Friday, October 28, 2011

Does it Matter That You’re Performing Mitzvot if You Haven’t Converted Yet?

By Susan Esther Barnes

This post was inspired by Skylar Curtis’s Why We’re Probably Crazy After All posted on her blog You’re Not Crazy, and the comments that follow it.

To be clear, I’d like to say that I have never met Skylar, which I am sure is my loss. I have been following her blog for the past year or so, and from what I have seen there, Skylar appears to be an intelligent person who is sincerely and diligently seeking an Orthodox conversion despite the many obstacles she has encountered.

In no way should this post be taken as an opinion about Skylar. This isn’t about her. It’s about a way of thinking that I find disturbing. I don’t know Skylar, I don’t speak for Skylar, and I am not qualified to render an opinion regarding to what extent she may or may not think along the lines I am about to describe. For all I know, she may, in fact, completely disagree with the following line of thought.


The post referenced above starts, “Pre-conversion, it is very frustrating to feel that your actions (your mitzvot) don’t matter. After all, you’re not Jewish. You’re not required to do anything.”

Subsequently, it goes on to list various mitzvot and other actions, such as, “That it will matter that you spent thousands of dollars and who knows how many hours on seforim,” “That it will matter that you defended Jews and Israel,” “That your Jewish knowledge will finally be more than useful Jeopardy answers,” and “That it will matter that you have suffered anti-Semitism.”

What disturbes me about this post is it implies that performing mitzvot doesn’t matter if one is not Jewish, as if the mitzvot have no intrinsic value of their own.

Yes, the mitzvot are commandments that only Jews are required to do. However, if they don’t matter in any way except that they are things Jews are commanded to do, if they have no intrinsic value in and of themselves, then what that means is that God just commanded us to do a bunch of random stuff for no reason other than to allow us to follow God’s commands (and, perhaps, to reap from God some sort of reward for doing them, much like a dog gets a treat for rolling over at its master’s command).

I don’t believe God wants us to do mitzvot just to prove we’re willing to follow meaningless, random commandments. I don’t think God treats us like dogs doing tricks. I believe God gave us the commandments because God knows that when we perform the commandments, especially when we do them in a thoughtful and meaningful way, we improve our lives and the lives of those around us. I believe God gave us the commandments in order to help us to be a “light unto the nations,” so we could, through our example, suggest to the world that there may be value in doing certain things and behaving in certain ways.

For instance, when I spend money and time on seforim (books in general, or, more specifically, books about Jewish thought and scripture), it matters because I gain knowledge and understanding. When I follow the laws of kashrut, it matters because I learn about the ingredients of the foods I am eating, and I pay more attention to what I am putting into my body. When I follow the mitzvot regarding lashon hara (for instance, spreading rumors or unkind stories of others), I improve my relationships with other people.

Whether or not one is Jewish, it appears self-evident to me why it would matter that a person would defend Jews and Israel, or why it would matter that one has experienced anti-semitism, or any other kind of bigotry or discrimination.

If one can perform a host of mitzvot and not feel that any of them matter, that they have no value and have provided no benefit to themselves or anyone else, then I fail to see why that person would want to convert to Judaism. Why take on the burden of commandments that don’t matter except insofar as they allow you to do random, otherwise meaningless things that Jews are commanded to do?

This view of the commandments is expressed explicitly by commenter Mikeage, who wrote, “The purpose of mitzvos is to do them _because_ they are commanded; hence the term ‘commandment’. Period.”

I believe that to take this view is to greatly underestimate the transformative power of the mitzvot. It devalues both the mitzvot themselves and Judaism in general. We may do mitzvot because we are commanded to do them, whether or not we understand their benefit, but that does not mean they have no benefit beyond some unknown reward we may get from God later on. God forbid.

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