Some Thoughts on Commandedness

Today I started my last graduate class at BRGS on the philosophy of mitzvot.  This is a topic that I have heard Mori VeRabi Harav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a speak about many times.  I was recently rereading a summary of a lecture he gave, translated by Rabbi Zeigler.  I just wanted to point out some passages which capture a few central themes.

Before I do – a note from the former Israeli Justice Minister, Haim Cohen:  When writing a book about human rights in Halacha, he correctly noted that “rights” are difficult to speak about in the context of the Torah.  Mitzvot are commandments – and Halacha is about duties, not rights.  While certain rights can be derived from those commandments (such as the “right to life,” which is derived from the prohibition of others to kill), the rights express themselves as responsibilities towards God which incidentally translate into the rights of individuals (i.e. I have a right to live because everyone else has a responsibility to God to not kill me.)  Obligations are the operative categories. 

A few passages from R. Lichtenstein.

  1.  Gadol HaMetzuveh VeOseh

There is a famous halakhic ruling, which can also be understood as a statement of philosophy, that “Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh, A person who does something after being commanded is superior to one who does it without being commanded.” In the gemara (Bava Kama 87a), R. Yosef, who was blind, initially states that he would make a party if someone would tell him that the law follows R. Yehuda’s opinion that a blind person is exempt from performing mitzvot. Why? “Because I am not commanded but I nevertheless perform [mitzvot].” In other words, his gut instinct was identical to ours: a volunteer is more admirable than a person who is required to do something. We tend to think that there is a greater measure of identification with a cause if you do something as a volunteer. But after he heard what R. Chanina said, namely, “Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh,” R. Yosef would now throw a party if someone said the Halakha does not follow R. Yehuda!

Presumably, one who is eino metzuveh ve-oseh, who is not commanded but nevertheless performs, acts in accordance with his personal inclination and therefore attains more self-fulfillment than one who is simply commanded, “Do this!” No one asks the commanded individual whether he likes what he is doing. Yet Chazal said, “Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh,” thus placing at the center or even at the apex of our spiritual lives the sense of being called and commanded. This is what religious existence in general is about, and certainly applies to Judaism more than to most other religions.

Of course, this has very widespread implications. For example, does a person look for a career where he will feel fulfilled, doing what he likes to do, or will he choose a career where he is responding to some call, to a sense of duty? A person responsive to the call of duty may sense that the historical moment has thrust upon him the need to follow a particular course, although it may not be that which corresponds most intimately and most fully to his own inner instincts….


Now, to live the existence of a metzuveh, of one who is called and commanded, involves to some extent the subjugation of one’s inclinations and desires. A metzuveh leads a theocentric rather than an anthropocentric life. He is guided by God’s will, not by his own likes and preferences. “Nullify your will before [God’s] will” (Avot 2:4) constitutes a cardinal tenet of Judaism. Even within the realm of avodat Hashem proper, one needs to beware of imposing his own inclinations excessively. If you are commanded, you do not pick and choose among commands— that would be living an anthropocentric life, placing yourself in the center and building everything around yourself. “Va-yetzav Hashem Elokim al ha-adam” means, first and foremost, that God’s will is at the center; your will may be factored in, but only secondarily.

A responsum of the Rambam (#263 in the Blau edition) illustrates this point. He was asked about the custom to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue, and replied that it is inappropriate to distinguish between them and the rest of the Torah. (Similarly, Chazal discontinued the practice of reading the Ten Commandments daily in the Temple [Berakhot 12a].) A Jew should feel that even though certain parts of the Torah may address him differently than do others, all are God’s words, and that in and of itself assigns them importance.

Another important ramification is in the area of learning. The gemara in Eruvin (64a) compares a person who says, “I like this sugyaand I don’t like that one; I’ll learn this section of the Gemara but I won’t learn that one,” to a person who consorts with prostitutes. Similarly, the gemara in Sanhedrin (99b) has very sharp words for a person who learns Torah occasionally, and does not set fixed times for study: he is “a heartless adulterer.” How can learning Torah be compared to committing adultery or consorting with prostitutes? The essence of fornication is self-fulfillment. A man wants to extract sexual pleasure from a woman and, after he has used her to satisfy himself, he has no responsibility towards her and continues on his way. Tomorrow he’ll find another woman. This is exactly what Chazal criticized so sharply. A person has to approach Torah and avodat Hashem not as an adulterer—someone whose goal is to extract whatever pleasure he can, even spiritual pleasure. A person has to subject himself to Torah and not to subject Torah to himself. He must be willing to commit himself to it unconditionally and accept whatever God imposes upon him.


