I've read a number of Mi Yodeya questions because they come up in the sidebar of other Stack Exchange sites. They're often very interesting. I am impressed by the commitment the posters have to (for want of a better phrase) getting things right. (I'm thinking mostly about the halakhic discussions—such as this one, the importance of which is not immediately clear to someone outside the tradition; I do see that there are other historical or more narrowly theological posts as well.)

My question is, what is the motivation for an observant Jew to do these things? Is the important thing to be obedient? (And does that have a further significance?) Are you trying to appease God, or cooperate with God? Do individuals (or communities) perceive themselves as working toward a broader historical purpose?

I appreciate your patience; I'm sure as an outsider I've phrased these questions in awkward ways.

Edit: The question is not whether obedience is a good or bad thing in itself, but what motivates individuals or communities to make or find authoritative (if that is the right word) judgments about specific and unforeseen situations, for instance the person concerned about triggering a security camera on the Sabbath. (An alternative might be to say, “There's nothing in our tradition about security cameras, so I won't worry about it.”) Cultures avoid ambiguity to greater or lesser degrees; is that what's going on here? Or is there a religious sense that it's important to get the details right? (which would entail a belief that the Deity really, really cares about attention to detail) If it's religious, does that tie into any broader theological point?

  • Well, yes, the level of detail involved provides a lot of the impetus for the question. I feel like there's a bit more to it, though.
    – adam.baker
    Sep 6, 2016 at 10:35
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    adam.baker, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for sharing your curiosity with us! @Scimonster I don't think this is a duplicate, since this is asking why we follow Halacha at all, which is more basic than why there are so many details.
    – Isaac Moses
    Sep 6, 2016 at 13:46
  • Welcomee to Mi Yodeya. You asks Is the important thing to be obedient?. May be that the answer is yes. But it is not easy to explain how do we get to such a response. One of the keys is that the Tora an out to reach aspect and is also accessible in some manner.
    – kouty
    Sep 6, 2016 at 14:37
  • With your addendum, you've hewn more closely to the question linked above by @Scimonster.
    – Isaac Moses
    Sep 7, 2016 at 10:41
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    But part of the most upvoted answer in that post probably gets at the theological logic that I'm looking for: “Hashem is, as we say in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, השוה ומשוה קטן וגדול - the One to whom small and great are equal, because He is infinitely greater than all of them. So the tiny details of mitzvos are no less part of His purview than the big things - and by our paying attention to those tiny details, we demonstrate our belief in this idea.”
    – adam.baker
    Sep 7, 2016 at 12:36

3 Answers 3


The Jewish tradition teaches that HaShem (G-d) Created the world and us in it to bestow the Ultimate Good upon His creations. The tradition teaches that attaching oneself to HaShem (as expounded in Biblical and Rabbinic literature), including the compliance with His Torah (lit. "instruction"), is the chief method of obtaining the Ultimate Good which HaShem "desires". Also, HaShem cannot "gain" anything from the obedience of His Creations.

As such, it stands to reason that one wanting to obtain the Ultimate Good from HaShem would be meticulous about following the blueprint for life transmitted to us from He Who Created life. From such scrupulousness arise questions like the one you cited.

I have taken these statements from works like Derekh HaShem (RaMHa"L), Messilat Yesharim (RaMHa"L), HaRaMBa"M (e.g. The Thirteen Principles of Faith), and various theological discussions had while at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah.

For answers to subsequent questions like "What is the Jewish concept of G-d?", "How do we know the Torah was transmitted from G-d to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai?", "Why is the Oral Torah binding?" see many other questions around the site. I wish you luck!

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    That's a good response, but a partial answer. You could look at a relatively small corpus like the Tanach and say, “Well, that's as much detail as HaShem cared to specify, so we won't seek specificity beyond that.” (Or, more radically, one could look for more general principles that underlie the Tanach.) I don't know if going one way or another would be a matter of right and wrong, or just the individual personality, or a cultural difference.
    – adam.baker
    Sep 6, 2016 at 11:00
  • @adam.baker The problem with that being "as much detail as HaShem cared to specify" is that there are what appear to be glaring contradictions, omissions and grammatical errors in the Biblical canon that one cannot resolve without the Oral Tradition.
    – Lee
    Sep 6, 2016 at 11:06
  • Or one might conclude that those parts just weren't very important to the message—otherwise a contradiction (for instance) wouldn't have been tolerated. (I don't know a great deal about the Oral Tradition, though.)
    – adam.baker
    Sep 6, 2016 at 11:31
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    @adam.baker this does a fine job of answering such a broad and multifaceted question, on my opinion.If there is a problem it is a question that is too broad. Furthermore, the issue of rabbinic Judaism vs biblical Judaism, the oral law, and the issue of small details ate covered elsewhere in the site.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 6, 2016 at 12:57
  • Okay, I've edited my question to try to make it clearer.
    – adam.baker
    Sep 7, 2016 at 8:32

The Jewish tradition teaches that Hashem (G-d) Created the world and us in it to bestow the Ultimate Good upon His creations. The tradition teaches that the Ultimate Good must logically include the ability to be like Him, and therefore must include the possibility of being creative beings who can commit ourselves to bestowing Good upon others as well. We therefore live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people so that we can complete ourselves, giving ourselves self-definition as He has, and so that there are wrongs for us to right. In what might seem a paradox, being people in an imperfect world is closer to the Ultimate Good than being passive recipients in a perfect one. And it is from that dialectic that all of the complexity of the human condition emerges.

G-d therefore gave humanity a system of seven laws by which to perfect that Image of the Divine, the being within us who can give to others. He also gave humanity a living text, the Jewish People, as a priest caste to help us achieve that goal. Something Judaism has done, often without conscious trying, in the rise of ethical monotheism around most of the world, including being the cause of Christianity and Islam.

