?מי מצווה אותך
In response to some guiding questions for my upcoming reflection group, I've put down some thoughts in my usual stream-of-consciousness fashion. As usual, these aren't polished ideologies, and I look forward to hearing the reactions of others as well as my own thoughts in the upcoming days, months, and years.
There are two ways to think of any given law, negative and positive. Negative: don’t steal, don’t run a red light, don’t defraud the government. Positive: pay for things you take, drive only on a green light, pay your taxes. But what about a law like don’t kill? What’s the positive side of that?
I believe that the positive side of that negative commandment is where morality comes into play. Insofar as existence is good, life is good, and therefore so too preserving life is good. Just as animals and plants live out their goodness in a natural way, so do we live out our goodness by staying alive. Ending life truncates (not negates) this goodness, though even death can’t be considered non-good.
But back to the original question. Are there acts which we can elect not to do that fulfill the opposite of “don’t kill?” For example, if a person is starving, is one legally bound to feed her? If someone is dying of an illness you can cure, are you legally bound to cure her? My moral sensibilities say yes. But what is the source of this “law?”
I do not feel commanded. I believe that one can create a self-reality wherein one is commanded, but that reality would not have an external source (just as no reality can have an external source). But I do not believe that I have created such a reality for myself. While many Jews throughout history have viewed mitzvot as commandments, I do not hold the same theology. Of course, this doesn’t discount their own theologies, but nor do their understandings invalidate my own.
So, if God isn’t commanding me to feed the starving, why do I feel obliged to do it? This is a hard question that I haven’t spent sufficient time trying to answer. This is my first rough draft…
A fundament of this universe is existence. I’m sure that existence as I know it is only a tiny shard of “reality,” but my humanity is based on existence. And as I know that my existence here isn’t meaningless, I can only conclude that it is good to be alive. And insofar as others exist, it’s good for them to be alive, too.
Now, I can’t negate that goodness, as I mentioned before. But I can enrich it, increase it, and nurture it. I can interact and co-operate with others so that we may all deepen our experiences of this world. I don’t know precisely why we’re here, but my best guess so far is that it has something to do with experience, and the only conceivable value of experience I can think of is change. That is, with every experience, I change. As perceived time is a relative construct, I can’t say that I change over time, but I do recognize that waves of experience surge at different intensities, and I believe that such changes can only occur via interactions with other consciousnesses. (Such interactions, of course, are impossible to avoid as every existence in existence is founded on consciousness.)
Therefore, while there will be no “punishment” for not feeding the hungry, I won’t be living up to my potential. As I realize this, I can’t turn my back on that. Call it a responsibility, call it a self-acceptance of the yoke of existence, call it ethics. Whatever you call it, I do believe in it, and I do believe in it as a universal constant.
Who commands me? Existence. Insofar as God is existence, I can say that God commands me, but not in a conscious, external, imposing fashion. What am I commanded to do? To live and to learn; to enrich others’ lives and to teach. This is the center of my reality right now - at least, I try for it to be. And how do I teach this to others? Ay, there’s the rub!
There are a few people who I believe will really feel me on all of this and know where I’m coming from. Most of the rest are going to be left with a great number of questions. I feel prepared to talk through those questions (learn and teach…) with each of those people, but such an endeavor takes a great deal of time. Thus, to really live according to the focus I see in my life, I have to donate my life to learning and teaching according to these principles.
And that’s what I’m doing in rabbinical school. Each of us has a voice; mine is largely accented by Judaism. The messages I feel commanded to teach are easily found in Jewish language, so devoting myself to Judaism (which has all kinds of associated personal, communal, familial, spiritual, and experiential benefits) allows me to find an appropriate mode of learning and teaching. I believe I will fit into the role of the rabbi, and I expect it to fit me, and from that harmony, I hope that I’ll be able to enrich my own life and the lives of others.