Sarah Rubin - Monday November 26, 2001:
I'm very interested in what place you all think “obligation” has in supplementary school curriculum. Are we to teach our students that, as Jews, we and they are obligated to certain rituals, practices, ethical behaviors; that they are obligated to live their lives as Jews? What might be the factor that obligates us (e.g. heritage, God)? What practices are universally obligatory for all Jews? What practices are obligatory to Reconstructionist Jews?
Is there a distinction between being Jewish and acting Jewish? If one can be Jewish without certain behaviors, then why act Jewish? If there is a distinction, then aren't we saying it is possible to be a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew,” values I think we often try to remove from our teaching
I'm aware that this is a complex set of questions. I look forward to your responses.
JRF Education Intern and RRC Student
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Sarah Rubin - Friday November 30, 2001:
I'd like to clarify my question on teaching obligation, and provide a little background in my thinking process for you, since I seem to have stumped the list (I admit the original post was somewhat confused).
The question of obligation came up, for me, in the context of teaching about B'nai Mitzvah. In thinking of the ceremony as a rite of passage or coming of age, I come to the questions, “passage into what?” “of age for what?” And one of the answers to that is that the individual is now accountable for his/her actions, at least in the Jewish community. And I wonder to what, if anything, are individuals obligated in the Jewish community? To put it another way, are we a completely voluntary community with no obligations? But if there ARE obligations, in what ways can we teach them to children -- at home, in supplementary schools, in day schools -- so that when they come of age, when they become B'nai Mitzvah, they are prepared to enter the community?
I hope that this clarification of my interest in “obligation” will spur some discussion.
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Linda Jum - Friday, November 30, 2001:
I'm wondering if the use of the term “obligation” is throwing us off - I'm teaching a class of 11th and 12th graders and have found they react unfavorably to the notion of obligation but are more inclined to think in terms of expectations, rights and responsibilities, etc. of an individual to community, both real and metaphorical. Semantics? Maybe . . . but enough to make me pause and think about it for a minute.
B'nai Keshet, Mont Clair, New Jersey
Dina April - Friday, November 30, 2001:
I've actually been thinking about your question...and trying to come up with something definitive. It is a really difficult one to answer...as least for liberal Jews. I think that it is easier in more traditional settings, i.e.: we keep kosher, we keep the Sabbath, we dress a certain way. I've heard it said that what liberal Judaism risks is a free for all. In some ways this is liberating as we can all choose to worship and celebrate in ways that are comfortable for us. However, what is the limit? Certainly, you can call yourself a part of the Jewish community even if you never observe holidays or attend synagogue, or, for that matter, if you are not even Jewish by birth. Recently, I participated in a group effort to write a long range planning survey for our congregation. The biggest disagreements over questions involved those addressing ritual, observance, and tikkun olam. A number of people were uncomfortable being asked questions like: Do you light candles on Shabbat? Do you contribute time or money to other Jewish organizations? One member felt that these kinds of questions infringed upon her family's choice (all Jewish) to celebrate Christmas. Those involved were mostly Board members...very involved in their community, but not at all tied to traditional rituals.
In the end, most of what may be considered Jewish obligations are holidays and rituals developed at one point in history with the goal of bringing us closer to each other and our roots. And our roots, inevitably, lead us back to God. For, really, what Judaism says from the beginning is that there is only one God. We are, essentially, all one. So, to me, the only lasting obligation that we could teach our children are the overriding tenets of Judaism and ask that they teach these to their children.
Again, we could teach this obligation, but is anyone really obligated to do anything? Right now, the only obligation to be a member of our synagogue is financial. And, to participate in the greater Jewish community you need do nothing. We have created whole congregations where God is not even obligatory.
I'm interested to hear what others have to say as I feel very conflicted on the subject. Has Judaism existed for 6000 without obligation or is this a development of our modern era?
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Jerry Kiewe (response to Sarah, not sent to Edtalk) - Friday, November 30, 2001:
I was intrigued the first time I saw your posting but, as usual, simply didn't have time enough to respond, but seeing as how you have laid down the gauntlet a second time.... I will not resist the challenge!
The following is not limited to B'nei Mitzvah, but is, to my mind, of particular importance for this age and its accompanying issues. I would like to suggest that the beginning question is whether or not we are prepared to even teach that Jews do, in fact, have “obligations” in the first place - and that the answer to that is contained in a broader look at - and comparison of - our personal obligation to others AND the community's obligations to US. Moreover, I would like to further suggest that a comparison between the two sets of values that American Jews are influenced by - American and Jewish, will communicate an important lesson.
