What’s a Mitzvah? The New York Times Gets It Wrong
by Ira Stoll
A New York Times article reports about a French book, newly translated into English, called “The Postcard,” by Anne Berest.
The Times reports: “Berest calls ‘The Postcard” her ‘mitzvah.’ ‘In Hebrew, it means something you do for your community. I didn’t care whether it would be a hit. I had done what I had to do.’”
A mitzvah means a commandment. Sure, some people might be motivated to fulfill commandments out of a sense of communal obligation or from a desire to be of service to their fellow community members. And among the 613 commandments are some that command people to do things for their community. But other mitzvot seem to be primarily about serving God, not the community. And some mitzvot are about doing things for the rest of the world, beyond “your community.” Berest’s translation is imprecise to the point of inaccuracy, and the Times does readers a disservice by passing it along unchecked.
Berest and the Times certainly aren’t alone in using the word mitzvah or the plural mitzvot in this broader, more general sense of a good deed. The March-April issue of Harvard Magazine carries a column by the university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, headlined “Mitzvot,” which reports that during a visit to Londorf, Germany, Bacow challenged his audience “to do good deeds, or mitzvot in Hebrew.” Hebrew actually has different words for good deeds—ma’asim tovim.
The Times treatment matches a larger pattern at the paper of clumsiness when it comes to matters of Jewish literacy. The article about the Berest book suffers from it elsewhere when it mentions that Berest “had never attended service at a synagogue when she started the investigation that led to ‘The Postcard.’” The idiomatic way to say that would be to say that someone had never attended services or to say that someone had never attended a service. “Never attended service,” sounds like someone trying to figure out a Jewish way to say “never attended Mass.”
This may appear to be a minor pedantic point about a mistranslation, but it goes to a big theological issue. The Times has done better on this in the past. A 1978 Times article, for example, accurately reported, “Mitzvah is a Hebrew word for commandment, and many commandments are associated with good deeds.” A 1963 Times article about a working visit by Jewish youth to Puerto Rico said, “In Hebrew, mitzvah means a commandment to do a good deed helpful to mankind.” That’s imperfect, but at least it included the notion of commandment, which has gone missing from today’s Times.
Plenty of modern people are uncomfortable with the idea of a commandment-giving God—both with the sense of obligation imposed on the recipient of a commandment, and with the characterization of God as having made such commands. In my view, if you subtract the commandedness or the commander and leave just the good deeds, you get something that’s watered down, harder to sustain from generation to generation, and harder to distinguish from other secular and non-Jewish moral frameworks. Eliminating the idea of “commandment” goes beyond a mistranslation to a misunderstanding.
Perhaps it’s asking too much of the Times to have editors and reporters who are sensitive enough to understand these subtleties, and perhaps the misunderstanding is more Berest’s and less that of the Times. The act of publishing a sympathetic feature about a book that highlights antisemitism and the Holocaust suggests the Times doesn’t intend here to be hostile to Jews or Judaism. But given the recent high-profile hostility by the Times to the segment of the Jewish community—Orthodoxy—that takes the idea of commandedness most seriously, one can understand why readers would be unusually alert to any perceived slights.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.