The Religious Autonomy Project: Finding Our Own Ways in Serving G-d

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, WebYeshiva

Introduction: The Question of Mitzvot

Welcome to my new project for the WebYeshiva blog. In my Mission of Orthodoxy project, I shared what a wide range of sources identify as the core of the religion. Part of my point in those posts was that halacha, Jewish law, sets out so many ideals that we can lose sight of the overall thrust of the religion by focusing on the details of a subset of its laws. In very short sum, I tried to emphasize that our observance of halacha must always contribute to service of God, the true goal of human life.

Part of what I began to show there, and want to expand upon here, is that while halacha is necessary to service of God, it is insufficient. That is, even a Jew who did not pick and choose but observed all of halacha would not find enough information about how to construct an ideal Jewish life. Rather, traditional sources show that God insists on our making personal choices as to how best to express our connection to the Divine. Halacha and hashkafa (Jewish thought) offer necessary and indispensable guidance as to how to do that, but significant aspects of a well-lived life are almost entirely personal, for each of us to figure out for ourselves. I mean to show, then, that halacha is more of a framework than the be-all, end-all of religiosity it is sometimes taken for.

Isn’t It Obvious?

While I am most interested in this idea because it is true and it shows us untapped fields of religious excellence where we could roam free, it also contributes to solving a problem many have with Judaism. Particularly in democracies, we are acutely aware of our own importance, of the value of our personal opinions. The idea that religion tells us exactly what to do grates on us, yet Judaism steadfastly—and correctly, I will certainly say—insists that the tradition knows better than we do.

In philosophy, Immanuel Kant highlighted the problem when he derided Judaism’s inferiority on these very grounds. In his view, Judaism wants obedience, whereas Kant insisted that other-commanded acts cannot be as morally valuable as personally chosen and free-willed ones. The philosophical debate uses words like heteronomy and autonomy, but many Jews have sufficiently absorbed that perspective regardless of the terminology. This instinctive preference for personal input creates some tension when the religion “merely” wants us to follow God’s laws.[i]

I won’t review the history of attempts to defend Judaism against Kant’s claims, I will only note that I here hope to contribute by showing that he was wrong on both counts. First, Judaism is not as heteronomous as he assumed; most of my thrust will be to show that God “prefers” free-willed human choices. On the other hand, I can note why commandments would be necessary as well.

It Is Good That You Hold On To This, and Also From This Rest Not Your Hand

I am claiming, in other words, that I can stress both obedience to halacha and the importance of personal choice within a fully traditional religious view, and that doing so will materially advance our understanding of Judaism’s message (for all humanity). As with the Mission project, our discussions here will lead us to see ways that even observant Jews need to recalibrate their observance, their worldview, and their educational systems.

One difference from the Mission is that here I will not try to be unequivocal, only persuasive. In line with my stress here on personal intuition, I offer the product of my own, and must therefore relinquish my attempts to be indisputable. The understandings of texts I will offer will be my best attempt to understand those texts’ original intent, but I cannot say that they are the only possible way to read the message of tradition.

And there are sources that seem to stress the opposite of what I am saying. Perhaps most famously, Jewish tradition took pride in the Jews’ saying, “we will do and we will comprehend” when offered the Torah, placing obedience before understanding, chronologically and conceptually.[ii] On the other hand, sufficient sources celebrate human creativity. For the most famous and oft-quoted example, R. Joshua’s rejection of a Heavenly voice, arguing that the Torah is “not in Heaven,” in the Talmud’s presentation, elicited laughing acceptance from God.[iii]

One proponent of a middle view, emphasizing the role of both obedience and creativity in a Jewish life, was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whose works Halachic Man and Halachic Mind elaborated on the freedom and creativity of the halachic thinker.

The Necessity and Role of Halacha

I believe R. Soloveitchik left me room to explore further in two ways. First, he did not, as far as I have seen, fully discuss why God commanded mitzvot rather than just allowing us to formulate ways to worship God on our own. I will try to show, in the next few posts, that God’s original plan indeed envisioned a more minimal legal territory than currently.

Crucial episodes in the history of humanity show that God “preferred” human autonomy in figuring out how best to serve Him. The rules we have today, those sources suggest, only came about when humanity failed to come up with reasonable options of its own.