And to help the Jews achieve our additional mission, we were given a much more complex rite, and a complex Torah with which to determine that rite. Because the "text" is supposed to be living in the Jewish People, most of the Torah was left oral, for us to evolve as we do, so that the "parchment" is primarily not that of the Torah scroll, but of the Jewish soul.

All these mitzvot and their myriad details are a discipline to help Jews partner with G-d in bestowing good upon others. This requires building a relationship with Him, it requires honing one's character to be more like His, to be both giving (chessed) and have self-discipline (gevurah). In other words, to produce the golden eggs of bestowing on others, and the much more time occupying take of caring for the goose, the soul which can do so.

To insure that the evolution of Torah and its displine for life do not lose their target meaning, that human involvement in the process does not fall prey to ethical and moral fashions that the Maker knows will bestow things that are not the Ultimate Good in the long run, He anchored that process in a legalistic framework. And so, halakhah -- Jewish Law, evolves, but according to laws of how it should evolve.

We could not ignore the effects of electronica on the experience of Shabbos because that would mute its effect as part of caring for the goose that lays the golden eggs, the production of giving souls. Self-discipline is a major part of the point, having well defined exercises in partnering with G-d, in resisting the momentary satisfaction of creature comforts when it gets in the way of long-term good, and in giving to others.

(The above is based on Rav Shimon Shkop's introduction to Shaarei Yosher, available with translation here; Rav Dessler's Discourse on Lovingkindness, available in Strive for Truth, vol. 1, pp 118-159; and Rav Shlomo Wolbe's Olam haYedidus (world of affection), a variant of which is available in translation here. As well as many other sources. And yes, the opening was intentionally phrased to show a balance between Lee's answer and another approach to Judaism.)

  • I don't quite see how the paragraphs following the first directly answer the question. Respectfully, they are largely tangential or irrelevant to the underlying question IMHO (e.g. paragraphs 2-3). Condensing this answer would improve it.
    – Lee
    Sep 8, 2016 at 11:23
  • @Lee: That's funny, because I was was trying to imitate your answer, but for the sake of presenting a fuller survey of answers (eilu va'eilu divrei E-lokim Chaim) I replaced your Chassidus-derived philosophy with a Mussar-derived one. Both of us started with a statement of man's job in this world, followed by why that mission statement implies a need for attention to legalistic details. The purpose of mitzvos is to produce baalei chesed who are doing so to emulate G-d, but many (most?) of the mitzvos specific to Jews are about being a mamlekhes kohanim rather than the goal directly itself. Sep 8, 2016 at 17:19
  • I don't mean to offend as elements of your answer are indeed insightful. I just don't find them directly pertinent to the question. I also don't recall citing Hasidic sources.
    – Lee
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:21
  • @Lee: The split between Chassidus and Lithuanian Judaism primarily revolves around whether the goal of life is to acheive deveiqus to Hashem (Chassidus), or to work toward sheleimus / temimus (Litvishkeit). Related: they disagree about tzimtzum: Chassidus says it's an illusion, and therefore deveiqus is quite acheivable; the Gra felt that it was real, but of G-d's Will, not His Essence. (And Nefesh haChaim seems to embrace both -- a real tzimtzum of His Will causing the illusion of tzimtzum of His Essence.) In any case, your opening paaragraph shows a chassidus-derived hashkafah. Sep 8, 2016 at 17:27
  • Thank you for the concise and insightful summary. As a matter of fact, though, I lifted the first paragraph of my answer almost verbatim from the first section of Derekh HaShem. From what I recall, HaRaMHa"L was not Hasidic.
    – Lee
    Sep 8, 2016 at 18:52

B"H This is an amazing question--one of the best on the site, I think.

A lot of people are quick to point out that myths, fabrications, lies, and willful blindness are part of every religion. These people are right not only about religion, but that these falsehoods are a part of every group belief, and perhaps every individual belief as well.

In religion, as they understand it, a bunch of people collude to believe, then persuade others to believe in a set of outrageous, unscientific, ahistorical, and empty stories--whether about rebbeim, golems, seas that open, snakes that talk, or a G-d Who whispers laws. It is taken as a certainty that to propagate such lies is wicked--especially when the truth (science) is right in front of one.

I propose that instead of looking only at the morality of inventing mythical tradition, we also consider the intent.

Where it concerns tyrants, bad governments, and the excessively power- and money-hungry, these lies are indeed wicked. It is wicked to convince one's starving civilians that one was born under a double-rainbow and thence innovated every bit of good the world has ever known, when actually one steals from the citizens, starves them, and frequently destroys them. It is probably also wicked to sow lies as part of a religion with no higher goal than to filch money from its followers.

But Judaism is not this. If Judaism were all lies--and it is not--the goal of these lies would be, at best, to promote a genuine attachment to and awareness of G-d; a deep sense of indebtedness and obligation to G-d; the desire and action to create a just and stable society; the impulse to treat others charitably, and to sacrifice trivial needs for transcendent concerns, including life, memory, hope, awe and wonder, and love. At worst, the goal of these lies would be to ensure--through cohesion, through personal and communal discipline, through mutual responsibility, and through insularity--the survival of a people.

Why we make and refine (and refine, and refine) our myths, then, is because we seek good through them. And because G-d gave them to us.

  • I don't see how this answers the OP's question.
    – Ploni
    Mar 19, 2017 at 22:39
  • @Ploni Yeah, it only does obliquely, I'm aware. Still, I wanted to answer it like this, so I did.
    – SAH
    Mar 20, 2017 at 1:12

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