A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

1. Chapter One


Jewish tradition assigns various technical characteristics to the concept of mitzvah. In this chapter, we will try to clarify some of them, and analyze their formal implications, making comparisons to natural ethical logic.[1]


1.         Basic Properties


The term mitzvah (pl. mitzvot) is usually translated as commandment(s). Mitzvot asseh (do’s) are positive commands or imperatives; mitzvot lo-taasseh (do-not’s) are negative commands or prohibitions. Strictly-speaking, this is not quite correct. Some of the ‘mitzvot’ are indeed imperatives or prohibitions, but some, whether directly or by implication, are rather only permissions (i.e. negations of prohibitions) and/or exemptions (i.e. negations of imperatives).

For examples: Deut. 23:25, “when you come into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat grapes” (which refers to a laborer at work), is a case of direct permission; or Exod. 13:13, “and if you will not redeem it, you must behead it” (which refers to a firstborn donkey), is a conditional imperative, which by implication implies a permission. In some cases, the imperative and permission do not have the same logical subject; thus, in Lev. 19:10, the crop-owner’s obligation to leave gleanings for the poor, implies the right of the poor to go into the field and take them.

But note that, in some cases, a statement which has the form of a permission, is received rather with emphasis on an implicit imperative (for instance, Deut. 14:11, which reads “every clean bird, you may eat” is taken to mean that one must examine a bird and make sure that it is kosher before eating it; similarly with Lev. 11:2, 9, 21). Some passages which might more naturally be understood as merely permissive, are seemingly interpreted more extremely as imperatives (for instances, Deut. 15:3 or 23:21, which read “from a gentile, [go ahead]“ - “exact repayment [of loan, even in Shemitah year]“ or “take interest”, are interpreted by some as meaning ‘you must do so’, rather than as merely ‘you may do so’; similarly, Deut. 17:14-15 is understood to mean that Israel not just may but must (eventually) have a king.

So we have to interpret the term mitzvah/command, here, as including ‘command to allow’ and ‘command to exempt’, as well as ‘command to obligate’ and ‘command to forbid’. This sort of nested reiteration might raise formal problems, if taken too literally. Rather, I think, the best thing is to understand the term ‘command’, for lack of another, as having as well as its narrow sense of imperative, a broader sense which includes prohibitions, permissions and exemptions, as well.

One might argue that reiteration does reflect an aspect of the concept of mitzvah, namely that even contingent ethical propositions, if true, are products of God’s will and therefore imply a command. But then, a command to whom? Some might answer, to the religious authorities, telling them to tell the lay people what they must, must not, may, may not do. However, I do not think that Judaism wishes to be so extremely authoritarian; it acknowledges a more direct relation between layperson and God.

Also, I do not think that we are logically forced to regard contingent ethical propositions as expressions of God’s will; it is not inconceivable that God is simply open to either course implied by such propositions. In other words, the totalitarian thesis, that “everything is regulated” within a religious ethics, is not logically inevitable; it is quite conceivable (though some people, with fanatical inclinations, would doubt it) that God allows for (perhaps even rejoices at) some human spontaneity, so that humans have some (however much or little) freedom of choice, not only in the sense of natural capacity, but also in the sense of ethical liberty.

In more formal terms, the issue may be expressed as follows: in natural modality, a proposition of the form “X is capable of doing Y” is usually associated with a proposition of the form “When X is in such and such a situation, he is forced to do Y”, which expresses the conditions under which the potentiality is necessarily actualized. One hypothesis (known as determinism) is that such association is not only usual but universal; the opposite hypotheses (positing spontaneity or freewill) are that there exist cases where a potentiality does not imply a conditional necessary actualization.

Similarly, the issue totalitarianism versus partial liberty arises as follows in ethical modality: a proposition of the form “X is permitted to do Y” may or may not presuppose a proposition of the form “When X is in such and such a situation, he is obligated to do Y” - the issue is not formally resolvable; either position, ethical determinism and ethical indeterminism, is a hypothesis. Note in passing that the English language, by using passive verbs like ‘is permitted’, already implies that liberty is endowed; but a more impartial terminology would reflect more the inherent independence of liberty, its conceptual primacy.[2]

The following are some of the terms found in Talmudic discussions referring to mitzvot:

There are many other equivalent terms, needless to say; in Hebrew, such as tsarikh, zakai, in English, such as prescribed, prohibited, allowed, and so forth (check out your thesaurus for more). These concepts are normally understood by logicians as ethical modalities - attributes of relations, conceptually similar to (indeed subsets of) necessity, impossibility, possibility and unnecessity, but in the ethical field, implying some prior standard(s) of value, ultimate norms - and having (among others) the following logical characteristics:

(a) They are in principle obvertible, so that if, for subject X, the doing (in the widest sense) of Y is an obligation, then not-Y is forbidden, and if Y is forbidden, then not-Y is an obligation; and likewise, if Y is permitted, then not-Y is an exemption , and if Y is an exemption, then not-Y is permitted.

(b) They form a normal ‘square of oppositions’, so that obligation implies (but is not implied by) permission, is contrary to prohibition, and contradictory to exemption; and likewise, prohibition implies (but is not implied by) exemption, is contrary to obligation, and contradictory to permission.

However (as already discussed in an earlier chapter of Judaic Logic) Talmudists would be likely, more often than not, to interpret these concepts somewhat differently. For them, at least ab initio, permission and exemption would be understood as davqa positions, and therefore as implying each other, and being together contrary to both obligation and prohibition. In that case, one may educe “X may not-Y” (as well as “X may not not-Y”) from “X may Y”; and similarly “X may Y” (as well as “X may not Y”) from “X may not-Y”. In certain cases, the preceding lav davqa interpretations might be preferred, if the davqa ones turned out to be untenable for some reason.

Going further, a question arises as to whether the Hebrew expressions ‘asseh’ and ‘lo-taasseh’ (‘do’ and ‘do not do’) are intended as general words, signifying any verbs, or whether they signify more specifically volitional ‘action’ and ‘restraint from action’, respectively.

In the general sense, verbs are fully obvertible: ‘does X’ implies ‘does-not do not-X’, and ‘does-not do X’ implies ‘does not-X’; this is the sense preferred by formal logic, because of its simplicity. Whereas, in the more special sense, concerning human will, with its psychological, physiological, environmental, social, political and spiritual concomitants, which is the domain of interest of ethics, various nuances have to be taken into consideration.

An ‘action’ may refer to a thought (a purely mental event); to an emotion (a psychosomatic expression of pleasure, pain or indifference, love, hatred, or non-commitment, in various configurations and degrees); or to a physically-manifest event, with all its implications within the individual(s) concerned and all its consequences in the surrounding natural and social context. In this sense, then, ‘action’ refers to an act of the human will, which may range from fully voluntary and conscious to very-nearly involuntary and/or unconscious, but must in any case have some degree of freedom to be subject to ethical legislation, under any system.

Note that, contrary to what one might expect, thoughts are often subject to legislation: for though cognition is ultimately an objective event, the observer can often choose the direction of his/her attention, the course of his/her research, and the price (i.e. conditions) of his/her belief-attitudes. Similarly, emotions are in a sense ‘passions’, but the value-judgments originally underlying them are often a relatively free choice, and a person may often choose to suppress emotions, more or less control them or give them free rein, and actions (of varying value) may then follow. Certainly, we find within Judaism laws relating to belief (to believe in the Lord/God’s existence, oneness, sovereignty, not to believe in other gods) and to love (to love the Lord/God, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart).

Lastly, while it might be that an individual can have influence on his/her natural and social surrounds directly through his/her thoughts and emotions (I mean, by telepathy), in most cases, certainly, such influence can only take shape through the medium of physical acts (be they words or sounds spoken or unspoken, facial expressions and gestures, or pushing, pulling and other movements) of the individual.

Also to note: as far as religion is concerned, ethics concerns not only the impact of individuals on their own body and mind (including soul), and on their physical and social surrounds, but also their (alleged) effect on “upper and lower spiritual worlds” of mystical significance. While some rituals are more or less explicable in immanent terms, many are reputed or presumed to have transcendental purposes. But I will not make further remarks on such relatively metaphysical topics.

My only interest being here to point out the differing senses of ‘doing’, and to briefly demonstrate that once one goes beyond the simple, general sense, the issues become rather complicated. For these reasons, formal logic usually concentrates on the broadest sense of the verb ‘to do’, with which no essential distinction other than polarity exists between positive and negative commands.

Where the more specific sense of human action is intended, we have to keep in mind at least the following categories: ‘doing’ and ‘avoiding doing’ (both of which signify some degree of volition and awareness), and ‘absence of doing’ and ‘absence of avoiding doing’ (which merely negate the preceding two categories, without implying volition and awareness and without excluding them). All this is obvious enough, and was (it seems to me) clearly known to the Talmudists.

The following is a more technical presentation of the concepts under discussion:

For the most abstract forms, where ‘do’ refers to any verb, positive or negative, active or passive, whatsoever, (a) all imperatives with a zero or even number of negations are equivalent, and (b) all those with an odd number of negations are equivalent, and these two sets of forms are contrary to each other. This refers to the following forms (I use the formulas “that’s good,” “that’s bad,” to express the black and white value-judgments involved):

  1. X must do Y = X mustn’t do not-Y = X must not-do not-Y = X mustn’t not-do Y = if X does Y, that’s good; if X does not do Y, that’s bad.
  2. X mustn’t do Y = X must do not-Y = X mustn’t not-do not-Y = X must not-do Y = if X does not do Y, that’s good; if X does Y, that’s bad.

However, in contrast, if we interpret ‘doing’ as meaning specifically ‘willing’, obversions are not always feasible, and we obtain four variously opposed sets of two forms (c through f, below), instead of two contrary sets of four forms (a, b, above).

  1. X must will Y = X mustn’t not-will Y = if X wills Y, that’s good; if X does not will Y, that’s bad.
  2. X mustn’t will Y = X must not-will Y = if X does not will Y, that’s good; if X wills Y, that’s bad.
  3. X must will not-Y = X mustn’t not-will not-Y = if X wills not-Y, that’s good; if X does not will not-Y, that’s bad.
  4. X mustn’t will not-Y = X must not-will not-Y = if X does not will not-Y, that’s good; if X wills not-Y, that’s bad.

About the oppositions between these forms. Note that, given “X wills Y” and “X wills not-Y” are incompatible, whereas “X does not will Y” and “X does not will not-Y” are compatible, it follows that “X wills Y” implies (but is not implied by) “X does not will not-Y”, and that “X wills not-Y” implies (but is not implied by) “X does not will Y”.

Now, the forms (c) and (d) are contrary, since they disagree regarding whether “X wills Y” is good (c) or bad (d), and likewise whether “X does not will Y” is good (d) or bad (c). Similarly, for the forms (e) and (f). However, since “X wills Y” (good) found in (c) implies “X does not will not-Y” (good) found in (f), and “X does not will Y” (bad) found in (c) is implied by “X wills not-Y” (bad) found in (f), the forms (c) and (f) are compatible, but neither implies the other. Similarly, for the forms (e) and (d).


2.         Complementary Factors


When God tells us to do or not-do something, is He just concerned with that one thing He has mentioned, or with a much larger, unstated context?

Perhaps just doing what one is told by God to do, is all that counts. Or perhaps this bottom line is duly rewarded; but also, as one enriches the deed with better kavanah (pl. kavanot), as defined below, the reward increases proportionately. Similarly, on the negative side: there may be gradations in seriousness, ranging from a minimum for “sin through error” (implying that one has a certain responsibility for ignorance or neglect), to a maximum for intentional or willful sin (implying a certain rebellion). Or perhaps, more extremely, the performance of a positive mitzvah or non-performance of a negative mitzvah require an adequate kavanah (or, rather, a certain collection of kavanot), and does not otherwise count at all.

Kavanah includes various factors:

(a) A certain degree of awareness of one’s activity or inactivity; so that it is a product of will, and not merely an automatic reaction (a reflex or habit or chance occurrence). For example, while praying, being aware of the meaning (at least the plain meaning, if not the deeper meanings) of the words one utters, would fall under this heading.

(b) The proper motives: this concerns the causal background influencing the deed. Included here are (i) more or less conscious goals, like gaining a place in the world-to-come, or earning earthly rewards, such as a wife and children, long life, health, knowledge, success, riches, and so forth; and (ii) undeclared/unadmitted, subconscious or unconscious goals, which constitute the relatively hidden psychological context, such as power-lust for instance. Apparent motives are not necessarily true motives; here, complex needs for introspection are implied.[3]

(c) The intention to thereby fulfill the mitzvah, as such, i.e. as a command from God given through Moshe at Sinai. One may view this, though the ideal motive, as just a necessary motive, a sine qua non, without having to be the only motive, exclusive of any other. Or, more extremely, one may insist on obedience without selfish motive whatever, purely lishma, “for its own sake,” or leshem Shamaim, “for the sake of Heaven.”

(d) We might additionally mention, though it does not strictly qualify as kavanah, the emotional context. Treatises on the performance of mitzvot always stress the significance of mood or attitude: goodwill, doing the job at hand with joy (beratson), adds to the value and virtue of one’s good deed, and conversely resentment and such depreciate it. This is quite understandable, at least from the point of view of the order-giver, who does not want the annoyance and interference of negative vibes (stiff-neck); from the viewpoint of the order-receiver, however, there may be a felt need to express dissatisfaction or disagreement, of involuntary compliance.

According to some Rabbis (including, as I recall, the Rambam and the Chafets Chaim), without the required kavanah the action done or not-done is considered mere happenstance, and does not constitute fulfillment of the corresponding mitzvah.

