Are Jewish Rituals Passé?
Dear Jew in the City,
Someone told me that the mitzvos don’t count anymore – all God wants is our goodness. Why else did the prophet Micah say: “What does God require of you? Only to do justly love, mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?” Why did he say “only.” Also, I know there’s something about circumsicion of the heart instead of the flesh. Doesn’t that mean it’s all in our heart and that ritual is passé?
Thanks for your question. Despite what some people might have you think, the mitzvos never go out of style. This point is made repeatedly in the Torah. Deuteronomy 29:28 says, “That which is revealed is for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah.” So we see that the Torah applies forever. Furthermore, no additions or deletions might be made; Deuteronomy 13:1 says, “All these things that I command to you, be careful to perform. Do not add to it or detract from it.”
But couldn’t God change His mind? No. Numbers 23:19 tells us, “God is not a person that he should lie, nor a human being that he should change his mind.” So Micah could not mean that mitzvos no longer apply because (a) the Torah applies forever, (b) mitzvos may not be removed from the Torah and (c) God does not change His mind.
So what did Micah mean? I believe that Micah is addressing the what, rather than the how. This is similar to the famous story of Hillel and Shammai, as told in Talmud Shabbos 31a:
A non-Jew who wanted to convert to Judaism approached the great sage Shammai and said, “Accept me as a convert on the condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai drove the man away for being ridiculous and wasting his time. The man then approached Hillel with the same offer, “Accept me as a convert on the condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel accepted this condition and responded, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the entirety of the Torah; the rest is all explanation – now go and study it!”
What Hillel – and Micah – are telling us is that God wants us to be good people. What the Torah tells us is HOW to be good people. It’s like if I tell you, “All I want is for you to make me a tuna casserole.” I could leave you to your own devices, but it makes a lot more sense for me to give you a recipe.
The same is true with the idea of “circumcising the heart.” You don’t cite a source for “circumcision of the heart instead of the flesh” and I don’t know of a verse that suggests circumcision of the heart to the exclusion of the regular kind. The phrase appears in Deuteronomy twice, as well as in Jeremiah. The fact that the Torah tells us twice to “circumcise our hearts” (Deut. 10:16 and 30:6) should dispel any thought that it’s instead of regular circumcision, which is in the selfsame Torah. In fact, verses like “Hashem your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6) suggest to me that intention of circumcision of the heart is to enable us to better perform the mitzvos, not to obviate them!
But no matter how you slice it (no pun intended), circumcision is one of the mitzvos, which we have already shown apply forever.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent