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.