The performance of the commandments (mitzvot) has traditionally been conceived as a dual imperative: the contemplation of the content and inner meaning of the mitzvah, and its physical expression. Jewish writings have dealt extensively with the questions arising from this duality, weighing the value of deed against that of intention and seeking the relationship between the two.
Devout men throughout the ages have generally stressed the intention over the deed. Nevertheless, they also felt that while a deed without intention is like a body without a spirit, intention without deed is similarly imperfect, like an illusive apparition, having existence but no substance. Thus for these men, in the real of mitzvoth, there was no deed without intention, and no intention without deed.
The questions that prompted the continual re-discussion of this issue are still with us today. However, what was for our forefathers a complex problem of vital importance has become for us just another question for which a pat, uncritical answer will suffice. The modern Jew tends to avoid confronting this problem by stressing intention to the detriment of deed, resulting in a disintegration of the totality of the mitzvah.
For some people, the mitzvah-act (deed) becomes a mere expression of good intention, while for others it is even an obstacle to attaining the true sense of love, awe or communion with the Divine; thus the physical expression or deed itself is nothing more than a symbol, an empty gesture devoid of essential religious content.
This grasp of religion so prevalent in our time has been seen to differ radically from that of previous generations. To fathom such differences in religious outlook, an understanding of three integral elements is necessary: an understanding of the nature of man, an awareness of the relation between God and man, and an apprehension of the essence of Divinity. In Judaism, as in other religions, the changes of attitudes and thought that have taken place with the passage of time have affected each of these elements, and thus religious outlook as a whole. Furthermore, the interrelationships between the factors themselves have often accelerated such changes. For example, any development in the understanding of the nature of man alters the substance of man's relation with God: as the self-esteem of man increases, acknowledgement of his dependence on God decreases. The greater man grows in his own eyes, the more God seems to diminish.
Just as increased emphasis on the value of man influences the quality and force of religion, so do today's humanistic aspirations have their effect on the perception of Divinity. If religion requires fulfilling the will of God, then whatever one understands of Divine will influences the essentials of religion, such as the nature of Divine service and the tension between intention and deed.
Although a detailed philosophical discussion of theology cannot be presented here, it will, nevertheless, prove useful to inquire into the essence of Divinity as understood by religious people. Consider the following list: table, stone, bird; idea, ideal, dream; God. In which category should God be placed: in the category of concrete objects or in that of the abstract concepts, idea, ideal and dream?
Most people, religious and non-religious, would quite likely place God in the category of spiritual or abstract concepts, rather than with the concrete and substantial. Such a classification has far-reaching significance. It is an evaluation deying God many of the attributes of physical reality and concrete existence. If the Divinity is an abstraction, an idea without substance, one may question the degree of reality of God and be led to doubt His very existence.
The God of such a believer is a shadow – a shadow resting on the soul – about whose reality there is often grave doubt. It is an intellectually experienced Divinity. Once God is apprehended in this fashion, certain consequences are unavoidable. If God is a spiritual concept, He should be served with ideas, silent prayer or meditation. Is it not a contradiction to serve an abstract spiritual Divinity by concrete physical actions?
However, all Jewish thinkers and philosophers have rejected the view that God is a spiritual concept. They stress that just as God is infinitely above and removed from the familiar, physical universe, so He is removed from man's conception of spirituality – even in its highest form. It is, therefore, as sacrilegious to attribute spiritual qualities to God as it is to attribute physical ones to Him.
The question that then arises is: If God is neither substance nor spirit, what is He? The answer often given is that man cannot even begin to know the essence of God. One can only hope to experience the actuality of His being. Such an experience of Divinity cannot proceed by a logical or inferential analysis of various aspects of His existence; it is based on the actual experience of His presence. God, then, is a reality. He is the real substantivity, and there is no "reality" outside of His being.
This brings us back to the problem of the preference of intention over deed. When God is recognized as infinite, there is no significance to the distinction between His substantiality or spirituality. Therefore, the spiritual intentions of man, no matter how pure or noble, are not necessarily closer to the Divine will than the most concrete, physical actions – in the eyes of God they are equal. God is as close to, or removed from, the corporeal as he is to the spiritual, and the simple, physical aspects of the mitzvoth have as great a religious relevance to the doer as do the spiritual ones.
The essence of this conception is a physical, as well as spiritual, perception of the actuality of God at each and every moment, the feeling that "He fill His world and activates all His worlds." For He is able to manifest Himself in every physical sensation just as in the most sublime, spiritual awareness. In performing the mitzvah of winding the phylacteries, for example, one is as conscious of performing the Divine will in winding the straps as one is in making the spiritual effort to realize "And thou shalt love the Lord they God." Such a Jew is in true harmony with the Divine will.