Guiding Principles for the Mitzvah Conversation

Three guiding principles underlie and drive this conversation. 

1. We have much to learn by talking and listening to one another on these vital matters. The approach taken here does NOT have any one authority announcing what mitzvah means or should mean. Rather, we invite thoughtful Conservative Jews to reflect carefully and speak honestly about a subject that is both close to their hearts and crucial to our communities. We may well discover more commitment, individually and collectively, than we had imagined. We also may see greater commitment and perhaps even consensus emerge from the discussion begun here.

2. Our tradition has always understood that "mitzvah" embraces a range of meanings broader than "commandment" alone. This is certainly true of popular Jewish usage of the word mitzvah. In common usage the word is generally understood as "good deed." JTS renders our key term as "instructions" that were "enjoined upon" the Israelites and not only as "commandments" that they were "commanded." The range of meanings demanded by our tradition's use of the word over the centuries and to the present day is broader still. Those meanings include, but are not limited to, actions that we feel obligated to perform, that engage us, that we are responsible for, that we undertake out of love. 

3. We must know what we as Jews are committed to do and why we do it before we tackle the more complex and difficult issues of halakhah. Conservative Jews have long debated, and still do, in what sense we are a "halakhic movement." Heschel—who liked to speak about the "polarity of halakhah and aggadah"—taught fifty years ago that we cannot begin to think about the matter of halakhah unless we have first gotten clear on mitzvah. Our intention is that this discussion of mitzvah will lead naturally to that one.