Sago Boulevard

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Alright... I'll Post About Ta'ame Ha-Mitsvot

I wrote my senior honors thesis on a hypothetical dialoge between Socrates and Hazal, focusing on the philosophical implications of ta'ame ha-mitsvot (rationalizing mitsvot). By the time I finished, I was completely exhausted by the subject matter. While blogging on related Jewish topics, I stayed far away from this one. That said, two bloggers whom I usually enjoy reading (Hirhurim and Not The Godol Hador) have sufficiently tempted me to jump back into the fray.

Any answer to the question "Why do we do mitsvot" short enough to fit on one page is almost certainly insufficient (although not necessarily wrong). Of course, the "because God said so" answer is popular but not enough. It begs the question "Why did God say so?" To answer that question with "just because" or "no reason" renders God's will arbitrary and thus, lacking justification. In fact, the Mishnah (Makkot 3:16) is quite clear about why God commands mitsvot: "The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to grant merit to Israel." As Kehati explains: "He multiplied warnings and prohibitions for them, even regarding things from which man naturally keeps apart, for since they stay away from them because the Torah has thus commanded, their merit is increased." This implies, of course, that such actions had some merit to begin with. They are justified, at least in part, without being accompanied by the divine imperative. The act of God commanding, then, serves to somehow enhance the already righteous deed to a higher level.

Louis Jacobs captures this idea well:
Although God commands them it is not implied that the command is the reason for their observance, so that if God had commanded man to steal or to murder this would have been the right thing to do. On the contrary, the commands are announced in such a way as to suggest that they are already fully comprehensible to man as the basis for living the ethical lifeā€¦ Once God has commanded, however, the command itself is, of course, an additional reason for its observance.