Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teaching our children the positives of Judaism

First: After Shabbos, with all of its various strains and drains, I really need to read something like this: Top ten reasons to get punched in the face.

Tzipporah the Midianite has an interesting analysis here of a perceived difference between liberal and conservative approaches to Judaism and its mitzvot. She observes that liberal Judaism tends to emphasize extra מצוות עשה (active commandments) and traditional Judaism tends to emphasize and expand מצוות לא תעשה (prohibitions). Tzipporah contends (if I understand her correctly) that the more traditional approaches take a יראה approach of awe and respect, and the more liberal approach emphasis אהבה, love of Gd.

I would agree that Orthodoxy emphasizes מצוות לא תעשה - although we don’t see it as creating anything. Rather, we are fulfilling the biblical mandate of ושמרו את משמרתי, guarding HaShem’s “preserve,” the Torah, with a no-fly zone around its prohibitions.

I would also agree that Orthodoxy does not encourage creation of מצוות עשה - we don’t generally create blessings, let alone rituals - but I’m not sure I’d agree with her reasoning. Off-hand (and it’s motzaei shabbat, when you won’t get anything other than “off-hand” from me), I see three reasons why Orthodoxy has trouble with the idea of creative Torah:

• On a technical level, Orthodoxy will have to oppose ritual-creation because of בל תוסיף, the prohibition against adding to the Torah.
• On a historical level, Orthodoxy must oppose ritual-creation because we believe that Torah is Divine in origin; how, then, could we add new rituals (other than through the classic, Torah-sanctioned methods)?
• On a philosophical level, Orthodoxy finds ritual-creation problematic because Torah in itself is supposed to offer relevant ritual for all of us, through the generations. If I can’t find meaning in the Torah’s mitzvot, I view that as a lacking in me, not in the Torah.

I am not bothered by this lack of creativity; we have plenty of creativity in other ways, such as in our minhagim. But I am troubled by the way this often impacts our children’s education. In my opinion, too many parents spend time inculcating children in the negatives, which are relatively easy to implement and enforce, and miss out on teaching them the more challenging positives.

Example: Parents who teach their young children all about muktzeh prohibitions, but don’t sit down to learn the meaning and significance of kiddush and havdalah with them.

Example: Parents who teach their children the prohibitions of kashrut, but don’t review with them the more complex positives of eating, such as the meaning and message of berachot.

This is understandable, but troublesome. Our children need to see the positives and understand the “Do” aspects of Judaism, from a very young age. Without the positives, Judaism is a very restraining, constraining religion. The positives will help them grow as Jews, and find themselves in the Torah.


  1. Doesn't it seem that people add because they don't understand how much they've already got?

    We need more kiruv, I think, more of a sense of achdus with every Jew, even if we're not even sure he or she is a Jew, is it our job, really, to play the enforcer? (I'm sure I'm getting myself in deep trouble, here).

    And if it takes an extra whatever for a person to feel closer to HaShem, then who cares? To me this is where the talking begins. It's like convincing someone to let the dishes air dry. Not so hard if all your friends do it, and more sanitary.

  2. Hi Doc,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I wasn't talking about minding the business of others; I was talking about the Orthodox community's internal issues. I am heavily not a fan of condemning what goes on outside our community.

    Side note: I don't think we need more kiruv, I think we need higher quality kiruv. Kiruv which speaks from the heart, which speaks honestly and without deception, which speaks with respect for others and for disagreement.

  3. On a technical level, Orthodoxy will have to oppose ritual-creation because of בל תוסיף, the prohibition against adding to the Torah.

    This is an interesting one, partly because the liberal denominations aren't adding mitzvot, or claiming to add mitzvot or other obligations. They are adding other options (like variations of public baby-naming ceremonies for newborn girls).

    I think if these kinds of innovations became communal obligations, then you're running into a question of whether it's truly adding to Torah, or not.

    In our community, the problem is that we do have communal norms and obligations and requirements (such as who can be called up for aliyot, when it's appropriate to wear a tallit, etc., really basic things), but the "leadership" doesn't want to write these things down lest they offend someone. (Can you see me rolling my eyes?)

    And I think some of that resistance might be a lurking fear that starting to enforce the negative mitzvot (or anything like them) might turn people away from our synagogue. But that's a whole other discussion...