Now, the above is a very heavy doctrine, whose logical implications are manifold. For what it means, in formal terms, is that the Divine commandments given in the Torah, although expressed in simple forms like “do this” or “don’t do that”, are really meant as more complex forms, which include a multiplicity of tacit qualifications. Clearly, this changes their logical properties. For instance, the two ethical propositions below have very different logical properties:

  • “X must do Y” (simple).
  • “X must do Y and be aware (to degree k) of doing Y and have motives l, n, m while doing Y and do Y in order to fulfill the command to do Y” (complex).

When I say that two such propositions have different logical properties, I mean that they have different contradictories, different implications, and so forth - just as any elementary proposition ‘P’ has different logical properties, compared to any compound proposition ‘P+Q+R’. All the more so, since the additional elements include mention of the same subject and/or predicate in a complicated variety of ways.

It follows that, if the doctrine described above is to be accepted literally and in full, so that there are effectively no simple ethical propositions in Judaism, then the logical system applicable to it is not (as often presumed) the system which applies to simple ethical propositions, but a much more elaborate system appropriate to the more complex forms, with strings of qualifications of the simple relations. It is very important to realize the full weight of this implication of the doctrine.

There are yet other complementary factors which might need to be taken into consideration:

a) In a natural ethics, the reward/punishment factor is built-in, because the things one should or shouldn’t do have a natural causal relation, constructive or destructive, to one’s standard of value - normally, human welfare. The doing or not-doing of so and so causes an improvement or a damage in the goal(s) which constitute our norm; and the seriousness of the measure depends on whether this causation is necessary or merely helpful, sufficient or partial, categorical or conditional, etc.

Here, “X should do Y”, because if X does-not do Y, the ultimate goal(s) Z will be disfavored; or “X should not-do Y”, because if X does do Y, the ultimate goal(s) Z will be disfavored; or again, “X may or may not do Y”, because whether X does or does-not do Y, the ultimate goal(s) Z will not be disfavored, though one way may be more favorable than the other, or unfavorable consequences may arise, one way and/or the other, only under certain conditions instead of unconditionally.

But in a religious ethics, that is: one based on Divine Revelation, such causal relations are not always apparent, especially in that the ultimate goal(s) involved may not be altogether explicitly known to us (though commentators may variously presume this or that to be God’s intentions). Moreover, the personal or collective reward/punishment may not in all cases be in a naturally-apparent manner causally-connected to the deeds, but may rather be connected by Divine fiat, as it were, in hidden pathways. I mean, granted that Nature is also a product of Divine fiat, religion still presumes that some relations are intrinsic to it (immanent, natural), while others use more extrinsic pathways (transcendent, miraculous).

Thus, in religion, the reward or punishment, which we will symbolize by Z1 and Z2, respectively, has the following formal relation to the command: “X should do Y, and if X does Y then Z1 is promised, and if X does not do Y then Z2 is threatened”; and similarly, in the case of “X should not do Y”, mutadis mutandis. The imperatives are associated with promises and threats, but one may not formally infer from these imperatives negative natural-conditional propositions.

Here, the reward/punishment complex is a Divinely-instituted appendage, which may not (though it also may) have any natural causal connection to the (positive or negative) imperative. The result is not automatically consequent, under Natural Law, but mediated by ad hoc acts of will by God on a case-by-case basis. Even if God’s choices are consistently uniform, they always retain a more voluntary character. This hypothesis would explain the irregularity of results (which might alternatively be due to the complexities of the natural causalities involved, of course), and fits neatly with the doctrine that God wishes to reserve for Himself the option of mercy and forgiveness.

In this context, the issue of redemption arises. In nature, some mistakes can be corrected, and others cannot. In Judaism, by special Divine dispensation, as it were, we are more often than not offered further possibilities of redemption, the undoing and forgiveness of fait accompli, beyond the natural, through repentance and personal change (teshuvah), through charity (tsedakah) and sacrifice in the Temple (korbanot). All this has logical significance.

b) Another issue with possible relevance is whether reward/punishment are related to effort. Is God’s only interest in tachlit, the bottom line, getting the job done, or is the effort expended in fulfilling a mitzvah significant to Him? Effort means work against resistance, the resistance of one’s own faculties or weaknesses or diverse external factors; or, in other words, in a terminology dear to the Rabbis, the counter-pressure of the yetzer haraa, the “evil inclination” allegedly possessed by mankind in particular and this-world in general.

With regard to reward, if two people fulfill the same mitzvah, and for one it was an easy thing and for another a difficult thing, are they at the same moral/spiritual level? The one for whom it was easy is in a sense proved the higher, in view of the facility experienced; but the one for whom it was more difficult is in another sense proved the higher, in view of the extra effort dedicated.

More specifically, for instance, if a person never kills or never steals or never commits adultery (and many people fall in those categories), is such a person always credited with virtue? Or does the merit depend on having been tempted and resisted temptation, as some Rabbis claim, and does the merit grow as a function of the difficulty encountered? In other words, to use a technological image, is only heat-production respected in Jewish law, and superconductivity looked down upon?

More formally, does “X must do Y” imply, in the Torah, “if it takes X an effort to do Y, he is rewarded; else, not”; and does “X mustn’t do Y” imply, in the Torah, “If X is tempted yet resists to do Y, he is rewarded; else, not”? It may not be possible to answer such questions on formal grounds; any doctrine which is internally consistent, which presents no inherent difficulty, is on equal footing from that point of view.

With regard to the negative mitzvot just mentioned, I would like to comment that people are in fact constantly tempted: any cause for anger, real or imagined, is effectively a temptation for violence and (eventually) murder, every object one can pick up (which belongs to someone else) is a temptation for theft, every woman that passes by is a temptation for rape and (if she is married) adultery. So, even if such temptations were regarded as so small as to be nearly zero, for most people, or the overcoming of them was viewed as generating a virtually negligible credit, for most people, we could still not truly claim in such cases that no temptation at all was involved and therefore that no resistance to temptation took place.

The idea of the more extreme Rabbis may be expressed more fully by saying that each mitzvah refers to four outcomes (leaving aside more complex issues of kavanah mentioned earlier) as follows: for example, that “X must do Y” in the Torah is intended to mean “X must will Y” (see form (c), in the previous section), so that:

  • if X wills Y (= active performance), the mitzvah is fulfilled and rewarded;
  • if X does Y, but does not will Y (= passive performance), the mitzvah is not truly fulfilled and no reward follows;
  • if X does not will Y, yet as it happens does not do Y (= sin of omission), the mitzvah is breached though perhaps relatively less punishably;
  • if X wills not-Y (= sin of commission), the mitzvah is breached in a more punishable manner.

Similarly, that “X mustn’t do Y” in the Torah is intended to mean “X mustn’t will Y” (see form (d)), and this entails four outcomes as above, mutadis mutandis; and likewise, supposedly, for “X must do/will not-Y” (see form (e)) and “X mustn’t do/will not-Y” (see form (f)). All that in itself seems consistent.

