I am currently reading a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – “To Heal a Fractured World, The Ethics of Responsibility“. I enjoy very much Rabbi Sacks’ writing as he is a big rationalist a thoughtful philosopher and a great writer.
I read a passage yesterday in chapter 8 which is about darkei shalom (ways of peace) which is Judaism’s framework for doing good to people who are outside the covenantal community. He is discussing why we do not recite a berakha (blessing) before doing mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro (commands relating to interpersonal behavior). He discusses first the option that it is because the mitzva require two to do it (the giver and the receiver) and therefor no single person can recite a blessing. He reject this and goes on to discuss a more fundamental difference between mitzvot bein adam la-makom and bein adam le-haveiro. He writes the following:
There is an obvious difference between the two types of command. In the case of commands between us and God, what matters is is the act and the intention with which it was performed… Intention gives the act the characteristic essential to a religious deed in Judaism, namely that it is a response to a command of God. For an act to be holy, it must be designated and dedicated as holy… In that minimalistic sense, intent is necessary.
An act between us and another human being however has a different character. What matters is not the act but the result… The point of the command is its effect on th world, on the other person, not the transaction in the soul between the agent and God….An intention defines the nature of an act, but here what matters is not the act but its outcome.Kantian or Kierkergaardian purity of will is irrelevant. We are not commanded to give to the poor primarily for the salvation of our souls, but for the sake of the poor.
His conclusion is that mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro are not blind decrees but universal rules of conduct, who “cause blessing” rather than needing a blessing and whose purpose is primarily in their effect.
My problem with this is a contradiction with the answer to the basic qusetion of why the world is imperfect. This he relates to in chapter 6 where he discusses tikkun olam (mending the world). The world is imperfect in order to give us a purpose of trying to mend it and get to the perfection by ourselves. If the world was perfect (like if we had no free will) then it would have no purpose because God doesn’t need robots. If the purpose of mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro was just their effect then God would have done it himself.
I would hold that while what he says is true, it is only one side. We are given mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro in order that we will do then and in perfecting the world also perfect ourselves. If I do a good deed and it is undermined in some way so that it’s effect isn’t full, it still has value in that it has changed me. Under this explanation the reason we don’t make a berakha is slightly more subtle. If I am doing an act that is supposed to refine me, then the last thing I want to do is to stand back a second and concentrate on my kavannot (intentions) and proudly proclaim “blessed is God who commanded me to do x”. Firstly, I may have second thoughts if I think about it too much, but more importantly it will promote a smug self-conscious satisfaction that destroys all the personal effect that the act will have on me.