Stu News and Photos

My name is Stu and I am here to share what I can.

I've spent some portion of my life studying/exploring my religion and culture. While I've faded in and out of my adherence to my faith, I never stopped considering myself a Jew, and I never let go of my moral center. Sure, I've made mistakes, I've done wrong, I've hurt myself and others. But once I became self-aware of these misdeeds, I found myself clearly drawn to the regret of violating my moral code, which is the code of ethics I learned through Judaism. This moral code has kept me at peace with myself, it has given me the chance to sleep the sleep of the just, knowing that, in the end, I had done my best to do the right thing.

This code of mine is deeply rooted in Judaism, and specifically, in the laws (commandments) enumerated by 12th century Spanish philosopher Maimonides in his book Sefer Hamitzvot. In this book, Maimonides lists 613 commandments, which he determined were the very specific laws that were detailed in the Torah (the collection of writing that, according to Jewish tradition, was dictated by The Lord to the prophet Moses).

Now, most of these laws don't apply in today's world, but I still find them somewhat fundamental to my version of what is right and what is wrong. And, as I've been recently focused on morality and my exploration into the nature of my beliefs, I've been studying the Sefer Hamitzvot, the 613 Mitzvahs.

Culturally, you're familiar with the term "mitzvah" as a synonym for "good deed," but it really means "law" or "precept." People mention "doing a mitzvah" as though it's a nice thing, like picking up litter. However, mitzvahs are something Jews do out of a compulsion to adhere to our laws. We really do the nice thing because we're supposed to, because we're taught, quite clearly, that we have to. Jews, for the most part, are raised to see our actions as black and white: If there's a chance to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing. If you don't, it's not cool and you'll need to seek forgiveness for it later, both to God and to the person or persons who were effected by your lack of adherence to the law.

Let's say my wife asks me if we have any cookies and I lie, telling her that we're out, when I know there's a stash somewhere, but I don't want to share them. Our culture says that I have two apologies to make, one to God for lying, which, according to our faith, is something that He told us not to do. The second apology is to my wife. I am compelled, under our laws, to seek out my wife, to confess the lie, and to make every attempt to earn her forgiveness. In fact, before I apologize to God, I'm supposed to work things out with my wife. This is called Teshuva and it's supposed to happen before we talk to God about it. Essentially, we believe that God doesn't want empty pleas of forgiveness, He wants the real deal, and you can only demonstrate this sincerity by making a sincere attempt to work it out with the person you've wronged. So if I make a genuine show of contrition to my wife for lying about the cookies and she forgives me, God will probably forgive me as well. At least that's the concept.

(Obviously I'm not speaking for all Jews, and certainly I'm no authority on the subject of Jews and Judaism, so let me be clear in stating that this is all just my opinion, just my sense of my culture and heritage. If anyone wants to correct me on any of what I'm saying, please, I beseech you, please tell me what's what - I sincerely want to know.)

Let us return now to Maimonides. He enumerated 613 mitzvahs. I've read them, I've studied them, I've discussed them, but now I want to do something different. Over the course of the next few months, I'm going to occasionally post 10 or so of the 613 Mitzvot, and then comment on them. This will help me further understand my own moral center. My intent is to say my thoughts out loud, to write them down so I can examine them at a greater distance than when they're in my head. This will, I hope, enable me to get closer to my own spiritual truth. Also, not for nothing, it might contribute to someone else's study of their own moral center. Maybe even you, dear reader.

And I want to be clear about something - I am absolutely cool if you blow this off - You have your own mind and I respect you for it. I've no need for you to adhere to any specific set of values, and I get that it's all subjective. Nor am I making any attempt to promote my religion or to preach any specific way of being. This is simply an opportunity to think about such things, and, if you desire, to discuss them as a means of getting to the bottom of it all. So if you skip all of this, if you just want to hang out here for the cool YouTube videos, great, I can totally dig that. And if you do want to discuss any of this morality stuff, comments are always open.

Ok, so let's get started. Here are the first ten of Maimonides 613 Mitzvot, which I have taken from the Wikipedia entry, which seems an intellectually accessible meeting point.

    1 - To know there is a God

So that's pretty easy. Either you accept that there is a singular deity or you don't. It's not an easy "knowledge," as it's not provable. There is no way to determine, scientifically, the existence of a higher power. So really, we're talking about faith. The rule says you have to "know" that there is a God, but I think we're talking about knowing in the same way that we know ourselves. So if you're going to follow these laws, you just go ahead and do it, you accept that there is a God.

    2 - Not to even think that there are other gods besides Him

This is an extension of #1. If you "know" that there is a God with a capital G, you should not consider God as an entity that needs help - no need for other gods to help out with the yardwork or the laundry. Again, this is a faith thing.

    3 - To know that He is One

If you believe in God, the idea behind number 3 is to accept that He is the only God, not one of many Supreme Beings. Essentially, our God is the only God. Obviously there are other faiths and other concepts of God and I'm not in any way saying that our God is the best. I don't think it works that way. I think that if you're Jewish and you pray to God, that He is the same God that Muslims pray to, and the same God that Christians pray to, and the same God that Unitarian Universalists pray to. I believe it all goes to the same Place. Some folks may disregard other religions, but I think that if God exists in the way I believe, He doesn't play favorites and neither should we.

    4 - To love Him

What's not to love? And even if you suffer an injury or a loss or some such strife, this law should be invoked - you should love God unconditionally, just as we should love each other without conditions. So if you stub your toe, don't stop loving God. And maybe see a doctor if it still hurts after a few days.

    5 - To fear Him

I used to struggle with this one. I'm a man who is certain in his faith that God is perfect. And if God is perfect, what's to be afraid of? But then I was taught that fear is similar (if not the same) to the word "awe." So it's possible that Maimonides was saying that we should be in awe of God. And I can hang with that.

    6 - To sanctify His Name

Essentially, this means that we should set apart His Name, to treat His Name as holy. That's why I always capitalize God or Him or The Lord. I find this practice helps me in my quest for morality, because sanctifying God's Name is an every day occurrence. I am constantly presented with the opportunity to deal with His Name, either electronically or in print. So I make sure my prayer books are kept off the ground and free from dust or neglect, and I make sure to capitalize any reference to Him. This helps remind me that there are other rules, and since I'm following this one, why not the others.

    7 - Not to profane His Name

This is basically the same idea as #6. If you always sanctify His Name, there's no option for profaning It. So my takeaway is the same: If I stub my toe, don't curse Him or anything He created or caused to create. Stub your toe? Think good thoughts.

    8 - Not to destroy objects associated with His Name

Again, this is about sanctification. Now that almost all of my writing is done electronically, I don't sweat this as much. But before, if I had to write out His Name for any reason, I would always fake it, by adding a dash in between the G and d, so if it accidentally was destroyed, it wasn't His Name that was destroyed, it was a just a placeholder, a representation of The Name.

    9 - To listen to the prophet speaking in His Name

Our religion has had a variety of prophets, folks we granted legitimacy to when they said that they were speaking on behalf of God. Now, I live in this day and age and I don't see any modern proof that anyone is a real spokesperson for The Lord. However, what I do believe is that I don't know what is true, and that I'm better off giving the benefit of the doubt to anyone who claims to speak for God. To be true to this commandment, I must listen. And so I do, sincerely. I give them a try. And if I dig what they have to say, great. And if I don't, well, no real harm done.

    10 - Not to test the prophet unduly

An extension of #9. Basically, don't hector them if they say they speak for God. If you're walking down the street and someone's on a corner, saying that they speak for The Lord, it's ok to stop and hear what they have to say. And it's ok to ask them questions. But if you begin to doubt their voracity, just let it go. Don't push them, 'cause what's it gonna get you? Just move on with the rest of your day.


