Conscience: A Still Small Voice. Every Jew knows the Sh'ma, the biblical declaration of God's unity, which the Rabbis of the Talmud used as a pledge of allegiance. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone." This verse signified an acceptance of God's sovereignty over each individual Jew.
To this day, pious Jews recite it during the Shacharit prayers in the morning, during Ma'ariv at night, and again in bed before falling asleep. In Parshat Ki Tavo, the Torah presents a second Sh'ma, one no less revolutionary in its insight. The Torah says, "Hear, O Israel . . . the voice of the Lord your God and observe His mitzvot and His laws."
Judaism, as presented in the Torah and in rabbinic writings, insists on the fusion of the ritual and the ethical. That blend of moral sensitivity and ritual profundity meets in the 'mitzvah,' the commanded deed.
One would assume, therefore, that a Jew who observes the 'mitzvot' is fulfilling all possible religious expectations. But if that is the case, why does this second Sh'ma need to add an additional category? "Observe His mitzvot and His laws" should suffice, so why are we also told to "hear the voice of the Lord?"
The Torah alerts us to the central role of conscience within traditional Judaism. The requirement to go "mishurat lifnim ha-din, beyond the limits of the law," springs from the accurate perception that what is legal represents a moral minimum, a kind of popular consensus of the possible.
But law does not exhaust the full extent of morality. While establishing communal norms for the minimal acceptable behavior, law is unable to cultivate the fullest and highest in human living. Judaism recognizes the need for conscience to supplement the consensus of the law.
Thus, Abraham opposes God when God wants to destroy the city of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses refuses to cooperate when God in enraged with the Jewish people in the wilderness. The prophet Jeremiah goes so far as to put God on trial! All this in the name of religion, in the name of the God of the Torah!
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, the Ramban, recognized the role of conscience when he spoke of a “naval birshut ha-Torah," a scoundrel within the permissible limits of the Torah. Without the call of conscience, one can separate the letter of the law from its ultimate intention, to the detriment of both law and justice.
One can observe the 'mitzvah' of 'kashrut' (the dietary laws) and still be a glutton. One can pursue the 'mitzvah' of 'tikkun olam' (social justice) while still treating close associates as objects and neglecting the emotional needs of family members.
Observing the 'mitzvot' is not only commendable, it is obligatory. The God of Israel calls us to a life of service, compassion and sanctity. But observing the 'mitzvot' is not enough. We are also called to "hear God's voice," which the Tanach portrays as "a still, small voice." That voice corroborates a higher truth within. It awakens us to a fuller understanding of ourselves and our obligations toward other human beings and to the planet as a nurturing home.
The 'mitzvot' are necessary to provide a basic minimum. Just as with other legal systems, 'halachah' builds a communal consensus around the basic requirements of honesty, respecting the rights of others and lawful living.
Unique to Jewish law is its additional concern to make holiness a regular part of individual and communal comportment. But 'halachah' is not able to cope with the cement that holds civilization together: trust, decency and goodness. Such matters can never be fully regulated by law. Instead, Jewish law relies on the commitment of the Jewish people not only to 'halachah,' but to the source of 'halachah,' the source of morality -- to God. And God speaks not only through the 'halachah,' but through conscience as well.