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A New God?

Rather than seeing a mitzvah as commanded by God, we can view it as our communal attempt to feel God’s presence in every aspect of our lives

My seminary rabbinic training taught me a great deal about Judaism, but not about being a rabbi. My education emphasized that a mitzvah was a commandment rather than a good deed, as was commonly mistranslated. For many years as a rabbi I have corrected people on their mistranslation of the word mitzvah, as if my correction would correct their view of what it meant to be Jewish. I wanted people to know that Judaism was a system of obligation (i.e. "commandedness") rather than choice (i.e. choosing to do a good deed). I was trying to counter the "volunteeristic" ideas of contemporary society that reject the commitment of obligation for the feel good actions of choice. In this model, acting morally is just as much a commandment (mitzvah) as keeping kosher. But in the American Jewish psyche neither is really a commandment. For most American Jews morality comes from the conscience of the individual and keeping kosher. Other mitzvot are cultural folkways (a term coined by Mordecai Kaplan) that preserve Jewish identity. I was troubled by the American Jewish tradition of translating mitzvah as a good deed because it diminished the sense of obligation that we have toward God and the world.
While I had always assumed that mistranslating mitzvah as a good deed was an easy way out of religious obligation, I have now come to believe that it is a way of retaining its relevance.  Only recently have I understood that it allowed Jews to hold on to the idea of a mitzvah and harmonize it with their world view.
Why can’t many contemporary Jews buy into the idea of a mitzvah as more than just a good deed? I believe that it is due to the fact that most people don’t believe in the idea of a God who commands the specifics of behavior. Does the image of a God actually speaking and handing Moses a set of tablets resonate with contemporary Jews? I believe not.
At a recent program for men, Rabbi Brad Artson spoke about new ways to understand God. Initially, I was concerned that the group would tune out Rabbi Artson’s intellectual discourse. But during the one hour dialogue I was taken by their interest. These men, who for the most part, were disconnected from any sense of "commandedness" wanted to believe in God, but it had to make sense with their knowledge of the world and the universe. How to believe in the Big Bang and evolution and still believe in God? How to dismiss the childlike anthropomorphic images of God and still believe in a God? And most significant (for me), what is the relationship between mitzvot and God?
During the past year I began a three-year fellowship study program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It is an intensive program of study that began with three weeks in Jerusalem last summer, weekly interactive study sessions on the web and a recent one week winter study session in Jerusalem. More than I could have ever imagined, my studies are allowing me to articulate a theology and view of Judaism that has been evolving from twenty three years as a rabbi. It is one thing to struggle with one’s own beliefs, but quite another to struggle with the beliefs of hundreds of congregants. My studies at Hartman are beginning to help me articulate a new theology and a new understanding of halakha (Jewish law). In an attempt to understand the role of halakha Rabbi David Hartman refers to halakha as “the collective culture of the Jewish people, (that) mediates the encounter with the divine…Judaism is fundamentally the building of a community suffused with God-consciousness.” Rather than seeing a mitzvah as commanded by God, we can view it as our communal attempt to feel God’s presence in every aspect of our lives. In this model God is still the focus of the mitzvot, but we are not bound to the image of an anthropomorphic God that literally spoke the words.
I hope that congregants will join me in the search for new understanding and relationship to Judaism. I can only hope that my studies and evolving views will resonate with congregants and bring a new relevance to Judaism. As always, I look forward to sharing the Jewish journey with you.
Stewart Vogel is rabbi of Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills, Calif., and a member of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, the fourth cohort of rabbis in the program.

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