God legislates, that would mean, where humanity was either unable or unwilling to understand the task ahead, failed to shoulder its responsibility to build a life of service based on the information at hand. The rules, I argue, were God’s way of helping us avoid dead-ends, maintain our hold on basic values we might otherwise have misunderstood.

That might lead some to assume we can return to making our own rules. If the original plan accepted or sought our creative input on how to serve God, some look to return to such a system today. The error lies in losing sight of time’s arrow; the job of each generation is to further the world we were bequeathed, not to try to create it anew. Born into a world where God has legislated, we can note the lost autonomy such legislation demonstrates, but we have no ability to turn the clock back to before that legislation had been promulgated. The Word, once given, lasts for the rest of eternity.

Confronting the Infinite

Yet it seems clear that God always intended to legislate some rules (even if only the one to desist from eating from the Tree of Knowledge). Aside from why that should be, we might easily also wonder why the response to human failures to observe a set of rules would be to give them more rules.

The answer to those questions, I think, lies in fully registering a fact Kant failed to take into account. He assumed that human intuition, intellect, and understanding are up to the task of understanding the best way to handle our lives. But Judaism plays in the garden of the Infinite, where we cannot on our own come to the right answers all the time. Where we fail, we have identified a place that the task is beyond our ken, where we need help in finding the path to God, and God responds by giving us rules that lay out the path more fully.

A brief detour will help show why this would be. Frequently, we speak of God as infinite, and the way mathematicians dealt with the transfinite offers a good parallel for how I am suggesting halacha was meant to work. For much of human history, mathematicians shied away from the infinite itself; Aristotle famously denied the possibility of an actual infinity in the world, and his view held sway.

Only in the nineteenth century did mathematicians achieve reasonable understanding of the infinite, and only by separating their studies from any “real world” parallels. They had to leave their intuition behind because the infinite works counterintuitively, such as in the fact that adding to a transfinite set, even another transfinite set—such as adding the odd numbers to the even numbers– does not change that set’s size, since all three sets are still infinite. And yet, some infinities are larger than others, as Georg Cantor, one of the early and most important students of the topic, demonstrated.[iv]

Their work provides a productive parallel to our discussion of how people try to relate to God, the Infinite.[v] As in math, we will see in these posts that ordinary human intuition cannot understand God well enough to define its own correct forms of service. In any interaction with an Infinite Being (including many “ordinary” moral situations), our intuition must be trained before it can act correctly. Similar to how the human mind needs workable rules, however strange, to avoid boggling in confronting a mathematical infinite, we need rules for how to relate to God. Some of those were given by God, some came later, but all were intended to ready us for autonomous activity once we had absorbed the thrust and intent of those rules.

Did Ramban Already Say This?

During most of these posts, I will operate under the assumption that these ideas are mostly implicit, requiring me to prove them, but two well-known comments of Ramban, the thirteenth century Spanish scholar, might lead some to assume that this idea is obvious and well-known.

Commenting on the Torah’s commands קדושים תהיו and ועשית הישר והטוב, “You shall be holy” and “You shall do the right and the good,”[vi] Ramban clearly calls for action that goes beyond the letter of the law. If we were sure that “going beyond” means creatively shaping our personal religiosity, I wouldn’t need to write these posts.

A closer look reveals that Ramban’s position is not so clear. In the first comment, he says that the laws of the Torah do not necessarily prevent a person from being enslaved to such baser instincts as eating or sexual relations. To counterbalance that, he says, the Torah issues a general command to “be holy,” to make clear that one cannot be satisfied with adherence to the letter of the law.

It is the insufficiency of law to fully determine good conduct that he is stressing, as we see in the second of those comments, where he adds

וזה ענין גדול, לפי שאי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו וכל משאו ומתנו ותקוני הישוב והמדינות כלם, אבל אחרי שהזכיר מהם הרבה, כגון לא תלך רכיל (ויקרא יט טז), לא תקום ולא תטור (שם פסוק יח)… וכיוצא בהן, חזר לומר בדרך כלל שיעשה הטוב והישר בכל דבר, עד שיכנס בזה הפשרה ולפנים משורת הדין, וכגון מה שהזכירו בדינא דבר מצרא (ב”מ קח א)…

And this is a great matter, because it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of the ways in which a person conducts himself with his neighbors and friends, and all of his business dealings, and the way to set up society and states in the best way; instead, after mentioning many of them, such as “you shall not go talebearing,” “do not take vengeance or hold a grudge,” …and similar ones, it went back to say generally that one should act well and good in all matters, to the point that the person will, because of this principle, compromise and act supererogatorily, as the Talmud mentioned in the rules of bar metzra…[vii]

Ramban could be making my point, that the Torah gives examples from which we are supposed to extrapolate in building a life lived in relation to God, but he equally might be assuming that we have some kind of innate intuition as to what constitutes goodness or even sanctity, and sees these verses as appealing to that sense.[viii] If so, these comments say only that the Torah could not list all that we know to be right and good, so it threw in a couple of catchalls to remind us to follow those rules as well. That version of Ramban’s view says much less than I seek here.