Bear with me please as I walk through an admittedly lengthy examination of my perspectives about personal and community “obligations” that I derived from my years as Director of the Panim el Panim program of The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. I believe that it is of particular interest to Reconstructionist Jews as it suggests (to me at least) a symbiosis between our Jewish identity and American identity.
On numerous occasions I have conducted an always energetic discussion in which I ask participants to answer the following four questions (with Jews, its always four questions!):
What are your OBLIGATIONS as an American citizen? (Note - NOT expectations or responsibilities! For example, there may be a sense that we are “expected” - and even have a “responsibility” to vote, for example - and hopefully we all agree that it is a worthwhile thing to do - but no American document describes it in that way and no one will be jailed or have their citizenship revoked if they fail to do so, so I don't accept it as an “obligation.” Much more on this later.)
What are the OBLIGATIONS that our country has to you (and to any American citizen)?
- For questions #3 & #4, I must stress that I seek to examine the traditional/historical perspective of Judaism rather than a modern/practical viewpoint. It is the ideals that Judaism seeks to advance and its overall approach that are key in this exercise, not whether or not they are currently applied. That said...
What OBLIGATIONS do you, as a Jew, have to other people, perhaps to God, and to the community (however narrowly or broadly defined you like)?
- What are the OBLIGATIONS that the Jewish community has to YOU? (i.e. - What do Jewish texts say about what the Jewish community is obligated to provide you with?)
Try it yourself - and lead a group through the exercise. If you understand the parameters of the questions properly, you should arrive at roughly the following answers and conclusions:
Your OBLIGATIONS as an American are VERY few. Pay your taxes, register for a military draft (which isn't likely to be reactivated anytime soon, despite the new war on terrorism), and IF you have children, provide for their health and education.
Others answers that will be suggested but I accept only begrudgingly or reject:
“Obey the laws.” In actuality, there are no laws that every citizen is actively required to take action on except for paying taxes and providing for offspring. Otherwise, this is actually an ABSENCE of action. In other words, it's a problem if you BREAK a law, but nothing special is required of you to NOT do so. I begrudgingly accept “respond to a subpoena” - but this is not a common experience.
Serve on a jury. I'll accept this, but again, only begrudgingly, because if you do not register to vote and do not obtain a driver's license, you are unlikely to ever be called to a jury. Hence, in actuality, it is not the obligation of every citizen - only of registered voters and drivers, neither of which is an obligation.
Vote. No; as noted above, it's not an “obligation.”
- Participate in the census - again, no; it's the government’s obligation to conduct one, the onus is not on you to participate.
In other words, theoretically, anyone over the age of 18 could take up residence in anywhere in the US, remain childless, not register to vote or obtain a drivers license, and he/she would have to attend to but two tasks - complete a one time registration for the military draft and, assuming that he/she has some form of income or assets, submit a tax return each year. This alone would fulfill the sum total of his/her “obligation” to the community. The US govt. would never then have cause to make another request of him/her and none of us could rightfully claim that he/she had failed to be a proper citizen in any way that we could attach chapter and verse to. That person could meanwhile, rightfully come forward at any time to claim everything available in the answer to question #2...
- “Obey the laws.” In actuality, there are no laws that every citizen is actively required to take action on except for paying taxes and providing for offspring. Otherwise, this is actually an ABSENCE of action. In other words, it's a problem if you BREAK a law, but nothing special is required of you to NOT do so. I begrudgingly accept “respond to a subpoena” - but this is not a common experience.
Our country has “obligated” itself to provide its citizens (and even non-citizens) with a GREAT many things! I will not presume to name them all - but we could start grandiosely with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” move on to the somewhat more practical listing of the many guarantees provided in the Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, right to a speedy trial, right to a jury of your peers, etc., etc. and on to the very practical entitlement programs established both nationally and by all 50 states which provide guaranteed minimum levels of income, medical care and other services. Add to that a free public school education through 12th grade, guarantee of some standard of parental or custodial care through age 16, etc. etc. and it amounts to quite a lot. Okay - I concede that in actuality what is provided is insufficient for many and the delivery is often problematic - but the intent and the programs exist. Moreover, people who believe that they are not getting their due can potentially seek LEGAL redress from the government - and many do.
