A modern makeover for the 613 commandments

stacey palevsky | staff writer

Thousands of years ago, the Jewish people were given the Torah — and quite the “to do” list, with 613 commandments in it.

How relevant are these mitzvahs today? For example, one reads: Relieve a neighbor of his burden and help to unload his beast.

Yes, in the days when the Tribe was actually a tribe, this guideline was probably useful, just as another mitvah — about giving the Kohen the due portions of the carcass of cattle — was handy at some point.

But what do these mitzvahs mean in the modern age?

Two Bay Area Jews are trying to figure that out by asking people to go online (www.revelation.xoxco.com) and ponder: What is the core message of the commandments? What does that message mean today? How can we apply this to our modern lives?

They call the project (Re)velation. The online submissions — a mix of audio and written “remixes” — will be part of an interactive multimedia art installation June 7 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Shavuot celebration, DAWN 2008.

“I want to encourage an appreciation for interpretation in Jewish life and to invite people into that conversation,” said Ari Kelman, a U.C. Davis professor who created (Re)velation with Ben Brown, a social media consultant.

Both are involved in Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit helping plan DAWN 2008. The organization encourages creative Jews to “reboot” Jewish traditions and make them relevant once again in modern life.

Since (Re)velation has gone live on the Web, submissions have ranged from the serious to the irreverent.

For instance, the commandment to relieve neighbors of burdens was remixed by Sharon Greenfield to say, “Be a part of your community; know and help your friends, neighbors, city and colleagues.” An anonymous person wrote, “Help your friends move when they ask — yes, even the sofa.”

Kelman and Brown said many of their friends admitted to never having read all 613 mitzvahs, yet they were fascinated by their depth and breadth.

“I make no claims to be replacing or enhancing the rabbinic tradition. But a relatively elite group of people has engaged in this discussion, and I’m excited a broader audience will be able to talk about these things,” Brown said. “I hope they feel a bit more ownership of what the mitzvot mean, and how they actually apply to their lives.”

Since DAWN is an all-night affair, (Re)velation will evolve throughout the evening as attendees can write or record their interpretation of the 613 mitzvahs, remixes that will be immediately added to the space.

“The goal is to use this modern technique of crowd-sourcing — a wisdom of masses — to tease out the core meaning of the mitzvahs,” Brown said.

The remixed version of another mitzvah (“Do not add to the commandments of the Torah, whether in the written law or in its interpretation received by tradition”) says: “Do not remix these commandments!”

But Kelman and Brown — and hundreds of other young Jews, they hope — are reimagining them anyway.

Mitzvahs… reconsidered

(Re)velation asks Jews to consider if ancient Jewish laws are still relevant today, and if so, how those guidelines might provide wisdom in 21st-century life. Add your own ideas at www. revelation.xoxco.com. Some examples:

Original: Honor father and mother.

Remixed: You don’t call enough. They’re worried.

Original: To leave ol’loth (the imperfect clusters) of the vineyard for the poor.

Remixed: Instead of trying to sell your old clothes to stores like Crossroads, leave them washed and neatly folded on your curb — there is someone who needs them more than the $6 you’ll get for them at Wasteland.

Original: Be fruitful and multiply.

Remixed: Have no more than two kids — tuition is expensive.

Original: Food becomes defiled by contact with unclean things.

Remixed: There is no five-second rule.