Between Man and God: Issues in Judaic Thought

By Martin Sicker | Go to book overview
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8

Man’s Moral Autonomy

Regardless of the extent to which one’s capacity for autonomous action is constrained by externally imposed physical, social, and economic circumstances, most traditionalist Judaic thinkers insist that the sphere of moral conduct remains substantially within the individual’s field of control. In this view, no matter how limited one’s options, each competent person remains in a position to make effective moral choices. This emphasis on individual moral autonomy is clearly biblical in origin. See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life (Deut. 30:15–19).

The biblical message is clear. Man has the autonomous capacity to choose his moral course, and will be held accountable for his choice. The extent of his humanity is reflected in the use he makes of that moral autonomy. Ben Sira elaborated on this theme by arguing: “It was He, from the first, when He created humankind, who made them subject to their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep His commandment; fidelity is the doing of His will. There are poured out before you fire and water; to whichever you choose you can stretch forth your hands. Before each person are life and death; whichever he chooses shall be given him.” 1

Man alone of all created beings is conceived in Judaism as endowed with the unique capacity to commit a conscious and deliberate act of will. Accordingly, he is not and should not be viewed as a merely passive participant in a cosmic drama over which he can exert no influence. As Eliezer Berkovits put it: “We do not find ourselves in a universe of puppets, dangling from strings held by the Almighty and automatically obeying every one of His commands, but rather in

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