Taken together, it's quite a statement. Our nation is based on the premise that it REQUIRES virtually NOTHING of YOU, and yet it OBLIGATES itself to provide YOU with a LOT!
Now on to Judaism again, with my reminder that it is not the practice of the modern day American Jewish community that I am seeking to examine, but the principles laid out in traditional Jewish texts.
What OBLIGATIONS do you, as a Jew, have to other people, perhaps to God, and to the community (however narrowly or broadly defined you like)? Suffice it to say that they are NUMEROUS. Plenty of mitzvot, even if we count only the positive ones. Add traditional emphasis on marrying and producing offspring, providing tzedakah, honoring your parents, teaching your children, engaging in study yourself, actively striving for peace, accepting “the stranger in your midst”, respecting the elderly, treat animals with kindness, etc., etc. etc. You could make a list a mile long. In short, as we well know, to be a “good Jew” is difficult; it is full of almost endless responsibility and obligation. It is simply impossible to live as a hermit and at the same time claim to be a good Jew.
- What are the OBLIGATIONS that the Jewish community has to YOU? (i.e. - What do Jewish texts say about what the Jewish community is obligated to provide you with?) There's plenty to talk about here too - traditionally speaking, it is incumbent upon the Jewish community to provide you with no less than a livelihood, sustenance if you need it, a system of justice, and a proper burial. Education is a mixed prospect; the initial, Biblical texts placed this obligation on the parent, but there is certainly a healthy emphasis on the community's responsibility for this in later texts.
But no matter how you look at it, it remains the case that the perspective in Judaism is markedly different than that of America. Judaism expects a LOT of Jews - and promises us much less in return, at least practically speaking. In short, American values emphasize our “individual rights,” a concept not much discussed in Jewish texts (nor in civilization generally prior to the 16th century), while Judaism places its emphasis on our personal responsibilities to God, to our family, to our fellow human beings and to our community. (That last sentence is the proverbial “entirety of this essay while standing on one foot.”)
I believe that it is ESSENTIAL that all B'nei Mitzvah understand this concept, at least generally speaking. The values of America have taught them, both overtly and subtly, to think in terms of their rights and what they are owed. I offer no criticism of this; in fact I celebrate it. Keep in mind that America was founded by people who were rightfully very suspicious of government and sought to curb its exploitive nature. We don't have to search very hard to see that even today, the number of governments that grossly mistreat their citizens is quite numerous.
Judaism however, has a different, and equally important focus that should not be lost on them - especially as they approach B'nei Mitvah. Regardless of our specific denominational outlook, a central Jewish view is that we DO have many “obligations.” Jews can argue endlessly - and obviously do - about what to include/exclude in that, but the underlying assumption of our personal responsibility for the welfare of the world cannot be denied. The essential question for the B'nei Mitzvah is therefore NOT whether or not you HAVE obligations - that is a given; or even to precisely define just what those obligations are - because we can have a healthy disagreement about that. The real challenge of Judaism is to get PAST those two questions and address the more critical question “Now that you are B'nei Mitzvah, what will YOU do to fulfill your obligations? ”
Education Director Columbia Jewish Congregation
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Holly Baumann - Saturday, December 1, 2001:
Dina April says in part,
“So, to me, the only lasting obligation that we could teach our children are the overriding tenets of Judaism and ask that they teach these to their children.”
Isn't this begging the question? Just what, then, would the “overriding” tenets of Judaism be? Isn't this what Sarah was getting at in the first place?
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Larry Pinsker - Friday, November 30, 2001:
I'd like to respond to your ed-talk posting about “obligation.” I probably missed the discussion of why we are reluctant to use the word “mitzvah.” I suppose it's for the same reason that we are plagued with people unwilling to “make a commitment” when getting married. A reading of articles about the concept of “uncommanded mitzvot” would be useful in addressing this issue.
I have a list of at least five dozen explanations/definitions/metaphors useful in understanding and using the word “mitzvah.” All of them are helpful but each is successful in conveying only one part of a complex idea -- in the same way that the comparisons made by the blind Indian Sages who touched an elephant and erroneously concluded that their isolated experiences of the part of the elephant they are touching (the tail is like a rope, the trunk like a snake, the legs like tree trunks, etc.) defines the whole. Yes, mitzvah means obligation, but it also means command, duty, etc. “Obligation” is only one option to help us think about the elephant.
The starting point for understanding how the concept works in the context of the society for which it is meaning-filled. I'm looking around the heterodox Jewish world seeking compelling examples of such a group. Jewish society, however assimilated, however middle-class, however socialized into and reflective of Western/American cultural models, nevertheless resists the civilization with which it coexists. Do any Reform or Conservative examples of this come to mind?
I encounter this with converts all the time. I ask them, “Why would you convert to Judaism if you do not plan to live as a Jew and view the world through Jewish eyes -- no Shabbat or holy days, no kashrut, no Hebrew, no study of sacred texts, no commitment to Jewish ethics or social justice, no change of any kind in your behaviors? What on earth does 'conversion' or 'choosing Judaism' mean if not doing A instead of doing B?”
Whatever constitutes the distinctive and compelling elements of Jewish life and thought can be constituted as a set of obligations --- that is, stuff that isn't discardable and ignorable, but rather compels you to modify your behavior from that of other citizens in that parallel civilization.
If home life and school can't define and communicate the reasons for such obligations to parents, children, and community, it's time to think about shutting down our enterprise and replacing it with a model from someplace else that does the job -- i.e., is more compelling or “commanding” of respect and commitment.
The wonderful thing about euphemisms is that they keep pointing back to the thing they're supposed to cover or replace. The missing part of mitzvah when it is reduced to “obligation” is the part that so captures my being that I cannot imagine saying “The hell with it!” about that particular “obligation.”
Rabbi, Darchei Noam Congregation
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Benjy Ben-Baruch - Sunday, December 2, 2001:
A few comments on teaching “obligation”.
We can't teach our children the obligatory Jewish behaviors and acts if we don't have a consensus on what those obligations/moral imperatives are. We do not have any such consensus, and therefore all we can teach our children is how to develop and apply values to their own behaviors.
But this is only partially true. We do have consensus about some things -- and in particular, we have a consensus about behaviors that are unacceptable. We also have consensus about general categories of behaviors that are moral imperatives. So we can teach children that honoring one's parents and providing for the poor and disempowered and engaging in acts of lovingkindness are moral imperatives. However, unlike some previous generations, we cannot teach specific acts that one must engage in. We need to help our students figure out how to apply these values.
Similarly, we can teach that belonging to the Jewish people entails some behavioral consequences -- moral imperatives once one makes the decision to belong. But we cannot say that this involves keeping 2 sets of dishes and lighting candles on Friday before sunset while saying a particular formulaic of by going twice a day to a synagogue that does not allow men and women to sit together.
In other words, Jewish educators today have to actually teach children to think about how to apply values. Jewish educators today have to really engage in good pedagogical practices. We no longer have the luxury of the short-cuts that previous generations of educators had when they could say to their students “thou shalt do this because this is how our rabbi and community interpret God's commandments”. We neither accept the notion of a God that gives such “commandments” nor the clericalist approach to rabbinic authority upon which the certainty of the specifics of behaviors is predicated.
So we can teach moral imperatives. But we cannot do so using pedagogical models from our past. We have to demand more of our educators -- and of our learners.
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Jody Bessner - Sunday, December 2, 2001:
I don't see any difference between Benjy's description of Judaism and a secular humanist approach.
If there is no “mitzvot” in Judaism, what is the point? You do not have to believe in an infallible supernatural being to believe that there are certain moral, and yes, ritual components of a Jewish religious approach. One of the constant themes reiterated to me by parents in their 30's and 40's is that the Judaism they experienced seemed bereft of any real obligations to themselves or to the community.
West End Synagogue, New York, NY
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Sareet Jacob - Sunday, December 2, 2001:
Hi, my name is Sareet Jacob. I grew up in New Jersey, and now I'm a sophomore at Brown University, teaching the kitah vav class at Congregation Agudas Achim, in Attleborough, Massachusetts. I have been fascinated by the discussion going on about obligations. I too have been wondering; what are our obligations in relation to our students, and what are their obligations? We are obligated to teach them Judaism; but what about Judaism? What overarching ideas of Judaism? Where would we get these overarching ideas if not from the Jews before us? And if we discover them for ourselves, and can't depend on past examples to teach them, are they still overarching ideas of Judaism, or are they just good lessons that people are teaching people?
