December 12, 2018

Beyond Obedience

Why shoo away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks? The Torah doesn’t say why we are commanded to do this. There is a major school of Jewish thought that regards this omission as being quite deliberate. This is the school that produced the Mishnah’s teaching prohibiting a person from praying, “God, have mercy upon me just as You have mercy upon the bird in its nest.” This school presumes that God’s laws have no known rationale, and that we observe them simply in order to do His will. It argues that it is pretentious of us to assume that God is having mercy upon the mother bird, and by extension that feelings of compassion when performing this (or any) mitzvah would be misplaced.

There is a complex theological motive behind this school of thought (having to do with God not being accountable to any preconceived notion of morality or compassion), and also a behavioral one (the less we presume to know of God’s reasoning, the less likely we are to rationalize a mitzvah away). But we can readily recognize how sterile religious practice can become when it amounts to nothing more and nothing less than an exercise in obedience. And as it turns out, two giants of medieval Jewish thought — Maimonides and Nachmanides — each severely disagreed with the above-mentioned perspective on the mitzvah of sending the mother bird away. And more broadly, they also rejected the notion of viewing our practice of mitzvot and our relationship with God in this austere way.

Naturally, these two giant Jews nonetheless found room to differ with each other on the particulars. But in considering both of their views, we discover rich ideas to ponder, and clear ways to define what it is that God ultimately wants from our performance of mitzvot — an experience well beyond mechanical obedience.

For his part, Maimonides asserts simply and directly that animals and humans share parental feelings, and that God is doing precisely what our opening school of thought said He wasn’t doing. God is, in fact, commanding us to extend mercy and compassion to our fellow living creatures. Maimonides is presuming not only that we possess the capacity to sympathize with all living things no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, but he is also positing that if we perform the mitzvah in an emotionally detached way, then we cannot possibly be fulfilling God’s intention. Experiencing and exercising compassion actually comprise the essence of what God is asking of us here.

Nachmanides prefers a somewhat more nuanced approach, but one with even farther-reaching implications for Jewish life. Nachmanides sees all of the Torah’s commandments as instruments through which we refine our souls. In describing the intended impact of mitzvot on the human soul, he invokes the image of the way fire is utilized to purify silver of its dross. Our human souls are subject to a great variety of often-conflicting passions. We love, we hate, we desire, we fear. The discipline of performing mitzvot is intended to inhibit our soul’s destructive passions and to cultivate its holy ones. Shooing away the mother bird is not only about acting compassionately toward a creature that possesses maternal feeling. It is about reinforcing the compassionate urge within our souls and suppressing the urge to satisfy personal desires without regard for the ramifications that these desires might have for others. Each mitzvah, he claims, is an exercise that leads to the “tikkun” of some aspect of the human personality.

Moving well beyond mother birds, we can apply Nachmanides’ framework to the great variety of biblical commandments. Refraining from work on Shabbat is a reinforcement of that part of our consciousness that understands that we are partners in the ongoing creation of God’s world, and a suppression of the haughtiness of our human spirit which would have us believe that we are the masters of all that we see. Adhering to the regimen of kashrut can loosen the grip of the human drive to consume all that we can, and clear the soil for the more lofty desires of the soul to emerge. The wearing of tefillin is intended to open the imagination to the ways that our physical and mental faculties can be put to use in the service of God’s vision, quieting the urge to see the ways in which they can be used to bring benefit to ourselves. Daily prayer can cleanse us of the belief in human self-sufficiency, a belief that can often choke off the impulse of generosity.

This is the grand vision of what the commitment to mitzvot can produce, when we see that God is interested in much more than simple obedience. This is what is achievable when we avoid the spiritual trap of viewing mitzvot as a to-do list that must be crossed off before we can go to bed at night, or before our life ends. Maimonides and Nachmanides, each in their own way, plead with us to embrace our mitzvot for the deep, transformative experiences they can be. The deep and formative experiences that God had in mind at Sinai. l

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.