Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Mitzvah’ Problem
Gay-Catholic-conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan has many spheres of writerly expertise. Jewish religious terminology isn’t one of them.
In a recent post on his blog, Sullivan discussed his marriage. “To watch someone you love blossom and grow and mature and thrive is what my Jewish friends call a mitzvah,” Sullivan wrote.
This prompted a reader to write in:
Andrew, it wouldn’t be a “mitzvah” to watch “someone you love blossom and grow and mature and thrive”! A mitzvah is a good deed, basically. Informally, your Jewish friends would use “mitzvah” to describe the helping of an old lady across the street or the donation of a kidney or the unrequested cutting of your neighbour’s lawn. I don’t know what they’d call what you’re describing…in Yiddish, they might say you were “schepping nachas,” which means, basically, to be filled with pride because of the accomplishments of someone else.
To which Sullivan replied, still misusing the word “mitzvah”:
Schepping someone’s nachas sounds pretty gay to me. So I’m in! What I meant, I think, is that it’s a blessing, a mitzvah from God.
A “mitzvah,” of course, is Hebrew for a Divine commandment, not “blessing” (though, a religious reader might note, we Jews are blessed to have commandments — all 613 of them!). The word is used colloquially to mean “a good deed.”
Credit where credit is due, though: In his original post, Sullivan did use the words “mazel tov” perfectly.