Parshah Yitro: Creed and Deed

Here is the climax of the Exodus: the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, there to receive the Torah. Our tradition teaches that, for the first time in human existence, a moral-minded god reached into history to become involved in earthly affairs, freeing a captive people from slavery, and giving them a covenant by which to live. We read the stirring words: “Moses…repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord…and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will understand!’” (Ex. 24:3-7; translation mine). What remains unique to Judaism and distinguishes it from other faiths is our basis in “deed, not creed”—that is, one must perform mitzvote, which are so much more than “good deeds”: some of them, such as covering the head before prayer or the detailed and esoteric kosher laws, may not even appear logical to the rational mind. Nonetheless, we do them, for reasons of tradition, community solidarity, or a sense of tribal differentness.

Christianity, the faith which originated from Judaism, is its mirror opposite in one major way: it is based in “creed, not deed”: that is, one must believe and accept the Christian messiah into one’s life, and everything spiritual proceeds from there. (If a person of Jewish origin becomes a Christian, they voluntarily sever themselves from the House of Israel to adhere to a different religion. One cannot simultaneously serve two different covenants.) In our faith, it is not necessary to comprehend the reason for each and every mitzvah in order to perform it. When I go to the gym to work out, I can think of an infinite number of reasons for not doing so, but I invariably feel better afterwards. Practicing our Judaism produces the same effect: when we consider attending services, our yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) will produce reason upon reason for not going, but, if we can beat it down, we will reap great spiritual rewards and personal satisfaction for attending.

We Jews are experts at rationalizing excuses for not participating in temple services or activities, not going to minyan, not inconveniencing ourselves to comply with a holiday’s obligations. Still, we invariably feel a sense of communal solidarity among our own kind, singing the tunes which we may recall from our youth, or learning new ones. I have participated in services which resembled entertainments, where I sat back and did nothing as the voices of rabbi, cantor, choir, and organist washed over me; it was a pleasant diversion while I sat there, but its lasting effect was minimal. One gets out of a service what one puts into it. It was the great Conservative Jewish leader, Dr. Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991), who said, “When I study sacred texts, I talk to God. When I pray, God talks to me.”

To do mitzvote, to fix the world—what we Jews call tikkun olam: to strive to make sense of an often-faceless universe, is the aim of Judaism. The alternative is desperate and chaotic, as in this poem by the tragic writer, Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“That fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Enjoyed this archived service or article? Click here to donate $3 to OneShul (care of PunkTorah).

Support OneShul on GoFundMe

Leave a Reply