About my students, it seems sadly obvious that the obligation they are learning is an obligation to come to Hebrew School. An obligation to have a bar/bat mitzvah (a point of a lot of stress and excitement for my students this year). They are obligated by their parents to spend extra hours after school learning Hebrew and Jewish stories, games and prayers. (Much the same way that one of my students is obligated by his hockey coach to wake up on Sunday mornings at 4:30 for practice.) They are obligated by their parents to perform some show of symbolic Judaism for their bar mitzvah, and then...there the obligation ends.
Maybe that is what bar/bat mitzvah is all about: not obligation, but the responsibility of choice. “No one's going to make you do it anymore.” You have to pump your legs to make the swing go, no one is pushing. And when thinking about it this way, i think there is an overarching obligation on all types of Jews everywhere, and that is an obligation to community. We don't all have to be the same, or believe the same, but we all must involve ourselves in a community, and support and inspire one another. When parents send their kids through the juggernaut of Hebrew school (as ideal as I'd like to make it, Wednesday nights are tough), they are, no matter what the intention, indoctrinating them. They are demonstrating to their children that we have an obligation to be aware of, and erudite in, our local Jewish communities.
Sorry I got so long-winded. Please let me know what you think.
Teacher, Congregation Agudas Achim
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Jeffrey Schein - Monday, December 3, 2001:
This is Jeffrey Schein in Philadelphia. I've enjoyed and been stimulated by the recent posts around the issue of teaching children about the way we teach our children about obligation. I'd like to build on the last several posts but first want to say what I think is fairly obvious. In the end its not so much conceptual clarity as the role modeling of committed Jewish living that is the educative medium: “Lo ha-midrash ha-ikar eleh ha- ma-aseh. It's not what we say or think so much as how we act that kids notice.” That said…
I think Benjy is correct that both the teacher and the learner bear a heavier responsibility for understanding and actualizing responsible action than in past Jewish eras where the accumulated weight of tradition and rabbinic authority weighed more heavily on a person's thoughts and actions.
The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead put it this way: we can't teach any more the specific content of values so much as the importance of “valuing” and living a life that is based on our highest values.
I appreciated Larry's post about the intricacies of the concept of Mitzvot. There are two resources that people might find helpful in this regard
In both our publications Tithadesh: Initiating Reflection and Renewal in Jewish Education and in our Curriculum Resource Guide there are articles by myself and David Brusin about teaching Mitzvot and covenant. The spring 1984 Pedagogic Reporter was focused on Teaching Mitzvot and had perspectives from all four streams of Jewish life.
- a more scholarly and in depth treatment of values and Mitzvot runs throughout the writings of Rabbi Max Kadushin. He points out for instance that there are both folk and more elitist understandings of the notion of Mitzvah thus accounting in some ways for the futile debate on whether Mitzvah is simply a good deed or a divine commandment. His books on The Rabbinic Mind and Worship and Ethics treat this in some depth.
- In both our publications Tithadesh: Initiating Reflection and Renewal in Jewish Education and in our Curriculum Resource Guide there are articles by myself and David Brusin about teaching Mitzvot and covenant. The spring 1984 Pedagogic Reporter was focused on Teaching Mitzvot and had perspectives from all four streams of Jewish life.
- David Teutsch, Richard Hirsh and I are reading through a volume by the moral philosopher Tom Green entitled Voices: the Development of Concience. and thinking about its implications for Jewish living and learning. One of his favorite phrases is “unwrapping the ordinary.” This follows the general counsel of the British school of philosophers to take on the easier illustrations of a concept before tackling the most difficult. Which leads me to think that we constantly encounter a sense of obligation (which in Jewish language we would call a Mitzvah). Its for real. Elijah encountered in the form of a reverberating echo, Moses in a bush, Akiva in God's chariot. That we are mezuveh (commanded) is almost beyond doubt for me. The nature of the mezaveh (the commander), however, is much more a matter of ongoing “god quest” and my own evolving spirituality.
JRF Associate Director of Education
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Shula Luck - 3 December 2001:
Sorry, I haven't been keeping up with the discussion but I have a good response to this! We can look to the lessons of Sukkot for the answer to this question.
