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Masorti Judaism: between mitzvah and autonomy

Perhaps the most difficult issue for liberal halachic Jews is the tension between two core values: mitzvah (which I translate here not as an individual commandment but as the concept of commandedness) and autonomy.

By Matt Plen

Mitzvah is the most important principle of halachic Judaism while autonomy is the indispensable grounding idea of modern ethics.  I want to explain more clearly what these two values mean and why the contradiction between them is inescapable.

Commandedness is perhaps the most important principle of rabbinic Judaism.  For the rabbis, the value of performing a mitzvah is not only inherent in the act itself (and sometimes, as in the case of sha’atnez or tefilin for example, the act might have no intrinsic value other than the fact it’s commanded).  A mitzvah is important simply because it’s commanded and because we are under an obligation to perform it.  The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) illustrates this idea with the story of a non-Jew, Dama ben Natinah, who was seen to have honoured his parents even at great cost to himself, and was subsequently rewarded by God.  Rabbi Hanina comments that if this happened to someone who honoured his parents despite having no obligation to do so, how much more would a Jew in a similar position be rewarded, as (this is the punchline) it is greater to be commanded and act than to act without being commanded. 

This flies in the face of common sense.  Why might it be the case?  The Tosafot (medieval Talmudic commentators) offer several explanations.  The pragmatic view is that a person who is obligated to do a good deed is more likely to act than a person for whom the deed is voluntary (on Kiddushin 31a).  A more principled explanation – and one that in my view goes to the heart of rabbinic Judaism – is that the value of performing a mitzvah is that in so doing a person negates her own desires submits herself to the will of God (Avodah Zarah 3a).  If so, demonstrating obedience rather than the content of the act itself is the vital component in any mitzvah.

In complete contrast, modern ethics is based on the value of autonomy, which literally means self-rule.  The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that any act which is impelled by a heteronomous (external) source of authority can never be described as moral.  The reason for this is that obedience can only be induced by fear of punishment or hope of reward: we pay tax to avoid being fined, we stop at red lights to avoid being injured or arrested and so on. Because morality is defined in terms of duty while heteronomous action is always a matter of self-interest, heteronomy can never be the basis for morality.  Moral agents are always by definition autonomous in that they make free, rational decisions as to how to behave, based on their sense of duty to others.

The clash between mitzvah and autonomy should now be clear.  Autonomy is about obeying our own, rational, self-imposed moral principles, whereas mitzvah means putting these to one side in order to obey God or submit ourselves to Jewish tradition.  Incidentally, this holds true regardless of whether or not we consider the Torah to be of divine origin: obeying God contradicts the principles of autonomy no less than obeying the rabbis.  Sometimes the practical results of these two principles coincide: either could lead a person to give tzedakah for example.  Less often they clash: when my son was born, I was acutely aware of my halachic obligation to perform a brit milah, whereas my moral sense was outraged by the thought of intentionally injuring a new baby.  But if intentions are what’s important, then the contradiction is always there.  I can’t act in order to realise my own autonomy and simultaneously aspire to overcome my desires so as to obey God or the rabbis, both heteronomous sources of authority.

Progressive and ultra-Orthodox Jews resolve this tension by prioritising one of the two principles.  For ultra-Orthodoxy, commandedness always holds sway and personal values and desires are to be abandoned when they clash with halachah; Progressive Judaism privileges autonomy and empowers the individual to selectively filter the mitzvot in light of modern, rational principles.  The challenge is most squarely faced by the centrist movements in Judaism, modern Orthodoxy and Masorti: neither are prepared to jettison their halachic commitment or sacrifice their modern, liberal principles.

What might be a Masorti response to this dilemma?  How can we be true to ourselves, our passionately held values, and our sense of personal freedom, while at the same time upholding our commitment to Torah and mitzvot in the framework of halachah?  For my answer, I want to draw on the work of one of the most important of all modern Jewish thinkers, Franz Rosenzweig.  While Rosenzweig is not usually identified with Masorti Judaism, I believe that his commitment to liberal philosophical principles together with his profound commitment to the tradition makes him a particularly suitable role model for us.

Rosenzweig returned to Judaism after a period of assimilation but felt unable to submit himself to Jewish law as this would have compromised his freedom as an individual.  The solution lay in a distinction he drew between Law and Commandment.  Whereas Law is an objective set of rules whose imposition clearly compromises personal autonomy, Commandment is a personal directive issued in the context of a committed, loving relationship, where the power of the relationship enables us to hear and freely obey.  Rosenzweig’s insight is that a loving relationship dissolves the boundary between autonomy and heteronomy: if we are able to feel the power of the mitzvot, in other words to experience God’s love through them, we’ll be able to respond to the commandments without compromising our freedom.

But what if we don’t experience the mitzvot in this way?  What if observance still feels like an imposition and a restriction?  Rosenzweig’s answer is simple: the only way to open yourself to the inner power of the mitzvot is by doing them.  Our job is to experiment: take on a commandment, not because we feel obliged but as an experience, practise it, remain open to its inner power.  Gradually expand the role halachah plays in our lives, without any pretence or abandonment of personal integrity, but as an educational exercise.  Practising Judaism here takes on a double meaning: we practise the mitzvot in the sense of practising a musical instrument, and in so doing we develop our ability to practise them in the sense of practising medicine: performing them in the truest sense.

This seems to me to be the path Masorti Judaism would recommend: an incremental journey through the halachah, taking on practices, experimenting and learning and, as we begin to experience the inner power of the tradition, deepening our commitment and sense of obligation to the truly commanding voice of the mitzvot.

This is my recent piece published in Masorti Judaism’s Reflections.

Posted on 2 May 2013

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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