Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 613 Commandments - Do We Follow Them?

By Susan Esther Barnes

I was reading the blog FinkorSwim when I came across a comment by MarkSoFla who said, “The fact is that the Reform exist. Not only do they exist, but they have numbers (for now, at least). So they have to be ‘dealt with’ somehow, certainly on some level. They've discarded most of Torah, so we can't relate on that level anymore.”

When I objected to his assertion that Reform Jews have discarded most of Torah, MarkSoFla agreed that had been an exaggeration, but then went on to quote from some of the “Declaration of Principles” from the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which he says rejected all but the moral laws. Let us set aside for the moment that he ignores all later Platforms, including the 1999 Platform which states, “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” (Emphasis added by me).

What intrigued me the most was his claim that, “The bigger discarding of Torah was in the first statement (#3) that I quoted from the principles - rejected all but moral laws. That almost discards all of Torah in itself since there exists a moral code outside of Torah that covers nearly everything that the Torah's moral code covers.”

This all got me thinking about the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. How many of them do Reform Jews keep these days? I pulled up the list from Judaism 101 to take a look.

First of all, on my To Kiss a Mezuzah Facebook page an excellent question arose: What do I mean by “keeping” the mitzvot? Does it mean we follow them all the time without fail? As a person named Michael pointed out, “When it comes to ethical mitzvot we’re a bit wobbly sometimes.” I responded, “By ‘keep’ I mean we try to follow them, or at least we acknowledge we ought to follow them, even though at times we don’t quite hit the mark we’re aiming for.”

The second thing that came up for me is the obvious fact that I don’t speak for all Reform Jews, and not all Reform Jews are alike in our observance. So instead of looking at how many of the 613 commandments “we” keep, I realized it makes much more sense to look at the ones that I keep. After all, I don’t think my observance is wildly different than that of other serious Reform Jews.

Even though there are 613 commandments in the Torah, nobody observes them all. This is one of the reasons why I find it a bit offputting when Orthodox Jews claim non-Orthodox conversions are invalid, because the people converting in the non-Orthodox realm are not agreeing to follow all the 613 commandments. Hello! If Orthodox converts are saying they will fill all 613 commandments they’re either ignorant or dishonest.

There are 102 commandments on the list that have to do with sacrifices and offerings. Since there is no Temple at which to make sacrifices and offerings, none of these commandments apply to us. We also can’t follow the 24 laws about t’rumah, tithes and taxes because there is no Temple. Nobody follows these commandments these days.

There is no King of Israel so we don’t follow the 7 laws about that, nor do I need to worry about the 10 laws about the Nazarites, since I’m not a Nazarite. I am not a Kohen (Cohen or of the Priestly line) or a Levite, so I don’t have to worry about the 30 laws pertaining to them. Of course, there are Reform Jews who are of the line of the Levites (my father, for example), or the line of the Kohen. However, most of these laws have to do with the Temple as well, so we’re all off the hook.

There are 16 laws about ritual purity and impurity. These are more like statements than laws. They say things like “Foods become defiled by contact with unclean things.” I can believe in the purity or impurity of things or not, but there isn’t much for me to actually do about it. Immersion in a mikvah would remove the impurity, but nothing in the list here says I have to go to the mikvah.

There are 4 laws about leprosy. I’m not a leper. I don’t know whether I would shave off all my hair if I had leprosy. I’ll cross that bridge if I ever come to it.

So if we add up all of the above, we come to 337 commandments we don’t follow, or almost 55% of the 613. Surprise! MarkSoFla was right – Reform Jews have discarded over half of the Torah laws! Of course, so have Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and every other denomination, since everything I said above applies to all of us. (Except for maybe the leprous hair shaving part).

But let’s go back to MarkSoFla’s assertion that if we only followed the moral laws (which is a false assertion, but let’s say if we did), does that mean we have discarded most of Torah? I agree that many people who are not Jewish follow many of the laws in the Torah. Most people don’t murder other people, for instance.

There are other moral things I do that are commanded in the Torah, which appear to be things I would do even though they were not commanded. For instance, last night while I was driving home from work, I had to swerve to avoid a ladder that was lying in my lane on the freeway. It was an inconvenience to pause the podcast I was listening to so I could call 911 and report the hazard to the authorities, but I did it anyway.

Did I do it because the Torah commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind? Did I do it because the Torah commands us not to stand idly by while a human life is in danger? No, I did it because it was the right thing to do. I did it because if I didn’t call, and later heard someone had been hurt or killed as a result of the ladder, I never would have been able to forgive myself for my laziness.

On the other hand, when I called, the ladder was news to the dispatcher. Nobody else had called it in yet. How long had it been there? How many people had seen it and swerved to miss it before me? How many of them have cell phones, and why didn’t they call? Is it possible some of them didn’t bother because they didn’t feel an obligation to do so, because they don’t feel they have been commanded like we Jews have?

I can tell you, there are certainly other moral laws I did not follow before I became more observant and before I learned more about my obligations according to the Torah. Five years ago, I never visited the sick, but I do now, on a regular basis. I never used to think of it as my responsibility to rebuke a sinner. I never used to avoid the phrase, “Oh my God!” (or the ever-present “OMG”) as a form of blasphemy.

So MarkSoFla, I’d say you were half right. We’ve all thrown out over half the laws. But I’d say many of the others, including the moral ones, are very much alive and kicking, and having their effect on our lives on a continuing basis. We can relate on the level of the Torah, and I hope more of us will do so more often.


  1. This is a really good example of what happens when one does not possess the Oral Law, or only has a distorted version of it.

    Do not stand idly by and do not place a stumbling block before the blind, among other misswoth make for a lot of guess work, picking and choosing, and 100% listening to ones feelings (a non-Jewish, Western concept), rather than actually trying to understand, and do the halakha.

    I commend you for trying to keep misswoth, but without the Oral Torah, it's hit or miss.

    I used to have at least some respect for the Reform people who made no bones about not recognizing the need for halakhic observance. They at least were consistent.

    But even some leaders in the Reform movement see that is not sufficient for their communities, who are thirsting for more.

    There's nothing to make up or reinvent here. It's all spelled out in halakhic sources.

    Either you believe in the validity of the Oral Law, or you don't. If you don't, then it's just hit or miss if you are performing a misswah correctly or not.

    Think of Written Torah as the hard ware and the Oral Torah as the software. One simple cannot function in the way it was intended without the other.

  2. Even with the Oral Law, it's still pretty hit and miss. Both within the Oral Law and in interpretations of it, there is a lot of disagreement.

    For example, different groups of Jews have different beliefs about the proper way to observe the dietary laws, and are so certain they are right and the others are wrong that they won't eat in each other's homes.

    Unfortunately, it is not all clearly spelled out, so the best we can do is to study the texts and come to the best conclusions we can about what it is that God really wants us to do.

  3. What's not the Oral Law? Are you claiming there are not contradictory or differning opinions in the Oral Law, or are you saying there is nothing about kashrut in the Oral Law?

  4. I've said it before, and I'm sure to say it again: I learn something new from you every. Single. Post!

    I appreciate your thoughtful explanations and willingness to share so much of the way that you "do" your Judaism. It makes me sad that doing this felt even remotely necessary in terms of a"justification," though.

    Well done, as always, Susan!

  5. Perhaps what Ben-Yehudah meant by Oral Law was the writings of it as found in Talmud? Not sure what Susan meant by it unless she just meant literally oral as in what people today have to SAY about it. But Susan is also correct about the Talmud being filled with "contradictory or differning opinions" - as one can see from reading and study of Talmud pages, there are various commentaries there that debate just what the Law is and means and how to apply it in various specific circumstances.

  6. Laura -

    I assume Ben-Yehudah was talking about the Talmud when he was talking about the Oral Law, and so was I.

  7. Dan for frumsatire infamyFebruary 29, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    This doesn't make any sense. You are picking on terminology in a way that has no substance.

    The main distinction is between people who feel categorically bound by all the mitzvos, and people who don't. Frum people feel bound by all the mitzvos. Non frum people don't. Hence a broad line distinction.