With regard to punishment, is a person who has tried his/her utmost to perform a positive mitzvah or resist a temptation to sin, but failed, treated less severely than one who has tried less or not tried at all? This question can also, like the preceding one, be expressed in formal terms; it proposes further gradations. Our human sensibilities concerning Justice would answer yes to it; Judaism tends to agree in principle, though some stories seem to suggest that sometimes this is irrelevant.

Still further distinctions and gradations are called forth when we consider the issues of kavanah. For instance, a person who did not know the law, having say been kidnapped far from the community, and who consciously eats pork, is not comparable to someone who knew the law and wished to break it to express rejection of it. Such fine subdivisions are beyond the scope of the present study; I only mention them to remind the reader that we have far from exhausted the issues.

c) While on the topic of reward/punishment, we should mention an interesting concept of deontology (general ethical logic) found in the Bible and Talmud, that of remedy. For example, it is forbidden to steal (a negative mitzvah), but if one did steal, returning the stolen object to its owner (a positive mitzvah), in some cases with an extra amount of the same object, frees the thief from the penalty incurred (such as lashes). Similar examples can be found in man-made law and ‘natural’ ethics.

Such corrective processes can be expressed in formal terms, as follows. In some situations, X causes Y and NotX causes NotY; whereas in other cases, though X causes Y, NotX does not cause NotY - so that the damage done (Y) by the violation (X) cannot be undone (NotY) by a remedy (NotX). This is an insight, primarily, of causal logic, namely that some causal relations are reversible, whereas with others “what’s done is done” - they are ‘entropic’, we might say.

In a broader sense, all reward or punishment, whether in this world or in the afterlife, is considered as remedy. This is the concept of tiqun (repair), so dear to and widely used by Jewish mystics. Life is either degeneration (through sin) or putting things right (through good deeds or through reward/punishment by society or by God). Note that reward is ultimately as much a tiqun as punishment, in that a never-rewarded good deed is comparable to work without wages, there is an injustice involved, something which should have been completed has not been.

It should be stressed that the Rabbis nowhere (so far as I know) explain just how they know that mitzvot were intended by God to have the various special features they ascribe to them. Certainly, the Written Torah is not as explicit as they are on such matters. Nor are any of the inferences - emerging from by the special features discussed in this chapter - included in the main lists of hermeneutic principles; nor is it anywhere shown precisely how such forms of argument might be read into the Torah text by means of the listed hermeneutic principles. The special features of Rabbinic ethical logic are merely taken for granted, as part and parcel of the oral tradition; and perhaps viewed as implicit to some extent in the behavior of exemplary characters found in stories in the Torah, Talmud and later inspirational literature. There are, as we have pointed out, discussions among Rabbis as to their ultimate force of law. I would suggest that such special features developed gradually in rabbinic lore, generated by the idealism, and sometimes the one-upmanship, of successive Rabbis.

d) Note, finally, that mitzvot may have still other features (unrelated to the above). For instance, mitzvot are quite often temporally related, in forms like “you [the person(s) concerned] must perform Mitzvah A before Mitzvah B”. These constitute complementary commands, say C, whose subject is the same as A and B, and whose predicate contains two commands in a specified sequence. Such statements may have any polarity or modality[4]; and may be - as well as categorical - conditional, in diverse and eventually complex hierarchies. Needless to say, the formal logic of such propositions can get rather complicated. This feature is not peculiar to Jewish deontology, but may be found in natural ethics, where complementary means to an end are often similarly ordered.

An example from Judaism is the sequence recommended for the mitzvot of tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries; leather boxes containing extracts from Scripture, with straps); within the latter, in turn, the rosh (head) tefillin is to be put on before the yad (arm) tefillin. Strictly-speaking, these are independent mitzvot, but the order in which they are here listed is the ideal. We are also told precisely at what stages the appropriate blessings should be recited.[5] How all this is proved (if at all) from Scripture is another matter, to do with hermeneutics; our concern here is with formalities.


3.         How to Count Mitzvot


One of the interesting, peculiar properties of Biblical or Talmudic/Rabbinic commands is the non-equivalence between an ethical proposition and its obverse. That is, “X must Y” and “X mustn’t not-Y” (or similarly, “X mustn’t Y” and “X must not-Y”), although they logically imply each other, formally, in all cases, may nevertheless in some cases be counted as two Mitzvot! For example, Deut. 22:19, which refers to cases of libel of wife by husband, says both “she shall remain his wife” and “he may not send her away all his days”; having to remain married and being forbidden to divorce are identical, yet are here both specified. Another example is Deut. 25:17 and 19, the commandments to remember and not-forget Amalek’s misdeeds towards Israel.

It would at first sight seem like a redundancy, to repeat the same commandment in positive and negative form; or one may suspect that the two wordings were counted as two laws to satisfy some preconceived notion of the ‘number of Mitzvot’. But the explanation given by the Rabbis is quite plausible, namely that this emphasis serves not only to doubly encourage obedience of the command, but also to signify the extra possibilities of reward or punishment inherent in its performance or in failure to do so. (Note that the positive and negative mitzvot in question need not be close to each other in the Biblical text: for instance Lev. 19:13 and Deut. 24:15, concerning paying a worker his wages without delay and on time, are far apart yet complementary.)

Thus it is that there is a general (or nearly general) rule, to the effect that: the disobedience of a positive command cannot be punished by Rabbinical courts, though it may have negative social or Divinely-produced consequences, the latter in this life or in the afterlife; whereas, disobedience of a negative command can indeed be punished by Rabbinical courts, though again it may have consequences of one kind or another. With regard to obedience of positive or negative commands, the reward of such obedience is not usually within the competence of Rabbinical courts (though they may in some cases decree a person be honored, for instance), but may be programmed in nature (by God, of course) or occur as a social phenomenon (most probably due to the ambient culture produced by the Torah) or be effected Providentially (i.e. by Divine intervention) in this world or the next.

Effectively, we have here a specialized linguistic convention that: when a command is worded only positively, the courts are not competent to punish transgression, whereas when it is expressed also or only negatively, they are so. It is a signal, a code, not found in general language, and therefore not a rule of formal ethical logic, but peculiar (we are taught) to the domain of Torah.

Note that, in some cases, the pair of positive and negative commands are not, strictly-speaking, in a purely formal sense, obverts of each other. This may occur when the positive command refers to a finite act of will, and the negative command refers not merely to the absence of that will, but to another finite act of will in the opposite direction. For examples. Deut. 22:29, concerning cases of rape, obligates marriage and forbids divorce; these two mitzvot are not like the above mentioned case of Deut. 22:19 identical, for one might well be forced to marry someone, yet not absolutely forbidden to turn around and divorce her soon after.

