Integrating Our Thoughts, Feelings, Desires, and Actions

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on January 27, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

One common way in which Jews think about the differences between Judaism and Christianity is that Christianity requires one to affirm beliefs while Judaism requires us to act in specific ways. Both of these are, of course, exaggerations, for Evangelical Christians, for example, know that when they think about how to act, they are supposed to ask WWJD – What would Jesus do? Furthermore, based on sayings of Jesus, Christians commonly presume that they are bound by the Torah’s commandments included in the Decalogue and in the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. Conversely, although Jews are never required to affirm a set of beliefs to retain their Jewish identity, it is certainly the case that Judaism asserts a number of beliefs about, for example, God, human beings, the People Israel, our mission in life, and the ideal world toward which we must work. Because of the argumentative nature of Judaism, however, Jews have never been able to agree on exactly what the fundamental beliefs of Judaism are. As Rabbi Louis Jacobs showed in his book, Principles of the Jewish Faith: An Analytical Study, each of the thirteen principles that Maimonides posited was later interpreted in multiple and various ways, with God’s oneness, for example, understood in 32 different ways!

Even with those caveats, though, it is still by and large true that Judaism focuses on actions – both what we are required to do and what we should not do. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that in the Decalogue, which we read in this week’s Torah reading. There are three commandments that, at least on the face of it, ask us to think, feel, and desire in specific ways. We are to remember the Sabbath day, we are to honor our father and mother, and we are not to covet our neighbor’s spouse or property (Exodus 20:8, 12, 14).

Some Rabbinic voices immediately translate these commandments into rules about our actions. So, for example, the commandment to remember the Sabbath day is transformed, according to one of the Sages, into a duty to postpone using any good object or food found during the week until the Sabbath, thus remembering the Sabbath in action during the week (B. Beitzah 16a). Others say that we remember the Sabbath by calling each of the other days with reference to Shabbat, so that Sunday, for example, is not called by a special name but only “the first day” before Shabbat, Monday, “the second day” before Shabbat, etc. (Mekhilta on Ex. 20:8). Still others say that we fulfill the commandment to remember the Sabbath by reciting Kiddush on Friday nights and Havdallah on Saturday nights (Maimonides, M.T. Laws of the Sabbath 29:1). Similarly, the commandment to honor one’s parents the Rabbis translate into concrete actions that one must do for one’s parents (usually when they are elderly) when they cannot do them themselves – feed them, clothe them, and lead them in and out (B. Kiddushin 31b). Finally, some rabbis translate the commandment not to covet what belongs to your neighbor to a commandment to avoid some action. The Mekhilta, an early Rabbinic midrash, specifically restricts this commandment to acting on one’s illegitimate desires, not having them (Mekhilta, “Bahodesh” 8 [end]). Maimonides understands this commandment as prohibiting pressuring your neighbor to sell something that you desire.

There are good reasons to transform these commandments that seem to require or forbid a mental or emotional state into actions because we can control our actions much more easily than we can control our thoughts, desires, or emotions. Furthermore, others can know about your actions and thus hold you accountable, but often your thoughts, desires, or emotions are private to the person having them and can only be guessed by outsiders. (Philosophers call this “the privacy of the mind,” and it leads to some interesting moral questions). Moreover, it is often the case that what you think, desire, or feel affects the welfare of others only if you act on these inner states of being.

And yet, one wonders whether those who transform these three commandments from duties of our hearts and minds into duties of our bodies have misread and shortchanged what the Torah had in mind. After all, we are not only beings who act. We also think, feel, and desire. Therefore it seems appropriate that God should be concerned about these faculties of ours and give us some instructions about how we should use them. To focus solely on our actions seems to flatten the Torah’s concerns to our actions alone, neglecting that as human beings we are more than what we do.

The problems are worse than that. We understand full well that one can fulfill all of the laws of the Sabbath – both positive and negative – and nevertheless not have a day with the Shabbat spirit of distinction from the other days of the week and devotion to family, community, ultimate values, and God. Similarly, one can feed, clothe, and transport one’s elderly parents and do it in a way that is dismissive, belittling, and even angry, thus certainly not honoring them through these actions.

