Jack E, Saunders
Jack: You asked me to write you about a statement that I posted in the class yesterday. I missed part of your comments my sound went off for a few seconds. I just heard that you asked me to write to you about the statement, “Salvation is not a question for the Jew, but what mitzvah can I do next.” Actually, it is sort of a paraphrase that I read in one of the very first books that I read about Judaism, “What Christians should know about Jews and Judaism,” World Books, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, chapter 2, p. 66.
I will now give the entire section:
“...Rabbi Heschel described the differences between Judaism and Christianity on this fundamental issue in the following manner:
‘Christianity starts with one idea about man; Judaism with another. The idea that Judaism starts with is that man is created in the likeness of G-d. You do not have to go far, according to Judaism, to discover that it is possible to bring forth the divine within you and the divine in other men. There is always the opportunity to do a mitzvah. It is with that opportunity that I began as a Jew. Christianity begins with the basic assumption that man is essentially depraved and sinful - that left to himself he can do nothing. He has to be saved. He is involved in evil. This is not the Jewish way of thinking. The first question of Christianity is: ‘What do you do for the salvation of your soul?’ I have never thought of salvation. It is not a Jewish problem. My problem is what mitzvah can I do next. Am I going to say a blessing? Am I going to be kind to another person? Am I going to study Torah? How am I going to Honor the Sabbath? These are my problems. The central issue in Judaism is the mitzvah, the sacred act. And it is the greatness of man that he can do a mitzvah. How great we are that we can fulfill the will of G-d! But Christianity starts with the idea that man is never able to fulfill the will of G-d. All he has to do, essentially, is to wait for salvation’. “
Also, this was one of my first connections with the idea of the Sheva Mitzvot.
Jack E. Saunders
Moshe Ben-Chaim: Jack, I agree fully with the accurate distinction you have cited. We certainly do not ascribe to God the concept of a “doomed” man, waiting for his salvation, as if he cannot repair himself with his God given intelligence. On the contrary, God provided man with both; his physical body, his metaphysical (soul), and a guide (the Torah) so man may reach perfection independently. The idea of “salvation” implies that something external to man’s own actions is responsible for his improved state. Thus, according to Christianity, man is not responsible for his actions, and his free will appears to be useless. For why can he not change himself for the good? “Salvation” attempts to forfeit any condemnation for man’s evils – a very dangerous position.
However, based on the Talmud’s depiction of Torah study as the most prized activity, I would correct the part that says, “The central issue in Judaism is the mitzvah” and replace it with “The central issue in Judaism is Torah study”. As Maimonides says, a mitzvah meant to occupy our minds, when uninvolved in Torah study. Hence, Torah study, as the Talmud says, is the most prized activity, over all mitzvahs.
Contrary to this view is what permeates many communities today: the goal is the mitzvah, as if the simple act, devoid of understanding, elevates man. The reason we do not agree with this view, is based on the reality of what man’s essence is: his soul. Man’s soul is his Divine gift, granted to him and no other creation. As such, God desires that this soul be engaged. But in simple motor activity of waving a Lulav, donning Tefillin or other actions, if we are devoid of the underlying concepts, then the mitzvah loses meaning and purpose, which is to engage the mind. Any simple motor activity can easily be performed with a disengaged mind. The real purpose in mitzvah is that man evaluates all of his actions all day, engaging his thought, while he is not steeped in Torah study, where he perceives what he could of His Creator’s wisdom.
This does not belittle mitzvah, as mitzvah is God’s desire for man, and thus, an objective “good”. I simply wish to convey “mitzvah’s role, as compared to Torah study, which is second to none. Mitzvah is no panacea for perfection if we have not; 1) become aware, and 2) become convinced of a truth contained in or conveyed by a mitzvah.
Motor activity cannot be man’s perfection, when he is gifted with a mind that can study and educate others on the marvels of creation and Torah.