Monday, May 24, 2010

A Call for Autonomy

The story of modernity is the struggle for greater individual autonomy. But a religion with obligations, such as Judaism, is about the individual submitting to an outside authority. Balancing these directly competing priorities is the complex task of the modern Jew.How do we maintain our personal autonomy while submitting to divine authority? The specific answer to this is unique to each person, although there are some general approaches that people in different groups adopt.

Whenever we discuss autonomy in religion, I think back to R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's classic approach to the Korach rebellion, as described by R. Abraham Besdin in Reflections of the Rav ch. 13 ("The 'Common-Sense' Rebellion Against Torah Authority"). R. Soloveitchik offers three reasons why halakhah does not give primacy to each individual's spiritual feelings:

  1. Religious emotion constantly changes and religion would have to likewise continually change in format and structure. There would be no continuity of religion.
  2. Everyone has different feelings, so there would be no consistent communal practices.
  3. We have no way to tell what is legitimately religious and what is a secular, self-indulgent emotion.

    Penciled into my copy is my own addition:
  4. People automatically tend to choose rituals and practices that are lenient and self-serving.
The upshot of all this is that religious autonomy cannot create a reliable, consistent religious community throughout the ages.

In a recent essay, R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo offers a somewhat radical thesis ("On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity" in the May 2010 issue of Conversations). Based on the feedback I've received from a number of people, I think he was misunderstood as being more radical than he really is. Allow me to summarize what I believe he wrote:

The younger generation today is searching for spirituality in their own individual ways and are being turned away by the current conformist system. We need to allow for individualism and autonomy. We need to make halakhah more flexible in order for people to find their own way to God.

This can easily be misunderstood as advocacy for religios anarchy. However, we have to keep in mind both R. Cardozo's personal track record and his intended audience. He is not a Reform rabbi. He is a proud Orthodox rabbi writing for other rabbis. He is not suggesting that people take halakhah into their own hands and choose minority opinions that "speak" to them. He recognizes R. Soloveitchik's objections to this "common-sense" approach. Rather, R. Cardozo is pleading with halakhic decisors to show more flexibility when dealing with highly individualistic people. Give them the ability to choose that they need, within what a broadly defined halakhah allows.

I disagree with R. Cardozo on two counts. First, autonomy is not strictly a Gen Y or Millennial concern. It has been an ongoing theme for 250 years and it was certaintly predominant in the 1960's and 1970's. This was precisely what prompted R. Soloveitchik to respond to their claims. A strong desire for autonomy is nothing new.

What might be new, though, is a rejection of authority by Orthodox Jews. If that is the case, then we have to consider whether pretending that halakhah is an autonomy rather than a theonomy will work. Without a kabbalas ol malkhus shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of Heaven), can you truly be a religious Jew?

The second point on which I take issue with R. Cardozo is the extent to which he encourages halakhic decisors to depart from precedent. I do not believe that it is wise to undo centuries of halakhic precedents, nor do I believe that decisors can wipe away rabbinic laws or longstanding customs. What R. Cardozo asks for is, I believe, beyond the ability of any contemporary rabbi.

That said, I applaud the idea of rabbis guiding every individual in the uniquely appropriate way and taking into account each person's specific circumstances. While we cannot empower an individual to choose the halakhah he wants to follow, a rabbi can find the right precedents and opinions that fit each person's temperament and needs. In the end, though, Judaism is about what God wants you to do and not what you want to do for God.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More