The Rabbis are fully aware of this danger of ignoring the tie between our inner and outer beings – between our thoughts, desires, and emotions on one hand, and our actions on the other. Thus even though they spell out many laws governing the Sabbath, what they themselves describe as “a mountain hanging on a hair” (M. Makkot 1:10), because the Sabbath is then governed by a mass of Rabbinic laws rooted in very few biblical laws, they nevertheless require that one also honor and enjoy it, based on the verse, “If you call the Sabbath ‘delight,’ the Lord’s holy day ‘honored,’ and if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs nor strike bargains, then you seek the favor of the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14). Maimonides (M.T. Laws of the Sabbath, Chapter 30), then spells out ways in which we honor and delight in the Sabbath, including wearing clean clothes, preparing special foods, etc. In modern times we speak of the totality of these measures as ru’ah Shabbat, “the spirit of the Sabbath” that we must keep in mind because following all the rules governing action on that day does not necessarily enable one to experience what it was designed to lead you to think and feel.

Probably the most graphic indication, though, that the Rabbis knew that following the law in action was not enough and that one must pay attention to the thoughts and feelings one has while carrying out one’s actions is this midrash with regard to honoring one’s parents:

One man may feed his father on fattened chickens and inherit Hell [as his reward], and another may put his father to work in a mill and inherit Paradise.

How is it possible that a man might feed his father fattened chickens and inherit Hell? It once happened that a man used to feed his father fattened chickens. Once his father said to him: “My son, where did you get these?” He answered: “Old man, old man, eat and be silent, just as dogs eat and are silent.” In such an instance, he feeds his father fattened chickens, but he inherits Hell.

How is it possible that a man might put his father to work in a mill and inherit Paradise? It once happened that a man was working in a mill. The king decreed that his aged father should be brought to work for him. The son said to his father: “Father, go and work in the mill in place of me [and I will go to work for the king], for it may be [that the workers for the king will be] ill-treated, in which case let me be ill-treated instead of you. And it may be [that the workers for the king will be] beaten, in which case let me be beaten instead of you.” In such an instance, he puts his father to work in a mill, but he inherits Paradise (J. Pe’ah 1:1 [15c]; cf. B. Kiddushin 31a-31b; S.A. Yoreh De’ah 240:4)

It is with regard the third commandment of the Decalogue that speaks to our inner life, the commandment not to covet, that I have the most trouble understanding. Aside from the actions that it might prohibit, as described above, it cannot proscribe all wanting of what your neighbor has, for then all business would be prohibited. After all, you only buy something if you wanted it first. This clearly cannot be the meaning of the verse, for the Torah in other places gives us a multitude of laws governing business and thus presumes that we engage in it. So exactly what inner states is it prohibiting? Too much desire for other’s property? Desires for others’ property without understanding that one may not just take it, either by stealth or by force? Illegitimate desires for some other person’s spouse or life in general?

In any case, the lesson I hope that we learn from this discussion is that yes, Judaism focuses on our actions, and for very good reasons, but it also pays attention to our inner being, to our thoughts, our emotions, and our desires, as indicated by the commandments in the Decalogue to remember the Sabbath, honor our parents, and refrain from coveting what belongs to others. We have, as the medieval Jewish thinker Bahya ibn Pakuda, asserted in his two books by these names, both Duties of the Limbs and Duties of the Heart. For good reasons, Jewish law shied away from governing our inner lives, but that was not because it thought our thoughts, feelings, and desires are unimportant. In fact, the very quality of our obedience of the commandments in action depends critically on the thoughts, feelings, and desires we have while carrying out those actions. So let us strive, both in our religious lives and in or lives in general, to serve God, as the Shema says, and, by extension, to serve our fellow human beings, “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might,” for we are not only bodies that act but also people who think, feel, and desire.

Shabbat shalom.