Similarly, in Deut. 21:23 the prohibition to allow a man to remain hanging overnight and the obligation to bury him on the same day as he was executed, are not exact obverts of each other. In Deut. 22:1,3, the mitzvah to return lost property one finds, and the warning not to pass-by and ignore it (so as to avoid the hassle of returning it), are not implied by each other; similarly, with Deut. 22:4, concerning helping one’s fellow’s fallen animal. Again, the commandments in Deut. 22:6-7 concerning the mother-bird are not inferable from each other (as it might have been required that we take neither mother nor young, or mother but not young).


We also find in the Torah another form of apparent redundancy, the repetition of certain laws in both generic and specific form. For example, if incest is forbidden between a man and various specified near of kin (Lev. 18:7-18), one might ask what is the point of forbidding it additionally with any near of kin (Lev. 18:6). Here again, the explanation given by commentators is that such repetition signals the severity of the mitzvah, and forewarns of the double jeopardy its disobedience implies, in the case of negative mitzvot; or, in the case of positive mitzvot, their importance and double recompense. A calculus is suggested. With regard to the example taken here, one might say that whereas incest in general generates a moral debit of x, such practice with a specified near of kin generates a greater debit, x + y.[6]

This issue incidentally raises another, of even broader interest to the formal logic of ethical propositions. What are the logical relations between imperatives, permissions, prohibitions and exemptions? This question has to do with modal logic, and as we shall see it may be answered entirely with reference to alethic (non-ethical) logic.

We know that, in the logic of non-ethical propositions, while predication of any species syllogistically implies predication of all of its genera, predication of a genus does not suffice to imply predication of any one (randomly selected) of its species, though it does imply that at least one (without prejudice as to which one(s)) of its species must be predicable. By contraposition it follows that: while denial of a generic predicate implies denial of all relatively specific predicates, denial of any one (or even more than one, provided less than all) of its species is not formally sufficient to deny a given genus, but it takes denial of all of its species to ensure denial of a given genus.

As we shall now show, certain rules may be inferred from the above, with respect to ethical logic. The formal relation of ethical to neutral propositions is to be found in teleology (a derivative of causal logic). Normative statements refer to means and ends, they tell us whether such and such is needed for, harmful to, or neither needed for nor harmful to, some accepted standard of value. This norm may have its source in revelation, or in rational deliberations or in irrational choices, it may be more or less explicit, and it may be unitary or manifold (provided that it is internally consistent, or at least that its parts are clearly hierarchized).

In Judaism, the norm is God’s Will, whose precise content we know only partly and speculatively, insofar as it is implicitly expressed in the Torah through the laws and stories (and similarly, mutadis mutandis, in certain other religions). In Natural Ethics, the norm is general human welfare, which may be broadened to include the ecological concerns, and this is largely explicit and consistent, to the extent that it is knowable through biology and kindred sciences. More subjective ethical systems refer to personal emotions or the welfare of special groups (e.g. a race) as their standard, and are largely unverbalized and often inconsistent. In any case, whatever the standard of value (which we shall label C), the following formal relations are set by logical science, for any given action (call it B) performed by someone (A):

  • A must do B (B is imperative for A), means that if A does not do B, C cannot occur.
  • A musn’t do B (B is forbidden to A), means that if A does do B, C cannot occur.
  • A neither must nor mustn’t do B (call this ‘license’, for lack of a better word), means that whether A does or doesn’t do B, C can still occur.


  • A may do B (B is permitted to A), means that B is either imperative or licensed to A.
  • A may not-do B (B is exempt to A), means that B is either forbidden or licensed to A.

These, then, are the alethic interpretations of categorical ethical necessity, impossibility, contingency, possibility and unnecessity, respectively. Our palette of ethical modalities may be extended further with reference to conditional teleologies. Thus, for instances, A doing B is conducive to C, if it causes C in certain circumstances; and A doing B is dangerous to C, if it inhibits C (causes not-C) in certain circumstances. Now, our goal here is to find the relationships between species and genera of action. Knowing that a given genus (say G) is imperative or forbidden or whatever, what can we infer concerning its species (say S1, S2, S3,...); and vice versa?

a.         If a genus G is imperative, no given one of its species is logically implied to be imperative, or anything else, though it is implied that at least one of its species has to be performed, otherwise G cannot occur, and therefore C cannot occur. Note well that S1, S2, S3... are disjunctively, but not individually or distributively, and still less collectively, implied imperative by G’s imperativeness; it is only the disjunction of the series of S which is affected, each and every S may just as well, in itself, be licensed, or imperative or even forbidden. It follows, by contraposition, that it does not suffice to know that each and every one of its species, S1, S2, S3, ..., are exempt, to infer that a genus G is exempt, but we must establish that the species are not disjunctively imperative, as just defined; note this well! Thus, if any species, say S1, is exempt, no inference concerning its genera, such as G, is logically possible.

b.         If a genus G is forbidden, all (each and every) of its species are logically implied to be forbidden, because if any (one or more) of the species occurred, G would occur, and thereby C couldn’t occur. Here, the prohibition of G is transmitted to S1, S2, S3, ..., distributively and collectively; the link is much stronger than in the previous case, note well. It follows, by ad absurdum, that if any species, say S1, is permitted, then all its genera, such as G, are permitted (either imperative or licensed).

c.         If any species, say S1, is imperative, then all of its genera, such as G, are imperative, because the absence of G (which is implied by S1) would imply the absence of S1, under which condition C cannot occur. Note that G’s other species, S2, S3, ..., need not for all that be imperative; G’s imperativeness, here, is rather incidental to S1’s, more in the way of an inevitability, due to the fact that you cannot generate S1 without G; only if all of its species were equally imperative, would G be imperative per se. It follows, by ad absurdum, that if a genus G is exempt, then all its species, S1, S2, S3, ..., are exempt (either forbidden or licensed).

d.         If any species, say S1, is forbidden, no inference is possible concerning its genus G, because given that S1 implies not-C and S1 implies G, we can only conclude that G does not imply C (since if G implied C, then S1 would imply both not-C and C, whence S1 would be impossible, contrary to the premise that it is forbidden, which implies potential). G may equally be imperative (not-G implies not-C, in which case the remaining species S2, S3, ..., are at least disjunctively imperative), or forbidden (G implies not-C, in which case S1’s prohibition is simply a consequence of G’s), or neither imperative nor forbidden (‘G does not imply C’ only excludes the possibility that G be imperative to not-C, which does not concern us, since it is C that is our standard of value). It follows from all the above, that if a genus G is permitted, no inference is logically possible concerning its species S1, S2, S3, ...; each of them could equally be imperative (in which case, G would be imperative, and therefore permitted) or licensed (implying only that G is permitted) or forbidden (nothing implied for G).

Note well, finally, that knowing a genus G to be licensed (i.e. neither imperative nor forbidden), we can only infer for its species that they are exempt (i.e. either forbidden or licensed); and knowing any species, say S1, to be licensed, we can only infer for its genera, such as G, that they are permitted. These relations follow from the above. We need not pursue the matter further, here, with reference to conditional situations.

