Follow by Email

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do I have to care for it to be a Mitzvah? (Rosh Hashanah 28a)

How we experience and speak about God has enormous ramifications for how we live our lives and structure our communities. However else we envision God (shepherd, teacher, parent, friend, lover), the images of God as Ruler and Law-giver predominate in Jewish religious thinking. For many Jews, this is understood literally. For me it is metaphorical, a way of expressing the sense of obligation and mutuality in the mutual relationship between God and Israel, between God and each of us. (But more on that in my next posting.)

Not surprisingly, in a culture that conceives of God as Law-giver, the primary mode of religious behavior is obedience to God’s mitzvot (commandments) and much attention is paid to discerning precisely what God requires (that explains all of Talmud, halakhic midrashim, Shulchan Arukh, and Mishneh Torah). It is quite natural, therefore, to ask: When I fulfill a mitzvah must I do so with intention? If I happen to engage in the commanded behavior inadvertently, have I fulfilled the mitzvah?

The Rabbis’ conversation about shofar has been winding its way to this subject for some time. The discussion opens in earnest with a teaching of the father of Shmuel: if one is compelled to eat matzah, does he fulfill the mitzvah of achilat matzah (eating matzah, required at the Pesach seder)? Shmuel’s father asserts that he has. Rava responds that this is also the case for one who blows the shofar for the sake of playing music, but not with intent to fulfill the mitzvah of shomei-ah kol shofar (to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah).

At this point, the Gemara intervenes to identify an objection one might raise in comparing the case of matzah to the case of the shofar:
There [in the case of eating matzah] the Merciful One said, “eat matzah” and the [coerced person indeed] ate. But here [in the case of the shofar], it is written, zikhron teruah [“remembrance of shofar blasts” – Leviticus 23:24] and this person is occupied with something else. [That is why Rava] informs us [that the two cases are analogous, and that in both cases, the person fulfills the mitzvah]. [Thus] we see that Rava is of the opinion that commandments do not require intention.
Rava’s argument is this: the mitzvah of matzah in only to eat it. Well, the coerced person ate it. Whether or not his intention was to fulfill the mitzvah, he performed the required act. In the case of shofar, however, one might claim that zikhron teruah, which seems to mean “commemorated with shofar blasts” in context, can be understood as “remembrance of shofar blasts” and therefore requires more than mere hearing. Minimally, “remembrance of shofar blasts” requires the act of memory and probably more to the point implies focus on the meaning of the sound in order to fulfill the mitzvah. Hence we might think that merely hearing the shofar blast would not be construed as fulfilling the obligation. But we would be wrong! It is sufficient to merely hear the shofar and that is why Rava tells us that hearing shofar, like eating matzah, does not require intention. Clearly, there is an effort here to separate performance of a behavior from intentionality.

A possible objection is raised on the basis of a mishnah from Berakhot 13a:
[An Amora] challenged [Rava]: If one was reading Torah [the section containing the Shema] and the time for recital of the Shema arrived, if he directed his mind, he has fulfilled the mitzvah; but if not, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah. Is it not [meant by] “[if] he directed his mind to fulfill the mitzvah” [suggestion the requirement of intentionality to fulfill the mitzvah]?
If one were reciting the section of the Torah containing the Shema, and the time for reciting the Shema arrived, does his reading satisfy the mitzvah? The mishnah seems to say that only if the reader intends it to fulfill the mitzvah does it in fact do so. The Rabbis, however, redefine “to read” for us, claiming that the mishnah is describing a simple, sloppy recitation for the purpose of proofreading to correct mistakes in a scroll or manuscript, and not a careful, articulate reading. Hence this reading does not qualify on purely technical grounds: the reading was not a proper reading, and intention is not required.

Why do the Rabbis thus far steadfastly maintain that intention is not a requirement in fulfilling a mitzvah? I can think of two reasons:

1. If we mark only people’s behavior, and not their intention, more people will be given greater credit for fulfilling mitzvot. Even inadvertent observance of a mitzvah, when credited, encourages greater observance in the future.

2. Perhaps more importantly, measuring behavior is tough enough. Recitation of Shema is an excellent example: how do we determine whether the reading is clear and articulate enough? Measuring intention is far more subjective and messy. How can you peer into the heart of another person? Measuring intention could quickly lead to judgmentalism, and that can be spirit-demolishing and community-destroying.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2009

No comments: