By Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel, Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills, CA and member of the fourth cohort of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative
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.
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