It should however be noted that the above principles, describing how ethical modality is transmitted or relayed up or down conceptual hierarchies, can also be expressed in the form of modal syllogisms. The most obvious valid moods being (see b, c, above, which yield categorical conclusions):


G is a genus of S1

S1 is a species of G

and A mustn’t do G

and A may do S1

therefore, A mustn’t do S1

therefore, A may do G


G is a genus of S1

S1 is a species of G

and A may not-do G

and A must do S1

therefore, A may not-do S1

therefore, A must do G


In everyday discourse by religious Jews, we find the term mitzvah used in a loose, broad sense covering any good deed or proper restraint, which will get you brownie points. However, in the context of the doctrine that there are 613 Mitzvot for the Jews, or of the doctrine of 7 Mitzvot for the Bnei Noach (non-Jews), the term acquires more restricted senses, which are also not quite the same in each system. This phenomenon will now be explained, because it is rather interesting from the logicians’ point of view and rather special to Jewish (or Jewish-style) law.

Formal logic deals in meaningful grammatical sentences, each of which symbolizes some phenomenal appearance, be it concrete or abstract, material or mental, empirical or hypothetical, real or illusory. Viewed in this broad-minded way, even the subjective is objective, and logic is at all times open to all candidates to membership in the body of knowledge it seeks to gradually construct. Every event has a great many facets and a great many levels, which are interconnected in a great many ways. Each of these innumerable phenomena, each phenomenon within or next to every other, may be represented for conceptual purposes through verbal propositions; but many objects of perceptual experience or of insight are never verbalized.

In this flexible perspective, it would be absurd and arbitrary to try and dogmatically enumerate ‘laws’ of any kind, and say “there are N laws of nature in such and such a field” (e.g. Three Laws of Thermodynamics) or “there are M moral laws to follow in such and such a situation” (e.g. Seven Cardinal Sins). The enumeration would have to capture all the propositions, at a certain same level, which are true and from which all others relating to the topic concerned can be inferred; and it would claim a certain finality.

Such an ultra-rationalistic logistic programme, which is still found among modern logicians with Cartesian inclinations, takes no account of the moment-by-moment import of empirical data which occurs in practice. Such gradual input is bound to affect, not only the applications of laws, but their very bases and contents.

One may, in any science or body of knowledge, identify certain larger principles, however arrived at, as dominating the remaining data, in a way resembling the deductive relationship between axioms and theorems; but every wise thinker keeps in mind the inductive sources of the whole, and remains pragmatic in his approach. All this to say: rigidly counting ‘laws’ would be a very artificial procedure, particularly if one insisted on adhering to a given number. Yet this is found in Jewish law, and predictably affects not only its content, but its form.

Thus it is that different Rabbis will agree that there are 613 Mitzvot for Jews, or 7 Mitzvot for non-Jews, in accordance with Talmudic traditions, but will disagree somewhat regarding which commandments precisely are to be included in or excluded from the list concerned! So long as they arrive at the correct total, even superficially, they retain a certain legitimacy; whereas a system which refused to recognize the magic number, insisting on an irreducibly larger or smaller number, would from the outset be eliminated. An additional given is that there be 248 positive Mitzvot and 365 negative Mitzvot[7]. My purpose here is not to criticize such an approach, but to emphasize the logical specificities it generates.

Still, it is interesting to note that the number 613 [TaRYaG, in Hebrew] is only based, so far as I know, on one passing mention in Maccot 23b, quoting Rabbi Simlai, and the Talmud has no one-by-one enumeration of these Mitzvot. One explanation of the number that I have read somewhere is that it consists of the sum of: 2 for the first two of the Ten Commandments, which the Children of Israel heard at Sinai directly from God; plus 611, which is the gematria of the word TORaH (T=400, O=6, R=200, H=5), which were received by them indirectly through Moshe. Whether this explanation was constructed ex post facto, or was the original reason for the number, I do not know.

One cannot, in such a context, count just any mitzvah (ethical sentence) as a Mitzvah (note my use of a capital M). Only certain mitzvot qualify for the honor, and their ability to do so is mainly traditional (for instance, they are in the list proposed by the Rambam in the Sefer HaMitzvot, or that in the Sefer HaChinukh). One cannot strictly say that these laws, known as av (father) mitzvot, are all at the same conceptual level; nor that they taken together will allow the strictly deductive inference of all other laws, though many are indeed inferable (in which case they are called toledot [descendants]). Thus, the enumeration has no natural basis; it is an imposed structure.

To some extent, then, the Mitzvot are a grab-bag; which perhaps reflects the complexities of the world to which they are intended to apply. Whereas from the point of view of formal logic (and indeed for codes of law like the Shulchan Arukh, as mentioned below), any individual injunction, be it categorical or conditional, imperative or otherwise, would count as an ethical sentence (mitzvah), a traditional Mitzvah (av mitzvah) may consist of a cluster of such sentences, in conjunction or in disjunction, explicit or implicit. Perhaps most mitzvot are implied in the Mitzvot; but in all honesty, strictly-speaking, one cannot claim that all are: many details are contributed by tradition or later Rabbinic decisions, and many vary from community to community.

To give an example at random. In Exod. 20:12, “honor your father and your mother”, two distinct items are listed (rather than just “parents”), and yet they count as one law. Sometimes, the composition is more complicated: for instance, Deut. 25:3, “Forty strikes may he give him, not more”, prescribes the giving of strikes, permits up to 40 of them, and forbids more than forty, all in one and the same sentence. It is not always easy to predict and understand how and why the Rabbis split some sentences into two or more separate Mitzvot, while they kept others, or fused some, as single Mitzvot.

More broadly, let us remark that in some cases, sentences which intuitively might have been considered as laws, end-up rejected by Rabbinic decision; whereas, sentences which might at first sight have seemed incidental story-telling end-up as laws. All this has to be explained on a case-by-case basis, with reference to the relevant Talmudic and post-Talmudic discussions; there is no sweeping justification. The oral tradition also stretches and delimits laws, stating how far they are applicable and detailing their exceptions.

If now we turn our attention from such numerical systems to the developed law-system of the Shulchan Arukh, we see that the latter is concerned with listing all the mitzvot (small m), without attempting to count them, which are generally accepted as Halakhah, and even many subcultural traditions (minhagim). While the Code of 613 Mitzvot is by definition exclusive, the Shulchan Arukh is rather an attempt at exhaustiveness (and a degree of order, for currently relevant laws at least). It is clear that one cannot expect to mechanically derive the thousands of nuances in casuistry of the Shulchan Arukh from the 613 Mitzvot. Rather, the 613 could be regarded as heads of chapters, which signify certain collections of mitzvot of varying importance and consensus.

Furthermore, as Aaron Lichtenstein has ably shown in his The Seven Laws of Noah, the term Mitzvah does not have quite the same denotation or connotations in the legal code of 613 Mitzvot and in that of 7 Mitzvot. There are parallels and genetic relations between these systems, but there are also some radical differences and differences of detail. Here again, then, the term ‘mitzvah’ has a varying meaning (even after the elucidation of about 66 equivalences between the two systems proposed by Lichtenstein, as he himself argues).

The concept of ‘chapter-heads’, rather than ‘top principles from which all others are inferred’, is also made evident in this work: in the list of Noachic laws, the titles tend to describe an extreme negative behavior pattern (for instance, eating a limb off a live animal), without apparently limiting itself to it, i.e. without precluding other proscribed behaviors and even prescribed positive behavior patterns (in the case at hand, against other forms of cruelty to animals and for kindness to them).

We see from the foregoing discussion that the counting of mitzvot is no simple matter.


4.         Commanded vs. Personal Morality


According to Judaism, a person has greater merit for doing a good deed if he was commanded by God to do it, than if he merely voluntarily took it upon himself to do it. Indeed, in some instances (for instance, shaking the lulav when it is not the festival of Succoth), doing the deed without having been commanded to is useless and gains one no credit; in some instances (as in the case of presumptive keeping of the Sabbath by a non-Jew), it is even counterproductive and punishable.

Ethics, in this perspective, is not ‘universal’ in the sense of uniform for all - but may vary from group to group or even among individuals. Thus, Jews may have one set of rules, non-Jews another; Israelites, Levites and Kohens may be subject to different rules, as may relatively volunteer classes of individuals, like ‘nazirites’, judges (within a Beit-Din, or religious court) or kings; men, women, and children need not have the same obligations, restrictions and liberties; prophets or kings may receive very personal orders; and so forth. Not only may rules vary from population to population, but reward and punishment may likewise vary, accordingly.

I see no logical difficulty in this viewpoint, in the sense that I have never agreed with the Kantian idea that the moral is necessarily reciprocal and universal. Deontology, the general logic of ethical forms, cannot be presumed to consist simplistically of exclusively categorical ethical-mode statements, but must consider a complex intertwining of conditional statements. Just as the non-ethical aspect of nature displays diversity and conditionality, as well as some uniformity and categoricality - so may the ethical aspect of nature (to the extent that it exists), and all the more so God-given ethics, display these various modalities.

Furthermore, in both natural and religious ethics, conditioning may be of any category and type of modality: it may be extensional (schematically: ‘in the case of this class of people, thusly; in all other cases, otherwise’), natural/temporal (e.g. ‘when a nazir eats a certain quantity of grapes, then he is subject to certain penalties’), or even epistemic (i.e. ‘if a person was aware of so and so, he is responsible for such and such; alternatively, not’). The search for absolutes (for an ethic which can be proved with certainty) must not be confused with a pursuit of categoricals.

Of course, where no truly convincing cause for discrimination is available, one is logically bound to revert to the idea of reciprocity and universality (known to philosophers as the Principle of Uniformity of Indistinguishables). Such positivism or minimalism is often justified and inevitable, at least within a natural knowledge framework; and indeed it is applied in the religious context, where the text of reference has not specified any distinctions to be made. For in such cases, legal differentiation between people and lack of equity (equality before the law) would be arbitrary and unjustifiable.

But, where religious ethics is concerned, our attitude is that if God, the Creator of all fact, including ethical fact, chooses to subdivide responsibilities and structure reward and punishment in uneven ways, and communicates His will in this respect to us, that is His prerogative, and we are bound to comply. The reason for this attitude is not necessarily that there exists a cause for discrimination invisible to us though visible to God (though in some cases, this may be true), but that God is free to assign different functions and wages to His various workers, however indistinguishable they be in their natural or spiritual characteristics. He is the Boss.

However, the said viewpoint is difficult to accept, at another level, for someone in modern democratic western society, at a time in history and in places where the experience of the totalitarian oriental or medieval monarch has thankfully virtually disappeared. Our society is very permissive and liberal (and nevertheless, thank God, it is not totally and extremely amoral or immoral, and is even in many respects more moral than ever before). This stance is the product of a development, which has even been noticeable within the space of my own lifetime, but has its roots far in the Enlightenment (including, to some extent, Immanuel Kant, but many others too) and subsequent philosophical and political events.

It is hard for us to accept, as the paradigm of morality, the behavior-pattern of a frightened slave, doing his assigned duties with nothing in it for his or her self, simply because the master commanded it threateningly, thinking only as far as necessary to fulfill the command, and so forth. We want to understand things more, we expect fairness more. Selfless submission and pure obedience seem to us to be remote theoretical constructs, inventions of austere and insensitive moralists; they no longer seem so beautiful and ideal. Such attitudes must be taken into consideration.

What I want to discuss here is whether an externally imposed course of action, Divinely commanded, to be sure, but done in the way of a duty, is morally higher, as norm-setting Judaism seems to suggest - or whether a person is more credibly moral who acts from a deep internal intuition of right and wrong, spontaneously, without being forced to, out of genuine love for the world, for fellow creatures, and for God. More simply put, the question is really: who is the nicer guy, the one who gives you charity or who doesn’t kill you, just because he has been so commanded - or the one who gives you charity or who doesn’t kill you, because he himself loves you?

Bound with this issue is that of the actual psychology of religious study and observance, which suggests that the answer to our question varies from case to case. For there is surely a difference, for the most part, between the motivations religion ideally demands of its adherents in theory, and those which actually move them in practice. And while religion views this gap hopefully as a passing phase, which it is precisely the job of study and observance to close - we must linger on it more attentively. We must ask, what in fact makes most religious people act as they do, i.e. in apparent accordance with the precepts of the religion.

And the reply cannot be that such people have at the outset the same value-judgments as the religion. It may be that they do, if they happen to have been culturally prepared since youth to that effect, though this does not prove that under other influences they would not have acquired other values and convictions. But in any case, new arrivals to the religion, whether Jews doing teshuvah (return) or gerim (converts), while they may have out of personal life-experience acquired some values and convictions in common with those proposed by the religion - enough to draw them to it - new arrivals, I say, are systematically acculturated and made to acquire desires and beliefs they previously lacked.

Thus, while the initial motives drawing a new arrival may have been the desire to escape painful experiences, like loneliness and confusion, or more positively the desire to gain an edge in a competitive world by receiving the favor of the Ruler of the world, or perhaps even simply getting material help from the Jewish community - the religion induces new, additional desires in the newcomer, as its condition for belonging to the group, which may include various material, psychological, familial, national, political and spiritual desires. For example, the newcomer may have no initial interest in the world to come or the messiah, but the religion gradually makes him believe these are his own most fervent wishes, and even that they always have been.

Objectively speaking, at any given time in a person’s spiritual development, some aspects of his indoctrination have become internalized, and others are still essentially at an artificial level of pretense or mimicry, while yet other aspects are still being rejected. Whereas in the case of role-play a distinction is possible between the subject and his response or behavior pattern, in the case of an internalized doctrine such an objective distinction is rather difficult to make. The difference between traits and habits acquired, on the one hand through the natural process we call “experience”, and on the other hand through the social process we call “indoctrination”, becomes at some point academic - except insofar as or to the extent that the method of influence used involved violence or conscious lies, so that the subject was forced or tricked rather than a voluntary participant.

