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A-Z OF JEWISH VALUES  -
C  FOR COMMANDMENTS


The first Hebrew words you learn to say – as a child – or whenever you begin learning is a berachah, a blessing.

One of the first berachot you learn is Hamotzi. Blessed are you, Eternal our God Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth – haMotzi lechem min haAretz.

Simple enough – and quite beautiful to express thanks and appreciation in this way for food – the berachah covers a whole meal, but since it is specifically for bread, it’s customary to have bread before a meal, so that you can say the berachah.

But that’s not all… if you say the berachah before a meal, it’s the done thing to do the bensching, the Grace after Meals afterwards. And also if you say haMotzi, there’s something to be done before haMotzi – and that’s wash your hands, and as you wash your hands you say a berachah: al netilat yadayim, meaning ‘for pouring over the hands’, you pour the water over each hand, front and back beginning with the right hand 3 times each hand in succession.

And – this is the difficult bit – you don’t talk in between the blessings – because they constitute one action – you keep shtum until you have said hamotzi, and if there is a long line of people keeping these mitzvoth – you have something very rare amongst Jews, a room of completely quiet people!

The beracha you say for washing the hands, is a different formula from Hamotzi. It contains the words: asher kideshanu bemitzvotav… ‘who has made us holy through his commandments’.

Commandments! What a difficult concept! And what a confusing one! Most people have little or no trouble with the 10 Commandments. “I’m not religious – but I do keep the 10 Commandments”. “I see- You keep the 4th do you? Remember the Sabbath Day ?” - “OK 9 commandments then.”

But when we get down to a commandment for washing the hands… Hmm, difficult to see how that’s a commandment. Even though we also say asher kideshanu bemitzvotav for another little action also done with the hands – lighting candles.

As Reform Jews we search for rational explanations. Washing hands? -Hygiene! During the Black Plague hundreds of thousands of Europeans died. Whole Jewish communities survived the plague only to fall victim to anti-Semitic massacres. ‘Jews poisoned the water wells’ was the accusation. Historians surmise that it was because of the regular washing of the hands before meals. Whether or not that is so – and it’s doubtful that this would protect against bubonic plague - it’s clear that the original meaning of the mitzvah wasn’t hygiene but holiness. Eating is sanctified with prayer and prayer required purification.

And it’s done because it’s commanded.

The key question is: do we as Reform Jews value commandments per se? Do we act because we feel a sense of imperative?

How do we know which commandments are God-made and which are man-made? Are the ethical ones – like the 10 Commandments - God-made and the rest man-made? But not all the 10 are ethical – there’s Shabbat, plus the first 3 about the relationship with God.

These are Reform preoccupations. And the question I am putting to you is how can we uphold and affirm as a Reform value – The Commandments, with a Capital C ?

The short answer is by means of another word beginning with C – Commitment.

We uphold them because we are committed to them. There are many things in life which we may not be able to subscribe to 100%. We may not like our job but we’re committed – we’ve signed a contract; we may not agree with everything the State of Israel does but we stand to Israel in the same relationship as to our family and to the Jewish people as a whole. And it is a commitment. It does not have to be an uncritical commitment. But we cannot opt out without denying who we are.

I put it to you, the same is true of the Commandments. We may not be able to subscribe to them all, but we are committed to the concept of Commandments, mitzvoth, simply by virtue of being Reform Jews.

But what if we are sceptical about whether they are God-made or man-made? This whole question of Torah min Hashamayim – Torah from Heaven. Is there anything more contentious among the religious divisions of Judaism today than this? No.

The issue, I believe is not one of truth, but of meaning. Not whether it’s true or not that God gave the commandments – but rather what does it mean? What does it mean God gave the commandments ? My teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who wrote the famous book We Have Reason To Believe would say: this expression Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven, it all depends what you mean by Torah, and it all depends what you mean by Shamayim. And come to that it all depends what you mean by ‘min’!

Hamotzi lechem min Ha’aretz… who brings forth bread from the earth. Who does? God? God needs hands to do that. But God has hands. We are God’s hands. With our hands we till the soil, plant the seed, water it, harvest the grain, thresh it, sift the flour, add the yeast, knead the dough, let it rise, bake it, then break it and say ‘Praised are You, Eternal God, sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth’. The same human hands which make the bread, make the Torah.

And yet, as there is meaning in acknowledging the creative force which is behind the bread, so there is meaning in acknowledging the creative force behind Torah.

Commandments are human. They express a relationship of commitment to the divine. There are hundreds of commandments – 613 is the notional figure which tradition gives us. 614, if you follow the modern Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim. The 614th which he added is ‘Thou shalt survive’. This is the commandment which he says we hear coming after the Shoah, the Holocaust – indeed out of the Shoah: the divine command – you shall survive. Or to put the negative side of the coin. You shall not give the evildoers a posthumous victory. (Fackenheim, who was a Shoah survivor, says: thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him.

It means, says Fackenheim, we’re under a sacred obligation not to submit to cynicism or abdicate responsibility for the world and deliver the world into the hands of Auschwitz. It means being commanded not to despair of redemption, not to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. Is it the God who saves us physically? No it’s the God who commands justice and righteousness.

There is a saving presence of God in History, and for Fackenheim the State of Israel is evidence of the saving presence. And again through Israel, the voice of God is not a voice which says ‘see I saved you, that means you are good people and whatever you do I’m behind you’. It is the commanding voice which says: you’re living in an imperfect world and I command you to perfect it.

No matter how many times you hear about the Shoah, the shock effect is not lessened it only grows.


The world and all human values were turned upside down. Rabbi Hugo Gryn used to make the point that the Nazis systematically broke every single one of the Ten Commandments: They destroyed the entire human and moral framework of civilized life.

A survivor on one of the TV programmes this week reported about a relative had been shot dead for stealing a piece of bread.

Man does not live by bread alone, but by all that proceeds from the mouth of the eternal.

Fackenheim’s 614th commandment is not merely to survive but to survive as Jews. This of course is to survive with the purpose of keeping alive what our Judaism stands for. It is to work for peace and justice in our world. It is this commitment which makes the Commandments a prime value for Reform Jews.

 

 © Reuven Silverman,  29.1.05

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