(Part 1 of a two-part essay)
One of the most discussed issues in today’s world of religious thought is the question of human autonomy versus man’s obligation to carry out God’s command. Which is the higher religious value: to serve God in a spontaneous outpouring of religious devotion (autonomy), or to obey the divine imperative (obedience)?
Over the many years, Jewish thinkers have struggled with this issue and tried to find some solution to the problem. No doubt, spontaneity must play a crucial role in the religious experience. But who is wise enough to know what makes an extemporaneous burst 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 only to pay a heavy price. Well known is the event where Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, brought a “strange” (illicit) fire into the Tent of Meeting and lost their lives because of this autonomous act. (Vayikra, 10:1-2)
The controversial Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz z.l., relying heavily 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, tr. Shmuel Himelstein, p.106)
A careful reading of a comment by Ohr Hachaim seems to bear out this view. He wonders why Parashath Lech Lecha begins with an unusual introductory clause: “And God said to Avraham, lech lecha me-artzecha (leave your country)…” (Bereshith 12:1) This is the first time in the Torah that God speaks to Avraham, so the appropriate clause would have been: “And God APPEARED to Avraham and said, lech lecha…” Ohr Hachaim understands the absence of this clause to mean 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 him, which he recognized as coming from God.
Ohr Hachaim offers two possible reasons for this, one of which is that up until now Avraham had not yet received any divine commandment to which he had responded with absolute commitment. In Ohr Hachaim’s words, “God refused to grant Avraham the ultimate revelation until He put him to the supreme test – whether he will carry out His commandment, or not.” Only after Avraham would prove his devotion by fulfilling God’s commandment (obedience) would God be willing to appear to him and have him undergo a religious experience of the highest order. It is for this reason that the commandment lech lecha was not preceded by the words “And God APPEARED to Avraham.” The Torah indeed informs us (12:7) that God did actually appear to Avraham, but only after he fulfilled this commandment.
This may be the answer to a crucial question related to one of the most heroic moments in Avraham’s life. Nimrod, the despot of those days and arch enemy of Avraham, throws him into the kivshan ha-esh (fiery furnace)—the first holocaust experience of the first Jew—after Avraham refuses to stop teaching his fellow man about God, despite Nimrod’s demand that Avraham instruct people to worship Nimrod himself. Yet, why is Avraham’s unprecedented valor not mentioned in the text of the Torah, but only in the Oral Torah, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer? The answer to this fundamental question may quite well be based on our earlier observations. As impressive as this episode may have been, it in no way sets the standards for Jewish worship. After all, Avraham acted on his own. He was not commanded by God. It was, no doubt, a correct and desired response to Nimrod’s tyranny, but it was an autonomous one. As such, it lacked the fundamental disposition of a religious act commanded by God.
Spontaneity, then, seems to have value only when it deepens the mitzvah, not when it tries to replace it.
(To be continued)