Similar doubts exist even with regard to the person motivated to virtue by non-religious forces. While good deeds (or restraints), like acts of charity (or non-violence), may have external resemblances, their internal roots vary widely, from mean and ugly ulterior motives to beautiful, uplifting examples of sincere human love and siblinghood. It would be unfair to assume only negative subtexts, and naive to suppose only positive ones.

For these reasons, it is not clear to me why some Rabbis insist that good deeds (or restraints) based on purely secular motives are automatically suspect. I find it hard to believe that human nature is intrinsically evil and lowly, when without explicit Divine guidance. Rather, I think that humans have an innate minimum of morality, expressed in various ways and different in degree from person to person, which it is difficult for them to fall below. Often, to be sure, an individual’s ‘minimum of morality’, the limits he/she will not pass no matter what the stress or temptation, has cultural roots (which may indeed be ultimately religious), but it is there all the same.

A conformity, however superficial, with the law (whether the 7 Mitzvot for non-Jews or the 613 Mitzvot for Jews), is still respectable, even though deeper accord with the spirit of the law is always more admirable. The Rabbis argue that when a law exists (or, rather, is known or thought to exist) the ‘evil impulse’ to resist it is greater, and therefore the obedience of the law is all the more commendable; whereas, actions (or inactions) performed against no such resistance are almost worthless. This may explain why one should rather do right in obedience of a law (applicable to one) than for personal motives, or why a person to whom the law was applicable is more creditable than a person to whom it was not, though both obey it. But in my opinion such argument has only comparative force, it cannot be taken to the extreme.

In brief, even though we can formulate a typology of the more desirable and the less desirable motivations, differences between motivations are in practice often blurred and moot, and it is difficult to judge without prejudicial type-casting just where each person stands.

A person who is well-practiced in the art of self-knowledge may in the limit have a good idea of his/her own motivations; but understanding other people is much more difficult and mostly a guessing game. For our judgment is highly colored by our level of tolerance and love, for ourselves and others. People who habitually judge themselves too harshly will tend to judge others just as or even more harshly; those who are overly complacent with themselves may either be equally so with others (to excuse themselves) or nevertheless judgmental towards others (using double standards).

The true conclusion is that human beings are not like material objects, definitely this or definitely that, their character traits are indefinite - a ‘was somewhat’, a ‘seeming to become’, a ‘tending to be’, rather than a being. It is not always clear just what they are - not merely to us, the subjective or objective observers, but in reality, in fact.

While on the subject of harsh judgment, I would like to comment on an indecent mode of thought some religious people engage in. I refer to the tacit suspicion of every victim, if not every sufferer. They think: ‘if God is just, then every victim/sufferer must have committed some crime/sin in the past for which he/she is thus punished’[8]. In this view, there are no innocent victims/sufferers, and all pity is misplaced, all compassion gratuitous; misfortune becomes proof of hidden fault!

It does not seem credible that God would use a criminal’s misdeed as His instrument for the punishment of the victim: that would imply that, even while condemning such crime, He is in a way an instigator or accomplice of it, and the criminal is in the service of justice! No: crime must be viewed as a person’s initiative, entirely disapproved of by God. God may ex post facto balance the victim’s ledger a bit, but He had no need of the crime for that. We might more credibly regard natural misfortunes as God’s doings for purposes of justice; but even that is, I think, simplistic. Just as God lets crimes take place, so (or all the more so) He lets natural misfortunes occur.

Sufferings suggest a distance taken by God, letting the human drama unfold within certain parameters, usually without interference. (Why such negligence and how to reconcile it with justice, I do not know.) There are some evident causal connections between sufferings and previous misdeeds, but very often (as e.g. with the Shoah) credible explanations are lacking. Balancing of accounts must be a later matter, after life (if at all). That seems to be the only empirical and reasonable viewpoint.


Drawn from Judaic Logic (1995), Chapter 13.



[1]           Kahan's Taryag Mitzvos is worth reading in this context, as an illustration of how mitzvot are currently taught to laypersons. Many of the examples proposed here were drawn from that work, though their analysis is my own.

[2]           The simplest explanation of permissive and/or exemptive ethical propositions in the Torah, is to suppose that God wanted to preempt us (or the Rabbis) from drawing a prohibitive or imperative conclusion.

[3]           Note that in some cases, as I recall (though I cannot appose an example offhand), Scripture itself mentions a motive; if so, it would seem obvious that the specified motive must play a role. As a rule, the Rabbis disapprove of explanations for mitzvot, for fear that the mitzvot might be erroneously limited thereby. For instances: to say that shaving is forbidden because heathen priests engaged in it, might lead people to regard shaving as permissible so long as not performed with idolatrous motives; or again, to say that pork was forbidden because it went bad quickly in hot countries, might lead people to regard it as permissible in cold countries or in the days of refrigerators. But a corollary of that view would be that if Scripture ever explicitly mentions a motive for a mitzvah, then the performance of it without that motive would seem, logically, to be equivalent to non-performance (i.e. to constitute, for a positive mitzvah, a useless act; and for a negative mitzvah, a legitimate loop-hole). A davqa reading, akin to a klal uphrat inference, would in such case seem justified; but I do not know if this position is accepted traditionally, or whether the Rabbis nevertheless generalize the mitzvah.

[4]           Other forms include "A may precede B", "A must not-precede B", "A may not-precede B", and so forth. Intermediate modalities like "should preferably" or "should preferably not" can also be used (these correspond to degrees of probability in natural modality).

[5]           There are many additional prescriptions, such as that if one has taken up the yad tefillin before the rosh tefillin, one should out of respect continue to put it on, or again, if one speaks in the middle of the process, another blessing must be recited; and so on. From the formal point of view, such details constitute a host of conditional (if-then) mitzvot.

[6]           The example here taken is perhaps not the best, being too complex. The text may naturally be interpreted as klal uphrat, meaning that the initial generality is limited to the specifics listed next [fourth hermeneutic rule of R. Ishmael]; or the generality may be viewed as referring to non-copulative erotic acts, while the specifics may refer to copulation, though the wording is the same [lo tikrav legalut ervah, don't approach to uncover nakedness]. Also, the subject of these prohibitions is generally masculine [ish, a man], without clarification concerning the status of the feminine partners. And so forth - but let us ignore such complications in this context.

[7]           Said to correspond to the 248 bones of our bodies and 365 days of the year, and implying the necessity to involve all one's faculties all the time to service of God. (I do not know if our bodies really have precisely 248 bones; as for 365 days, that is a round number, corrected in leap years.)

[8]           There are hints of this view in the Talmud. In Hindu/Buddhist philosophy, the argument refers to 'karma', and presumes a victim to have committed a similar crime in a past life, if not the present one. But this presupposes an infinite regression; crime must have started somewhere, sometime.

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