In tractate Makkot, the Talmud discusses a Jew’s obligation to perform the mitzvot and the division of those mitzvot into 365 negative and 248 positive commandments.
The Talmud posits that King David reduced this number to just eleven essential requirements, delineated in Psalm 15, most of which deal with moral and ethical issues such as speaking the truth and refraining from slander and doing evil against one’s neighbor.
The Talmud then tells us that Isaiah reduced even further the number of essential mitzvot to just six ethical requirements. Again these mitzvot stress the relationship between people. Conspicuously absent are mitzvot between man and God.
The Talmud also relates that Micah reduced these six to three: “What does Hashem want from you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”
Isaiah, according to the Talmud, again reduced these obligations to only two: “Guard justice and do righteousness” and Amos to one: “Seek Me and live.”
Though the worship of God and our underlying relationship with Him are implicit in this text, the stress is on our relationship with people. It is as if an essential purpose of performing God-based commandments is to enhance our relationship with other human beings. That’s not to say that the performance of mitzvot is unimportant, but we seem to be directed to the conclusion that if we only perform commandments that are God-related and stop there, we are not achieving the ultimate purpose of living as a Jew.
Our Orthodox Jewish community is facing a serious challenge. Many of us believe that one need not show respect to and for those who are non-religious or non Jewish. We often tend to speak derogatorily about those who we feel do not meet our religious standards. I have known religious people who pray fervently three times daily with a minyan, yet act unethically in their business practices and arrogantly in their dealings with non-Jews.
Who is to say what is more important? King David, Isaiah and Micah all seem to state that a person with who claims to live by religious values but is wanton in his ethics is not behaving in accordance with what the Torah expects from us.
One can recognize a gadol, a leader of our people, in the way he respects and values all people. He doesn’t judge or offer a disparaging word against people who are not religious, nor does he degrade a non-Jew. He knows that all people are the creation of God and by definition deserve respect and reverence – that each person has some worth and can contribute something precious and valuable.
Our sages describe Yiftach, one of our judges, in a non-complimentary manner, and indeed he was not a leader we should be proud of. Yet our sages state that Yiftach in his generation was equal to the great Samuel in his time. Leaders come in many forms, and each has something positive to leave to his generation regardless of the level of his religious dedication or knowledge of Torah.
There are those who criticize leaders such as Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion. They ask how we can recognize a Jewish state that was formed by people who were not religious. Such a state, they say, is contrary to the dictates of the Torah and, therefore, its creation is meaningless.
But God has many messengers, and a person who is irreligious can also be chosen to ultimately achieve God’s ends. Who says it is better to be a Jew who follows the religious dictates of the Torah but who is unethical in his business practices? How do we know that a Jew who is not shomer Shabbat but is honest and forthright in his dealings with humankind is less virtuous than the religious Jew who is deceitful in his dealings with people?