Dynamist Blog


Several readers have objected to my use of the term mitzvot in the post below, so let me unpack my argument. It is true that mitzvah (the singular form) means "commandment," not "taboo." Jews colloquially use the term to mean "good deed," and a lot of people think that's the definition. But many mitzvot are negative commandments, not positive actions. ("Thou shalt not murder" is a mitzvah, and so is "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.") Most of those negative commandments are what we would call taboos if they were not in a Western context. Much of Jewish law--including such famous provisions as the observance of the Sabbath and the keeping of the dietary laws--is concerned with separation, the clean/unclean distinction, and holiness. Those laws function as taboos, not guides for spiritual practices or behavior toward other people. Hence my loose application of the term below.

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