As complex as religions are, there is usually one core concept that emerges as the central pillar upon which all else rests. In Judaism that concept is mitzva. One might go so far as to say that Judaism is a system of mitzvot and depends for its very existence upon the performance of mitzvot. According to tradition, there are 613 of them. That by no means diminishes the importance of specific beliefs or dogmas, the prime example being monotheism, the belief in one God. But whereas Christianity sets a particular belief at the very center of its being, for Judaism the center is performance of deeds - mitzvot. That is why Abraham Joshua Heschel could teach that for Jews what is needed is not a leap of faith but a leap of action.
Although there is no question that the most important mitzvot are those that regulate human relationships, moral and ethical conduct, mitzvot that are - or seem to be - concerned only with rituals also play an important role in Judaism. These are the ones that many people tend to ignore, questioning why God should be concerned with such seeming trifles. It is unfortunate that the existence of some so-called pious people who are scrupulous about every ritual detail but lax about ethical behavior has brought rituals into disrepute.
Yet the emphasis on deed over creed, on regulating all of our actions, is not capricious but reflects the basic philosophy of Judaism and its insight into human nature. "Your deeds will bring you closer to God or take you further from God" (Eduyot 5:7). Actions are as important as thoughts in molding the human personality. Body, mind, the entire human consciousness must be involved. Experience, what we do, is as important as intellect, what we think.
Our feelings concerning oppression of the poor and the stranger were not the product of abstract thinking but of the experience of slavery. The observance of Pessah concretizes that experience. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a more potent way of arousing sympathy for the hungry than reading about it. Succot is an experience both of the wonder of the harvest and of the importance of having a home. Thus even mitzvot that seem to be concerned only with ritual are important in bringing about ethical behavior.
One who believes in the existence of a living God, a God who is more than a force in the universe, but a living being, feels commanded to live a moral life, an ethical life as outlined in Judaism's ethical mitzvot. But the command "Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2) indicates that we must go beyond that. The vast number of mitzvot that have been fashioned by our prophets and sages from Abraham onward are intended to achieve that purpose. That is the meaning of the blessing formula "asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav" - "who made us holy through His mitzvot." The ethical and moral commands lead to that holiness while the rituals, regardless of how they came into being, are ways of helping us to attain that purity of being that brings us closer to God. They are opportunities for self-purification and for attaining holiness.
Why then should we observe these mitzvot? Because they enable us to experience holiness in life. Holiness means living in the awareness of a concerned God and having a relationship to the divine. Mitzvot involve the entire human personality in this experience. They are tokens of allegiance to God, self-submission to God. They demonstrate what Viktor Frankl has called "faith in the ultimate meaning which is preceded by trust in an ultimate being, by trust in God" (The Will to Meaning, page 145).
If I may be permitted a bit of midrashic license, I should like to interpret that verse of the prophet Micah, "...and what does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8) to mean "to do justly, to love mercy" - these are the mitzvot between one person and another (ethical commands) "to walk humbly with your God" refers to the mitzvot between humans and God (the ritual commands that help to purify us and shape our character). Together they enable us to strive for holiness.
If I accept the belief in the existence of an ultimate being, I also believe in my own ultimate responsibility. The mitzvot, then, including the ritual mitzvot, serve to call me to that responsibility. Thus the mitzva is not so much the literal command of God as the path to make me conscious of moral responsibilities.
The sages taught, "The mitzvot were given only for the purpose of purifying human beings" (Genesis Raba 44:1). Taking upon oneself 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. Halacha - Jewish law - is the search for the way God would have us live. Mitzvot are the concretization of that search into specific actions that give greater meaning to our lives. Daily living becomes more than a series of unrelated events, but a pattern of holiness and decency.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.