma for many modern Jews: how to create cohesive communities that facilitate a rich Jewish identity, absent a belief in theological or external commandedness?
Over the past year and a half, I have been experimenting with one possible response to this challenge: the creation of a new Jewish communal model in Seattle that does indeed speak in the language of obligation and commandedness, even to a liberal Jewish audience. My organization, the Kavana Cooperative, has embraced a concept that at first blush sounds like an oxymoron: voluntary obligation. Kavana brings together Jewish individuals and families with a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs to create an intentional Jewish community that has the power to “command,” or to place obligations upon its members.
As in a co-op preschool, Kavana’s cooperative model necessitates that everyone who chooses to join takes on a particular set of responsibilities within the community. Thus, “partners” within Kavana’s cooperative community do feel commanded, although the source of that obligation may be internal, personal, and voluntary rather than external and/or theological.
So far, this new communal model has met with tremendous success, but we are still in the early stages of this experiment. I’m happy to report that Kavana is not alone in thinking through these questions. Through an organization called Synagogue 3000, I have met many other Jewish communal leaders from around the country who are also engaged in creating new models of community which empower and obligate their members. (These new groups are often lumped together under the label of “Jewish emergent communities.”)
In addition, the Conservative movement, in which I was ordained, has long been struggling with how to reconcile its theoretical adherence to a Jewish legal system with the fact that most congregants of Conservative synagogues would not claim that their Jewish observance stems from a sense of commandedness. I am excited by the fact that the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnie Eisen, has started a campaign within the Conservative movement to teach around the concept of “mitzvah” and to help the movement’s constituents redefine the claim that Judaism has on the way they live.
As we move forward in our cycle of Torah reading in the coming weeks, we will encounter chapter upon chapter of text filled with detailed laws that, at first glance, may feel irrelevant to our lives today — for example, the many laws pertaining to agriculture, or the building of the Tabernacle, or the garments worn by the high priest.
This year, it is my hope that these legal texts will cause us to pause and consider what it is in our Jewish lives that obligates us to one another, and how our sense of commandedness can help us to live a more meaningful Jewish life in community with one another.