Rabbi Arthur Waskow
What are mitzvot?
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Where do I get my theology and thus my understanding of mitzvot? -- Not so easy to do this in a nutshell, but a summary of my thoughts on this issue are presented here:
1) I believe Judaism is now where it was when the Rabbis recreated it in the talmudic period. They abandoned many old "mitzvot" not only because the Temple had been destroyed but in my judgment because they had learned to see deeper truth in SOME aspects of Hellenism, and wanted to embody these within Torah, thereby transforming what Torah was. God had changed; therefore how to connect with God had to change.
2) I believe we stand in the same relationship to Rabbinic Judaism.
3) God can by most people now not be deeply understood as King, Ruler, Judge. Therefore: Draw on new metaphors in prayer: Breath of Life, Wellspring, etc. The reason for this change is not just sociological: God WANTS to be understood in new ways, and in fact has entered human history in new ways that demand new images.
4) So far, most of this newest insurge of Divine energy has been in the mode of Power, I-It. That results in what we call Modernity. But if new aspects and depths of I-Thou remain unaccessed, this new level of uncontrolled I-It will destroy the world.
5) Solution: do midrash. Create a new macro-midrashic version of Judaism, drawing deeply on Rabbinic and Biblical Judaisms but not staying (getting stuck) within them. This new version must be able to infuse and bind the new Divine-human powers with new Divine-human lovings, be authentically and deeply Jewish by drawing on the whole great flow of our wisdom as well as carry the flow forward.
6) New elements to be taken into acct in assessing the new system of mitzvot:
Prayer and Torah-study can no longer be restricted to words: synthesize biblical & rabbinic modes with full use of whole person: words, dance, music, art, drushodrama, etc etc in prayer and Torah-study.
Women and men are fully equal, and all their life-experience is fully important in shaping the future of Judaism. This changes ritual, organizational structure, midrash, mitzvot, etc etc.
The earth is in danger (from precisely the inflow of Divine Power into human hands that is noted above). The Jewish community, in Israel & Diaspora, has unprecedented power (same reason) to shape the future of societies & the world. (Therefore: draw on old mitzvot about Shabbat, shmitah, kashrut, yontif, etc. AND APPLY THEM NOT ONLY TO JEWS BUT TO WORLD SOCIETY AND ALL EARTH.)
Jewish & other communities & traditions are far more intertwined than they used to be. (This is also result of changes in God.) Therefore: we must be far more conscious not of rigid boundaries/ walls but permeable membranes, fuzzy fringes -- fuzzy in both directions -- , and must tie them into conscious and self-aware tzitzit. This applies to intermarriage, taking Shabbat & the shmitah (Sabbatical) into public space and public policy.
The different faces of the Infinite God appear not only in many different religious and spiritual traditions, but in different Judaisms for different Jews. Thus the new Judaism will be pluralist in joy and in principle, on the grounds that all people are holy faces of the One -- not for reasons of constriction and disappointment and compromise, on the grounds that most people are cantankerous and stubborn and refuse to "shape up" and accept the same path. Some aspects of some paths may be destructive of the Unity -- idolatrous or shattering -- but in a basic framework of voluntary decision, most choices will be connective aspects of the Infinite Whole.
7. Mitzvot are what make connection real. Some old ones don't, some new ones do. They are the weave of connection of a God Who is Breath, Wellspring, Weave -- not "commands" from a "commander" above. The world is one and potentially this one is harmonious: this potential can be turned into actuality by doing mitzvot.
Thru the new patterns on this new screen through which to read Torah, we (the community, ultimately the whole People Israel) re-read it and new mitzvot or ways of carrying out mitzvot arise, while some old ones vanish. Protecting the great and irreplaceable forests of the earth, which we now know are the lungs of the planet, is among the mitzvot that appear.
8. Have we worked out as yet how to fully embody this process in the people as a whole? No. But we are creating, piece by piece, and without regard to official "denominations," various pieces of a Jewish people that will be able as a whole and organically to shape a new sacred life-path for itself.
For more thorough exploration, pls see my books *Down-to-Earth Judaism* (Morrow) and *Godwrestling -- Round 2* (Jewish Lights Publ of Woodstock, VT).