Ok, so if you're reading this, I hope we're still friends. I remind you that the above is just what's in my head. I'm not a rabbi, I'm not a rabbinical student, I'm in no way an authority on anything. I'm just a man with ideas and observations and questions. And I have this blog, so I'm gonna use it. Feel free to take me to task or argue with me or give me the number of your psychiatrist. It's all good.


Ericka said...

cool. i don't have close enough jewish friends that i'm overly exposed to the religion - mostly i grab a box of "holiday" cards at christmas, so this is interesting new information for me. bonus if it helps you out too. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was truly moved. I love your thinking. Your head is in the right place.
Can't wait for the next instalment

dad said...

Wow! That is beautiful. You made an old man cry

Rocket Science Mom said...

These are awesome and I look forward to reading more.

You captured perfectly how i have always felt about God, with respect to other religions but haven't been able to put into words. All of the other religions in the whole world are just another way for that culture, and those followers to all know the same entity, being, something.

So, that leaves no reason for wars. Bummer for mankind since we, apparently, like to go to war. a lot.

Suldog said...

Very nicely written, Stu, and certainly nothing I could disagree with.

Being a Christian, I found the part about apology especially interesting. Jesus taught much the same, saying that if we were on our way to temple to make an offering, but had any sort of disagreement with one of our fellows unsettled, leave the offering at the altar and immediately go to settle the disagreement before officially making the offering. In other words, we should come to God with nothing else in our hearts to take away from our praises.

I've read the 'old' testament, of course, so have some knowledge, but I do believe I'll check out the rest of the laws enumerated by this specific scholar. Thanks!

Stu said...

Ericka - Glad you dig it. Certainly you must know that I'm proud to be one of your Jewish friends. That's what the internet is for! :-)

Stu said...

Rocket Science Mom - Thanks for the compliment. Knowing that I captured something perfectly is pretty fantastic, as I take my writing seriously. - As for the war thing, yeah, I hear you. I'm a big, big fan of non-violent conflict resolution. If I was granted one wish, it would be that all the guns in the world would just vanish. If countries want to have a border dispute, bring the leadership of each nation into a high school gym and decide each argument by way of dodgeball.

Stu said...

Sully - I take that as high praise. You are just about the finest essayist I've ever read. - And, yeah, I think that Jesus understood the real deal, come to God with a pure heart. No question, if I wasn't Jewish, I'd be Christian. Probably Roman Catholic. Though I'd immediately be labeled a heretic, as I'm such a huge fan of the Nikos Kazantzakis book "The Last Temptation Of Christ." I think maybe he got it right, that Judas was doing what The Christ asked him to do, what He needed Judas to do. I know, I know, heresy.

Suldog said...

Stu - I haven't read that book, but I may believe much the same thing as the author. Since my religion holds that the sacrifice of Christ had to be made, in order for mankind to receive grace and absolution, Jesus had to be betrayed by somebody. It follows that whoever betrayed him was doing God's will.

The argument can be made that God's will is done no matter what we do, and our individual actions only matter insofar as they are marked on our scorecards for future reckoning. That's a simplistic - and somewhat materialistic - way of putting it, but I also believe that to generally be the truth.

I believe Judas Iscariot was not condemned to eternal suffering for his actions in this regard. He was used more so than he was independently acting for selfish reasons. However, that's just my opinion. I am most certainly NOT God, and I have no proofs :-)

Jacob T said...

A very intriguing project that I think could have some cross-posting appeal in the Jewish blogosphere. For all my Jewish education, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot isn't something I've had a chance to study, and my misgivings about the Rambam aside I very much look forward to following your journey through the text.

I must admit that your theology challenges me. As I wrote before I wish that I could believe in a perfect God. Or, more to the point, that the Torah is in fact a document dictated by God to Moshe. I believe in the past I sent you my thoughts on revelation (and I'd be happy to again), but suffice it to say that I struggle with some of the Mitzvot you've identified as fundamental and straightforward. At some point along this process I think I would find it illuminating if you were to share a bit more about your approach or path to God (and maybe, if you're so inclined, how you understand Commandedness).

Still, keep on keeping on.