Our favorite Indian restaurant was jam-packed when we arrived, one of those nights when every table is full and you are so close to the diners at the table next to yours that, despite your best efforts, you cannot tune out their conversation. Halfway through our meal, a woman and a young man who was unmistakably her grandson were seated at the two-top next to us. Even without the grandmother's large chai necklace, they looked (as my Russian Jewish father-in-law would say) "typically Jewish," and given our neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there was nothing atypical about that.
Try as we might to concentrate on our own conversation, we could not—they were, after all, only inches away. The grandson had just returned from a life-changing semester abroad in India, and was intoxicated by the experience. He ordered proudly from the menu, explaining the dishes to his grandmother and how they differed from what he had eaten there. He described how he had decided to major in Eastern Religion and hoped to get back to that part of the world. He talked about the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of his favorite Hindu masters. His grandmother listened patiently, but seemed bewildered by her grandson, who was unshaven and long-haired but otherwise looked just like her, yet was learning Sanskrit and had had his world thrown open by a country, people, and culture completely foreign to her. She never said it, but you could see it in her eyes: "India? What does that have to do with you, a nice Jewish boy?"
As Jewish Americans, we have the greatest blessing our people has ever known: freedom. A freedom that grants us not only the ability to vote and educate ourselves and live as full citizens of our great nation, but also to explore faiths and traditions and cultures besides our own and to choose any of them for ourselves. If the Hindu masters move my soul more than the teachings of the Rabbis—well, it's a spiritual free market in 2012 America. I can choose to be whoever I want to be.
The most important question of our time is, therefore: Why should I? Why should I choose a Jewish life? And more than just a "Jewish" life—which might consist of nothing more than bagels, gefilte fish, and a penchant for Seinfeld reruns: Why should I choose a life of mitzvah, of Jewish commitment and action, when there are so many other compelling religions and spiritual paths?
Choice, choosing, chosenness: all themes that emerge in Parashat Reeih. The Deuteronomic voice is concerned with persuading us to live according to the path laid out in the previous four books of the humash, and it is clearly wary of the fact that we do have a choice in the matter.
"See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin you this day; and curse, if you do not" (Deut. 11:26–28). Reward and punishment, blessing and curse. Choose Judaism because bad things will happen if you don't. How antiquated and defensive this seems, and how absurd when read literally. As Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z"l) wrote:
We often call Halakha "Jewish law," but the flouting or abrogation of Halakha carries no sanctions. No court or police enforces these rules . . . And in the post-Holocaust era, few believe in supernatural sanctions, neither in God's reward and punishment of the nation through history, nor in the judgment of the individual in an afterlife. Halakha exists today, in the Jewish Diaspora of the twentieth century, as rules without sanctions, strictures without consequences. The performance of a mitzvah (commandment) is its own reward. ("Toward a Liberal Theory of Halakha," Tikkun, July/August 1995, p. 42)
No, I will not choose a life of mitzvah because I will be rewarded if I do, and cursed if I do not. I choose a life of mitzvah because "the performance of a mitzvah . . .is its own reward." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, in his gloss of the verse about the blessing (Deut. 11:27):
Very significantly it does not say here, as it does in the following verse at the curse, im tishm'u but asher tishm'u. The actual fulfillment of God's commands is already in itself a real part of the blessing, which not only follows the obedience but starts to be realized by and with the carrying out of the mitzvah. The mental and moral act which is accomplished every time we faithfully obey the Torah is itself a blessed progress, a step forward of our whole being, and with every mitzvah-act we bless ourselves. (Hirsch, The Pentateuch, rendered into English by Isaac Levy. 1962.)
I could go to India, or the church across the street, or become part of any of a host of secular humanistic communities whose adherents live deeply meaningful and fulfilled lives. Any would likely bring me to the end I seek. But there is one thing I cannot do: I cannot not choose. I have to choose something. If I choose well, if I choose something that works—and Judaism enjoys the status of being one of the world's great religions precisely because it works—then that choice will in and of itself be its own reward, a step forward of my whole being.
Is my choosing a life of mitzvah, then, arbitrary? To a certain extent, yes. One of the parashah's other attempts at persuading us to choose Judaism is: "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be his treasured people" (Deut. 14:1). Most contemporary American Jews bristle at the idea of Jewish "election" or chosenness. It reflects neither our understanding of a God who has created multiple forms of religious expression and loves all Creation equally and mercifully, nor our conviction of the biological equality of all races and nations. But one bit of this verse cannot be ignored, and this I offer as part two of the answer to the "Why should I?" question: that we Jews are chosen to uphold a certain spiritual path. Not because God loves us more, not because it is the best path, but because, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan put it:
Mankind is not all of one piece and, in the task of preserving and developing the spiritual heritage of the human race, the various historic groups have to assume responsibility, each one for the maintenance of its own identity as a contributor to the sum of human knowledge and experience." (The Meaning of God in Modern Religion, 96)
There are, after all, only about 15 million of us; given that we have to choose some way of living and meaning-making, why not choose this one?
In my own life, as I read through Deuteronomy this time around and watch for the new moon of Elul to come on the horizon next week, I find myself blessed for the moments of this year in which I have been able to deepen my own practice of halakhah, the new steps I've been able to take, and even the strictures that have grounded some of the most important pieces of my life. Is my choosing arbitrary? Could I have found myself feeling similarly blessed had I chosen other paths this year? Probably. But having chosen this life, I find myself feeling deeply the words Frymer-Kensky wrote in the Tikkun article: "The ultimate purpose of the Halakha is to infuse our daily biological and social activity with a sense of divinity, purpose, and community, so that we can truly live in the path of God."
As we headed out of the restaurant that night, I engaged in one of my very few acts of unsolicited keruv. I handed the grandson my business card. "Your journey sounds amazing," I told him, smiling. "If you ever consider coming home, call me."
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld