Thoughts to Ponder, Number 11
13 Elul, 5759; 25 August, 1999

Human Autonomy and Divine Commandment

One of the most discussed issues in today's world of religious thought is the question of human autonomy and man's obligation to listen and respond to God's command. What is the highest religious value: to serve God as a spontaneous outburst of religious devotion (autonomy) or the obligation to obey and follow the divine imperative (obedience)?

Over the many years, Jewish thinkers have struggled with this issue and tried to bring some kind of solution to this problem. No doubt, spontaneity must play a crucial role in the religious experience but, on the other hand, who will be wise enough to know what makes a spontaneous outburst of religiosity into an authentic service of God?

We find several incidents in the Torah where man decided to take religious devotion into his own hands and paid a heavy price. Well known is the incident where Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, brought strange (or illicit) fire in the Tent of Meeting and lost their lives because of it, an autonomous act. (Vayikra 10.1,2)

The controversial professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, z.l., heavily relying on earlier commentaries writes: "Just as it is possible for a person to be drawn to regard the (golden) calf as god even when his intention was to worship God (see Sforno and Meshech Chochma); the worship of God itself, if not performed with an awareness that one is obeying an order of God, but because of an inner drive to serve God, is a kind of idolatry -- even when the person's intentions are to serve God. The faith which is expressed in the practical mitzvoth in the worship of God is not something which is meant to give expression or release to man's emotions, but its importance lies in the fact that the person has accepted upon himself what, in the post-Biblical tradition is known as the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven and the yoke of the Torah and mitzvoth. Faith is expressed in the act which man does due to his awareness of his obligation to do it and not because of an internal urge…[Otherwise], this is illicit fire." (Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, Chemed Books, 1990, p.106)

A careful reading of a comment by Ohr Hachaim seems to bear out this view: he wonders why Parashath Lech Lecha starts with an unusual introductory phrase: "And God spoke to Avraham: Leave your country…" (Bereshith 12.1) This is the first time in the Torah that God speaks to Avraham, and therefore a different phrase would have been appropriate: "And God APPEARED to Avraham and said: Lech Lecha…" The absence of this phrase means for Ohr Hachaim that there was only divine speech, but no divine revelation. In other words there was no exalted religious experience that would have transformed Avraham, "just" a voice speaking to Avraham, which he recognized as coming from God.

Ohr Hachaim (Bereshith 12.1) responds (second answer) that this was due to the fact that up until now Avraham had not yet received any divine commandment towards which he had responded with absolute commitment. "God refused to grant Avraham the ultimate revelation until He put him to the ultimate test. And what is this test? If he will keep His commandments or not." Only after Avraham shows that he is fulfilling God's commandments (obedience), God is willing to appear to him and have him undergo a religious experience of the highest order. It is for this reason that the commandment of Lech Lecha was not introduced with: "And God APPEARED to Avraham." Once Avraham has fulfilled this commandment the Torah informs us that only NOW God actually appears to him (see 12.7)

This, as has been suggested, may be the answer to a crucial question related to one of the most heroic stories about Avraham's life, the narrative concerning the "Kivshan haEsh " in which Nimrod, the despot of those days, and the arch enemy of Avraham throws Avraham into a furnace to be killed (the first holocaust experience of the first Jew) after Avraham refuses to stop teaching his fellowman about God. (Nimrod has told him to tell them to worship Nimrod himself.) This unprecedented heroism by Avraham is not even mentioned in the text of the Torah (only in the Oral Torah, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer). The possible answer to this fundamental question may quite well be based on our earlier observations: However impressive this episode may have been, it does in no way set the standards for Jewish worship. After all, here Avraham is acting on his own. This act was not commanded, it was, no doubt, a correct and most desired response towards Nimrod, but it was an autonomous one. As such, it lacked the fundamental disposition of a religious act of which the Torah was to give evidence.

Spontaneity, then, seems only to have value when it deepens the mitzvah, not when it tries to replace it.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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