“The Four Species represent four types of Jew. The lulav is from a palm tree - the palm has no smell, but it has fruit - the date. It represents the Jew who has Torah learning but doesn't observe the mitzvos. The hadas (myrtle) has fragrance but no fruit - that's the Jew who keeps mitzvos but has no Torah learning. The esrog has fragrance and is also an edible fruit - that's someone who has both Torah and mitzvos; and the arava (willow) has neither fruit nor smell - he has neither Torah nor mitzvos. Hashem says that it is impossible for any of these types to be lost - rather they should be ”bound together“ - like the Four Species (which we bind together). Then, the ones with Torah and mitzvos will atone for those who have neither, and the merit of those who had neither Torah nor mitzvos will be that they were the means, the vessel by which the others could do the mitzvah of elevating them through being joined together with them. The end result is that unity reigns amongst the Jewish People. They are bound together like the Four Species. The succah and the four species - two ways to unity.”
(Adapted from Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair)
I think the lesson is that it is good to do mizvot and to study Torah but even if we do not, we are still Jewish and we are still bound to the Jewish community. Kind of like being a part of a family. You can't deny being a part of your family. You can only try to make the best of the family you are a part of. If you don't do miztvot or read Torah, I don't think it makes you a bad Jew. I think it might make you an unfulfilled Jew and takes away from the unity and familial happiness that there might be otherwise. Kind of like the “more the merrier” mantra.
Until next time-
Congregation Mayim Rabim, Minneapolis, MN
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Robert Patsko - 3 December 2001:
Robert Patsko here, teacher at Beth Israel in Media, PA.
I'd like to chime in on teaching obligation/s.
These ideas are some thoughts of mine and do not represent dogma to me as I am still working on it my self; all the more important to post so that I can get some feedback. I believe that we need to teach obligation first as a people. That means we are obliged to help each other (the Jewish community locally or internationally) and to foster Jewish unity. Tzedakah to Jewish causes is a start.
We need to learn about Jewish communities throughout the world to promote a sense of the transcending nature of Am Yisrael and to find communities that are needy in some way (check out Karen Primack's book Jews in Places You Never Thought Of). We need to support other Jewish communities who need our support, forge bonds with those who don't need support, support Israel, etc.
Then our obligations can extend to needs and causes beyond the Jewish people; to effect Tikun Olam.
Regarding ritual mitzvot: We need to teach these as the ideal. Reconstructionism despite being a liberal stream of Judaism doesn't advocate to my knowledge blowing off these mitzvot. I like the statement that tradition has a vote but not a veto. I like to promote mitzvot as the ideal in order to relate to G-d, transcend the mundane world and provide a basis of international Jewish unity. However this is tempered with integrating it (halakha) into a comfortable and do-able lifestyle.
and now for my new sign off,
Congregation Beth Israel, Media, PA
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Sarah Rubin, response - December 7, 2001:
What a wonderful and thoughtful set of responses to my post about “obligation”. Thank you all!
The issue of obligation came up in context of one of my classes at RRC (I'm in my first year of rabbinical studies), in preparing a drash on Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In thinking about Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a rite of passage, as a marker between two points in the lifecycle (rather than as a point itself), I sought to reason out what that second part is.
Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah means coming of age, and traditionally involves transition from parental accountability for the child's actions to the child/individual becoming accountable (legally/halakhically/morally) for his/her actions. Personal choice may always be present, but the way one is to act so as to avoid (legal/religious/moral) repercussions, in a traditional sense, is prescribed in the mitzvot (and in later halakhic decisions). Mitzvot carry, in their traditional sense, the weight of obligation - if a Jew does not follow the mitzvot, he/she is not behaving as a good Jew.
The problem arises for liberal Judaism, when we rewrite the meaning of mitzvot - that one can live as a good Jew without following all of the mitzvot, and that in fact some mitzvot (especially ritual ones) no longer have legitimacy let alone meaning/value. If not to mitzvot, are we obligated to anything?
In addition to my post to edtalk, and the wonderful responses there, I have discussed this issue with my family and with peers at school. These discussions lead me to think that we *are* obligated to something - if not in the original sense of God's word then at least by virtue of being members of a community. What we are obligated to is community - building and maintaining a solid one. But whether we do that through mitzvot, shared ritual or shared beliefs is another matter entirely.
I would argue that we are not only obligated to building a strong community of Jews, but we must make it Jewish in some way beyond simply being built of/by Jewish people. The question for educators and other Jewish leaders then comes down to whether there is a specific core of traditions, rituals, and beliefs that are core to Judaism that we cannot give up, or each Jewish group can pick and choose from the many. I am biased towards the first, but still working on defining that core.
Again, I thank you all for your great responses. You have helped me immensely in my own thought process, and I hope that the posts have been useful for others, as well.
Sarah Niebuhr Rubin
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
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