Thoughts to Ponder, Number 15
13 Tishrei, 5760; 23 September, 1999

Human Autonomy and Divine Commandment (Cont.)

In Thoughts to Ponder 11, we discussed the issue of human autonomy versus divine commandment. Which is of higher religious value: service of God as an outburst of religious devotion (autonomy) or the obligation to obey and to follow the divine imperative? We concluded that it is the divine imperative that makes an act into a religious act. Who, after all, will be wise enough to know what makes a spontaneous outburst of religiosity into an authentic service of God? Faith is expressed in the act which man does due to his awareness of his obligation and not because of an internal urge.

The most outspoken testimony of this fact is derived from the incident of "illicit fire" which was brought by the sons of Aaron in the Tent of Meeting. Nadav and Avihu paid with their lives when a deeply religious urge overtook their commitment to religious obligation. (Vayikra 10:1,2) Spontaneity, then, seems only to have value when it deepens a mitzvah not when it tries to replace it.

However, an incident in the life of Avraham makes us wonder if the earlier observation is indeed tenable. After being informed that his nephew, Lot, was captured by several kings (Bereshith 14:12), Avraham organized an army of three hundred eighteen men and pursued the kings "as far as Dan." (14:14) Fighting these kings was far from easy and highly risky. Only a little earlier, these monarchs had defeated the king of Sodom and Amora. Clearly they were able to defeat Avraham's army as well. The chances that Avraham would be victorious in this case were very remote. From a halachic-ethical point of view it seems to be clear that Avraham did not have an obligation to try to save Lot. One does not have to put oneself into a high-risk situation to save another from death. (It could be questioned if this would even be permitted.)

According to the Talmud (Avoda Zarah 25a) our Patriarchs were called Yesharim, those who were absolutely straight. Commentators explain that they possessed unusual objectivity and were little influenced by external negative forces and consequently were "yashar." In fact, they are of the opinion that the patriarchs did not always behave by "halachic" standards but conducted themselves by even higher moral ideals especially when dealing with their fellowmen. This is so well expressed in the Yiddish idiom: "Menschlichkeit" (with an apology to my co-Sephardic religionists!) Avraham felt a special obligation to save the life of his nephew, since his father Haran had become a martyr for God's sake, i.e. for the very mission of Avraham. (See Emeth LeYa'acov by Rabbi Ya'acov Kamenetzky z.l. page 91.)

Ramban adds to this that Lot had gone out of his way to look after Avraham who was already an old man and for this reason wandered with him from place to place so as to serve him (29:29). (In fact, this is the reason why Lot came to dwell in Sodom (otherwise he would still have been in Charan). Consequently, Lot had to be saved when this city was to be destroyed, "since it is inconceivable that some evil should overtake him (Lot) because of (the fact that he had looked after) Avraham." Ramban ad loc).

It may be argued that many of the narratives within the book of Bereshith reflect this ideology. Netziv goes out of his way to emphasize that the Patriarchs showed the greatest amount of compassion even towards idolaters. His dramatic words are well taken: "Besides the fact that they were Tzadikim (righteous) and Chassidim (pious) and showed great love towards God, they were also "yesharim," i.e. they behaved respectfully towards the most distasteful idolaters; they (the Patriarchs) related to them in a loving way and were concerned about their welfare since this is the foundation of all civilization… This is clearly to be deduced from the degree to which Avraham struggled and pleaded with God to spare the people of Sedom who were thoroughly wicked…and how Yitschak went out of his way to appease the shepherds of Abimelech who made him great and awful difficulties...The same is true about Yaacov who showed infinite tolerance towards his father-in-law, Laban." (Ha'emek Davar, Introduction to Bereshith)

These observations by Netziv are even more surprising once one realizes that the Torah later introduces the law of "Lo Techanem" (You shall not show them (the idolaters) any favor) (Devarim 2.2) which has far reaching halachic import for the relationship between Jews and non-monotheistic gentiles. (We intend to deal with this subject more at length in future articles.)

Therefore, we must conclude that a distinction must be made: In the sphere of the relationship between man and God, one must conduct his religious life out of a genuine notion of obligation and not translate spontaneous urges into self-imposed rituals. In that case, "extra-religious ritualism" is unacceptable. But, when one deals with the proper relationship between man and his fellowman a spontaneous act beyond the requirement of the law is encouraged and man's autonomous input is respected.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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