One More Way of Thinking About It

There is a scientific concept that seems to me remarkably similar to how I will try to portray the balance between what God tells us and what we are supposed to get on our own, that of the complex adaptive system (CAS). Kevin Dooley explains,

A CAS behaves/evolves according to three key principles: order is emergent as opposed to predetermined, the system’s history is irreversible, and the system’s future is often unpredictable. The basic building blocks of the CAS are agents. Agents are semi-autonomous units that seek to maximize some measure of goodness, or fitness, by evolving over time. Agents scan their environment and develop schema representing interpretive and action rules…[ix]

If you substitute ‘the nature of service of God’ for his reference to ‘system,’ ‘Torah and mitzvot’ for ‘environment’ and ‘people’ for ‘agents,’ you get a good description of the kind of world I understand God to have been setting up. Torah, I will be suggesting, sets an environment that is emergent as opposed to predetermined, is irreversible (so that we can’t bypass the history of halacha to get back to a previous time we’d prefer), and we can’t fully predict the direction the world will take.

By immersing themselves in the “environment,” Torah, people elicit feedback as to the definition of service of God, with that feedback then shaping their future actions in a never-ending search for goodness, drawing them ever closer to God. Our absolute dependence on that feedback in improving our fitness to serve God is the piece Kant failed to see.

Or so I hope to show. I will begin next time with non-Jews; while many assume that the Torah is largely indifferent to them, I find the topic provides a productive first example of Chazal signaling that it has always been our failure to use our autonomy properly that leads God to make rules.

[i] That explains, for example, our discomfort with the halachic principle thatגדול המצווה ועושה משאינו מצווה ועושה, that a commanded person who performs a deed is better or greater than one who does so voluntarily.

[ii] See, for example, bShabbat 88a-b, R. Yonah Gerondi, Sha`arei Teshuvah II;10.

[iii] bBaba Metsia 59b. Few English writers have mentioned that medieval authorities debated whether we accept R. Yehoshua’s claim; in another famous case, the Talmud seems to advocate following the rulings of the Academy of Hillel because a Heavenly voice said to, see Tosafot ad. loc., bBerachot 52a, s.v. ve-Rabbi Yehoshua, bEruvin 6b, s.v. Kan le-Ahar, and elsewhere. The issue matters little here, because sufficient alternate sources support the basic idea, as we will see.

[iv] Cantor’s proof showed that we can never match irrational decimals to the integers, because there will always be an irrational decimal missing from the list. That is, Cantor showed that he could always construct a missing decimal from any list matching decimals to integers. He did so by noting that each decimal would have as many digits as the number of the integer to which it was corresponding; by checking the value of that place within the decimal, Cantor said, he could say that his missing decimal would have a different value. This would mean that his constructed decimal would differ from every decimal on the list at at least one place; no matter how far down our list we would go, our decimal will differ from the nth one on the list at the nth spot.

[v] David Foster Wallace, Everything and More, notes that Cantor saw his mathematical studies in just such religious terms.

[vi] Vayikra 19;2 and Devarim 6;18, with Ramban’s comments there.

[vii] The Talmudic principle that a person must give his neighbor the right to buy his property before selling it to others.

[viii] Strikingly, Ramban’s examples are hardly intuitive, although people assume he meant them that way. Human insight does not naturally reject gossip, does not see saving another’s life as an absolute obligation, and does not even fully accept the wrong in holding a grudge. We cannot know whether Ramban chose these examples to make that point or these were just the ones that came to mind as he wrote.

[ix] Complex Adaptive Systems: A Nominal Definition,, emphasis added. Dooley acknowledges earlier work by numerous scientists, including Murray Gell-Mann, in whose The Quark and the Jaguar (New York: Freedman & Co., 1994) I first encountered the concept.

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