Abraham Joshua Heschel always said that living a Jewish life begins not through a leap of faith but through a leap of action, through a commitment to the observance of mitzvot.
That is the key to Jewish living. That is what will enable us to survive. But we observe mitzvot not only to survive but because they give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Observance of mitzvot was once the sine qua non of Jewish life. Those days are unfortunately long gone. The majority of Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora do not live lives based upon observance of mitzvot, yet somehow the importance of mitzvot must be recaptured as a norm for Jewish living if Judaism is to have any importance at all. Our main problem is that mitzvot means "commandments" and most Jews do not feel commanded these days. We do not believe that we have an obligation to do anything but what we feel like doing. So we can take them or leave them.
What, after all, are mitzvot? They are instruments for bringing us closer to God, closer to living good and decent lives, closer to the essence of being a Jew. They come from God but, according to modern understanding, not directly but through the instrument of human beings, through our prophets and sages.
Our understanding of God and God's revelation to us must be more sophisticated than before and more understanding of the role of human beings in that process. In the blessing for bread, for example, we say that God brings forth bread from the earth, but we know that it is through the labor of human beings that we get the wheat from which we create the bread - yet it is the power of God that allows that to happen. So too the mitzvot. In our blessing before performing mitzvot, we say, "[God] has sanctified us through His commandments" even when it is obvious that these commandments (such as lighting the Hanukka lights or reading the Megilla on Purim) were created by humans.
No matter what the historical origins of mitzvot, in that sense they come from God because the humans who created them did so under divine inspiration as they aspired to find the way to living a godly, holy life. Mitzvot are the way that Judaism prescribes for attaining a godly life. This was the obligation taken upon ourselves by our ancestors at Sinai. It is the obligation a devoted Jew takes upon himself every time he recites the Shema - kabbalat ol hamitzvot - "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments."
It is important that a way be found to make mitzvot meaningful to modern Jews, to encouraging people to observe the mitzvot of Judaism as they have developed over the centuries, to take upon themselves the obligations of Jewish living. Judaism is a system of mitzvot, of concrete actions that express our beliefs. Torah is teaching, mitzva is practice. One is dependent upon the other. Torah without mitzva is doctrine devoid of practice. Mitzva without Torah is in danger of being mere behaviorism without meaning.
The mitzvot of Judaism are both ethical and ritual, or, as the traditional phrase has it, "between one person and another" and "between the individual and God." Again, both are important. Ritual actions devoid of ethical conduct are an affront to God. Ethical actions with no relationship to God are preferable, but lack a strong basis upon which to stand and deprive the individual of spiritual experiences.
The sages of old taught, "The mitzvot were given only for the purpose of purifying human beings." Taking upon ourselves the obligation to observe the mitzvot is a way of purifying ourselves, of disciplining ourselves, of constantly reminding ourselves of who we are and that God has demands upon us. Living becomes more than a series of unrelated events, but a pattern of holiness and decency. Unless we are constantly saying: I do this because I am a Jew - or I do not do this because I am a Jew - our Judaism will have little impact upon us and will have little chance of survival.
To quote Heschel again, "Sacred acts, mitzvot, are of the essence of God... Judaism... takes deeds more seriously than things. Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds. Its main concern is not only how to worship Him at certain times, but how to live with Him at every moment. All of life at all moments is a problem and the task."
The observance of mitzvot has a place in the life of modern, non-fundamentalist Jews. Indeed the first step toward living a religious Jewish life is to recognize the importance of mitzvot, of religious obligation, and to try to live up to that as best as one can. There will always be some things about which one will say, "That's not for me, that's too difficult, or I don't accept that." As Franz Rosensweig said at a certain stage of his return to Judaism when asked if he put on tefillin, "Not yet."
What a world of difference there is between "not yet" and "who cares." If we are willing to be serious about Judaism, to educate our children and ourselves deeply and not superficially, to take upon ourselves the obligation of mitzvot, then Judaism will survive - and not only survive but flourish and our lives will be the better for it.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.