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Setting Priorities in Judaism by Joseph R. Rackman
Setting Priorities in Judaism by Joseph R. Rackman
Volume 5, Issue 1

We call it a Jewish philosophy group, but it really is a group of thirty-something and forty-something persons gathered around to hear the rabbi teach. But that night it was a remark of a student that really hit the spot. She asked why the rabbis did not prioritize the mitzvot, the commandments.

Prioritize is one of those words of recent vintage. It is a word that one cannot avoid hearing at business meetings or at Federation budget planning sessions. What are the priorities of our business? Which tasks should be done first? With all the competing claims on our charity dollars, which budgets shall be increased and which shall be decreased?

So her question is a truly modern critique of the rabbinic order of things. Why did the rabbis fail to set priorities? Why did they not tell us which commandments claim greater importance?

There are two places in the Torah where the reward for a mitzvah is mentioned. There is the commandment to shoo away the bird from its nest before gathering in the eggs. The idea is to save the mother the extra anguish of actually seeing the eggs being taken. And the reward for observing this commandment is that God will "increase thy days." This phrase is used in another place, in the Fifth Commandment: ?Honor thy mother and father in order to increase thy days.?

No Commandment Less Important

The rabbis knew that the latter commandment was more significant than the former and yet God used the same formula in describing the reward. The lesson the rabbis learned was simply this: Do not treat any commandment as more important than another one for we do not know how God measures reward and punishment. One could not have guessed that shooing away the bird would be rewarded in the same manner as honoring one's parents. This was God's way, the rabbis said, of teaching us not to prioritize the commandments and to devote our attention to all of them.

This view of the mitzvot may be compared to what we all experienced in college. Some courses were for two or three or four credits. And the grade was weighed based upon the number of credits in the course. What the rabbis were saying is that we do not know which mitzvot are two or three or four credits and, therefore, one should strive to get an A in all of them.

"I happen to prefer," the rabbi continued, "the view of Nachmonides." He analogized the observance of the mitzvot to a mineral refining process. The material to be refined is our souls and the refining process is observance of the mitzvot. Because of our souls is different, the effect of the mitzvot on each of us will be different. Some of us may need to observe one mitzvah more than another mitzvah. Because we know neither our own souls nor the refining capacities of each individual mitzvah, it is incumbent upon us to diligently observe all the mitzvot for the sake of the ultimate refinement of each our souls.

The woman who had asked the question seemed satisfied with the answer. I was not. Something was bothering me.

Fortunately, the next day, the train was delayed. I had already finished the newspaper and I was forced to think. And slowly, slowly (as slowly as the train was moving) the following dawned on me. The fact of the matter is that the Orthodox, at the present time, are setting priorities. There is an emphasis placed on certain mitzvot. The Lubavitch Mitzvah-mobile are on the street corner. You are urged to come inside to put on tefilin or (in the fall) to shake the lulav. But there is no Mitzvah-mobile out there proclaiming the observance of business ethics.

Ritualistic Observance Measured

The measure of a ba'al teshuvah, a "returnee" to Judaism, is clearly measured by ritualistic observances. Is your home now strictly kosher? Do you still eat fish out? Have you stopped riding in your car on the Sabbath? Have you stopped using electricity on the Sabbath?

The questions that should also be asked are as follows: Are you treating your secretary with dignity? When a person comes to solicit you for charity, do you treat him with courtesy and recognize that it is more difficult to ask than to give? Do you refrain from evil speech? Are you honest in your business dealings?

I do not mean to say that all rabbis active in the ba'al teshuvah movement and the Lubavitch are not asking these questions. It just seems to me that they are placing more emphasis on the ritualistic mitzvot than on others.

Ironically, for some, this has become a barrier to respect for Orthodoxy and observance of the mitzvot. The non-Orthodox Jew has little inclination to perform the ritualistic mitzvot and tends to view the Orthodox with less respect because of the latter's emphasis upon them. They do not want to be told to light candles, unless that message is coupled with other concerns nearer to their hearts, the ?ethical? concerns that Judaism gave to the world.

It would be interesting if, in going back to the traditional standard of not emphasizing any mitzvah more than any others, this would lead the Orthodox to realize that there are non-Orthodox people out there who observe certain mitzvot better than they do. I wonder if the behavior of Orthodox rabbis would change if they truly understood that there are Conservative and Reform rabbis who are more scrupulous in the observance of certain mitzvot, albeit, in all probability, non ritualistic ones. Would that restore a semblance of civility to intra-religious discussions? I think it would.

Yes, I am beginning to feel comfortable with the wisdom of the rabbis. We should not prioritize the mitzvot. For the betterment of our souls, we must observe them all. For when we think that one mitzvah is more important or more worthy of emphasis than another, we have begun to assume a God-like role, one that is forbidden to man. And if we begin to recognize the good deeds performed by others, regardless of denominational labels, I am certain that we will better fulfill the role God has ordained for the Jewish people.

Joseph Rackman is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Lehrer.



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