Reverence for G-d by Questioning G-d’s Commandments
August 6, 2021
By Mike Steklof, EdD

A few weeks ago, we read in the weekly portion Vaetchanan, “You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it but keep the commandments of your G-d that I enjoin upon you” (Deuteronomy, 4:2). Rashi’s commentary on this line tells us that we should not place five chapters in tefillin (there are 4), use five species of fruits and plants when fulfilling the commandment of lulav (we use 4), or to place five fringes on one’s garment (tzitzit has 4 fringes). Reading this verse and Rashi’s commentary begs the questions: what is wrong with adding or subtracting from what G-d commands us,  and what is wrong with individuals making decisions about what they believe and what commandments they follow? In other words, is it okay to live a Jewish life that is based on tradition as well as our modern mores that may be unrecognizable to the Jews of yesterday?

Recently, I completed my doctoral dissertation which looked at how Jewish Schools transmit gender to their students. In every interview, it was reinforced again and again, that Judaism is not a monolith and that everyone makes individual decisions about what they believe and what commandments they follow. This makes sense as we also make individual decisions about how we care for our bodies or how often we call our parents.  All of us pick and choose how we live our lives.

Brian Blum a columnist for The Jerusalem Post wrote, “No one can keep all of the thousands of laws that started with the 613 in the Torah and have been expanded by our rabbis over two millennia. The truth is, every Jew engaged by tradition, from the most haredi [Jews who strictly follow Jewish law and traditions] on down, picks and chooses what’s most meaningful. Sometimes it’s out of laziness; other times it’s following a mindful reading of texts, wrestling with issues, and reflecting seriously about how to be true to oneself within a traditional framework.”

So how do you decide what is meaningful to you? Rabbi Haviva Ner David tells us that “Jews today choose to perform mitzvot out of a sense of commitment to tradition, community, family, a way of life, a spiritual path or even simply a desire to repair the world. Even those who do see themselves as obligated have chosen to construct their worldview in that way.”

While the plain reading of Deuteronomy, 4:2 suggests that we must follow laws explicitly as stated in the Torah, there is another interpretation, the Hasidic text, Kedushat Levi, that tells us that there is an exception to this verse and that one can violate this verse if one’s intention is to increase their degree of reverence qualitatively and quantitatively for G-d. By struggling with this verse specifically and Jewish practice in general, we are increasing our reverence for G-d.

Mike Steklof is the Director of Jewish Experience at the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, Powered by the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

A hearty Mazal Tov to Dr. Steklof for successfully defending his doctoral dissertation last month, officially earning his EdD from Gratz College!

Reverence for G-d by Questioning G-d's Commandments - Jewish thought of the week graphic