Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Why should we observe Shabbat? Or daven? Or put on tefillin, or eat only kosher, or follow the laws of niddah? It’s gradually been occurring to me over the last year or two, that within the Modern Orthodox world in which I live and teach, the answers to these questions have been shifting. In theory, the answer to any of these questions should start with the words, “because this is what God has commanded us to do”. Sure, additional explanations might then be offered as to why God commanded us to do this, and further discussion might then be had about the benefits that result from the observance of this mitzvah, but it’s the fact that it was commanded by God that would seem to be the sole required element of the answer.
I derive this conclusion from the discussion in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 60) which presents the debate as to whether or not the performance of mitzvoth requires kavannah, and proceeds to conclude that they do. What sort of kavannah is it that is crucial to the validity of mitzva performance? The Mishna Brura explains that while it is of course preferable to have kavannah concerning the nature and purpose of the particular mitzvah at hand, this is not the sort of kavannah that the Shulchan Aruch is discussing. The mandated minimal kavannah rather, is the kavannah “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” (Mishna Brura #7).
Increasingly though, I am finding myself discussing mitzvot, and the reasons we should do them, in terms of ideas that the Shulchan Aruch might classify as “secondary”. We talk about observing Shabbat in terms of the benefit that it brings to us and to our families within these frenetic, technology-driven, over-programmed lives that we lead. Yes we know of course, that God commanded us to do this. And yes, we are thankful to God for having given us the Shabbat. But the primary motivation does not seem to be framed in terms of command. The same is true for discussions about kashrut (“holy discipline within the world of material over-indulgence”), or about the recitation of brachot (“continuous God-consciousness in a secular world”). And I don’t think that my experience in teaching and thinking in this way is unique.
Why this shift in how we talk about the reasons we do mitzvot? Is it all a part of the modern (post-modern? Who can keep up?) search for meaning? Does the idea of having been commanded by God subconsciously run too contrary to our autonomy-loving grain to be sufficiently motivating? As scientists and rationalists, are we compensating for our leaps of faith in God and Torah through a ruthless devotion to establishing rational explanations for all of the mitzvot we do?
And in the final analysis is being motivated to observe the laws of niddah, for example, by the benefits it will bring in the area of non-sexual marital communication, in violation of the Shulchan Aruch’s directive? Are we doing something wrong in approaching mitzvot in this way? Or as long as we are acknowledging that God has in fact commanded us to do these things, can we still say that we are intending “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” even when this is not the motivation per se?
I’d love to hear what you think!