On Yom Kippur this year, Elliot Cosgrove—rabbi of one of the world’s largest Conservative congregations—began his sermon by speaking of the final two rebbes of the Lubavitcher Ḥasidim, and their unlikely decision to encourage their followers to find secular and unaffiliated Jews and encourage them to do just one mitzvah: putting on t’filin, lighting Shabbat candles, or placing a mezuzah on their doorways. Praising this approach, Cosgrove recalls that in his youth, American Jewry assumed that the Holocaust, Israel, and anti-Semitism could serve as “the threefold mystic cord that we could always count on” to keep Jews bound to their tradition and heritage. Yet this triad has manifestly lost its power. Only doing mitzvot, Jewish deeds, can be counted on to maintain Judaism. (Audio and video are available at the link below.)
Mitzvot are the chords—the commitments and commandments—the sparks that can inspire individual and collective Jewish identity. The proud performance of Jewish deeds that are not contingent on the Shoah, that have nothing to do with how we feel about Israel, and that exist independently of anti-Semitism. Let me be clear: I am not talking about being kind, about a nebulous plea to live according to some inchoate set of Jewish values. I am talking about kashrut, about prayer, about Torah study, about coming to shul, about ts’dakah and yes—t’filin and Shabbat candles, too. I am talking about the Jewish obligation and opportunity to perform distinctly Jewish acts on your own and in the company of other Jews. I am talking about mitzvot.
There, I finally said it. It’s been more than a decade, and I am saying the very thing a rabbi is supposed to say: I am asking you to do mitzvot. . . .
[M]itzvot are the gestures that we make, the rituals we do to express our vertical relationship to the divine. . . . It was Louis Finkelstein, the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who reflected: “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study Torah, God speaks to me.” When I light Shabbat candles, when I put on t’filin every day, when I refrain from eating from one side of the menu in favor of the other, I am—to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s language—taking a leap of action. I am giving expression to a vertical relationship to a God in heaven who exists well beyond the limitations of speech. Mitzvot are the sacred vocabulary that a Jew draws upon to express his or her relationship with the divine. . . .
Our lives are filled with rituals: timebound, dietary, and seasonal. We go to Soul Cycle; we go to yoga. . . . We carve out time for marathons, we shlep to the new workout in SoHo, and we freeze on the sidelines of our children’s club sports in God knows where. We can prioritize just fine—when we deem something to be a priority! American Jews are full of mitzvot, just not the Jewish ones. I want you to take on the Jewish ones!