As mentioned above, I want to deal with a concept which, while it has universal elements, is more specifically central to Judaism. When a person wants to make the transition from the universal to the Jewish realm, i.e. to undergo the process of gerut (conversion), he must accept the authority of Halakha and be willing to do everything it demands. Conversely, if a non-Jew wishes to perform some mitzvotbecause they appeal to him, but not to perform others because he doesn’t like them, the Rambam says that we ought not countenance this behavior:

The general rule is that we do not permit them to innovate a religion and to perform mitzvot for themselves according to their own understanding. Rather, they should either convert and accept all the mitzvot, or they should remain within their own religion and not add or detract. (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9)

What is the matter with this? If a gentile feels that the entire Torah is too much to accept, but there are certain mitzvot that appeal to him—he thinks eating matza is very nice and shofar is very elevating—then why not? Why impose upon him this whole system in its totality? Why tell him that it’s all or nothing? The answer is that a person cannot come and sit in judgment upon Torah, and upon the Almighty, and enter the world of Torah and avodat Hashem as if he were shopping in a department store. One shops in a department store precisely in response to one’s own needs and desires. It is part of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. But one cannot shop around in God’s world. Either one understands what it means to accept the discipline of avodat Hashem or one doesn’t. Either one is called and commanded—in which case you do not pick and choose among the commands, because if you pick and choose they are no longer commands—or one cannot become a Jew.

Judaism is built on the notion of nullifying your will before God’s, of defining your existence as being called and commanded. This can be construed in a narrow sense and in a broader sense. In a narrow sense, we are bound by many specific mitzvot. Part of the difference between Judaism and general existence is this range of mitzvot, the extent to which the tentacles of commandment enter into the fiber of your being and grip you in every area. Apart from the specific mitzvot which one is given, there is also the overarching concept of living a life of command, a sense suffusing one’s entire existence of living (in Milton’s phrase) “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.” This is very central to our perception.

            Therefore, conversion means accepting a certain system, with the understanding that you do whatever you’re told. In the army, it doesn’t matter whether you volunteered or were drafted; in either case, you must follow orders. A volunteer cannot say, “Since I wasn’t drafted, I’m here only for my own self-fulfillment and will do what I please.” Like the draftee, he is now a soldier, and does not have the right to pick and choose which orders he will obey.

After extensively quoting R. Lichtenstein, I want to make some observations.  I have often discussed the problem I see with people who always seek leniencies, even if they are textually tenuous and held by a minority of poskim, if that.  Everyone has some area in which they rely on kulot or limmudei zechut, so what is the fundamental difference between them and people who do that always.  Isn’t the difference only quantitative?

The answer is obviously no.  If someone cannot accept “no” for an answer, then they are not committed to mitzvot.  The essence of commandness is the ability to hear an answer you don’t like, and deal with it whether you like it or not.  Yes, sometimes we rely on tenuous positions, but if that is the norm and not the exception, then we may be doing actions that are mitzvot, but we are missing the relationship with God that they are supposed to engender.

That is at least part of what generates the rule that one cannot ask for another opinion once he or she has asked a shayla (subject to certain limitations).  Without getting into the exact parameters – the Halachic system recognizes that even if there are a range of opinions, there is a value to being able to accept a decision, even if the decision was not a necessary one.

I once heard in the name of Dr. David Berger, if I remember correctly, a pithy rephrasing of the assumption “where there is a rabbinic will there is a rabbinic way.”  He said people who say this believe אם תרצו אין זו הלכה.  While human beings may have much to say in the interpretation of Torah, and Lo Bashamyim Hi – central to a life of Halacha is that not every problem has a solution, and even if there is a solution, we cannot always avail ourselves of it.  If we want to hear the voice of God, sometimes we have to be able to hear him saying “no.”  To repeat R. Lichtenstein’s quote of Milton – that is part of living “as ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.”

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Commandedness

    1. Al Regel Achat – yes, you do need to believe in the commander for commands to have meaning. Discipline, communal conformity, etc may have meaning, but they are not the same as mitzvot.

  1. I don’t understand this analysis of the performance of mitzvot by non-Jews in the Rambam.

    The line about creating their own religion or religious observances (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9) was quoted, and it was interpreted as meaning to say that non-Jews should not do the Jewish commandments

    But in Hilkhot Melakhim 10:10, Rambam says that if a non-Jew wants to do the Jewish commandments, they can do them, and they receive reward for doing so.

    This means that the correct interpretation of Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9 is that a non-Jew cannot invent a new ritual, holiday, or religious system through which to serve God.

    I therefore see no system of all-or-nothing when it comes to non-Jews doing the commandments of the Torah, and have a hard time understanding how this example fits into the overall theme.

    1. Your assessment of Rambam is I think correct. However, non-Jews perform mitzvot as eino metzuveh veoseh, so the notion of mitzvah is less relevant anyways. As a system of commandments, it is all or nothing. As a system of religiously meaningful actions, perhaps not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s