Mitzvah and Autonomy: The Oxymoron of Reform Judaism

By Bronstein, Herbert | Tikkun, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Mitzvah and Autonomy: The Oxymoron of Reform Judaism


Bronstein, Herbert, Tikkun


No one knowledgeable about Judaism will deny that the terms "Torah" and "mitzvah" are central to its lexicon, or their role in defining the relationship between God and the community of Israel, the Covenant (B'rit). This interrelated cluster of terms (Torah, mitzvah, b'rit) implies a spiritual mindset that assumes an authority which transcends the individual ego and personal choice, fostering a sense of obligation to an "Other" beyond the individual self. Torah, mitzvah, and b'rit, therefore, imply not only a strong sense of obligation to God, but, since God's covenant is with the community of Israel, a communal consciousness as well, a sense of "we" which transcends the individual self.

Yet the very opposite of this Judaic mindset has risen to the position of a central credo, if not defining mark, of Reform Judaism: the principle of autonomy, personal choice in matters of religious practice. "Autonomy" has become a "given" of Reform Judaism, a litmus test for Reform Jewish doctrinal acceptability. Although little else is authoritative in Reform Judaism, without at least giving lip service to the authority of autonomy, one might be considered "outside the pale" of Reform theology.

Increasingly, there has been widespread unease within the Reform community over the tension between autonomy on the one side and the historic Judaic sense of obligation (chovah) to a transcendent authority beyond the self and its individual choices on the other. This tension was already reflected in the opening address Eric Yoffie made as president-elect of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Atlanta 1995). "My goal," he said, "is a movement which is thoroughly Reform ... grounded in the principles of autonomy and pluralism." At the same time, however, Rabbi Yoffie called for "a movement also willing to talk of obligations, to call for observance that is regular and consistent, and to assert that our actions need not always begin with our own impulses." Though he never used the word "authority," at least some degree of authority is implied by his words.

We need to follow up on the tension Yoffie hinted at. Why should we be afraid to subject autonomy as a religious doctrine to as thorough a critique as Reform Jews pride themselves in applying to any other doctrine? Why not consider it in balance with other religious values which might impose upon personal autonomy limitations beneficial to the community and perhaps to personal growth as well? Autonomy is a doctrine salutary for Judaism, for religion, and for human well-being, in my view, only if we understand autonomy as a choice against idols, a modality of autonomy rooted deeply in the Jewish tradition.

Obligation and Authority

In traditional societies, however else the "self" was conceived, it was constituted first by a web of relationships embedded in the ongoing life of a community. This web included a relation between the self and a transcendent wholeness beyond the atomistic individual, whether a world-soul, a web of life, or a life process. In primordial religious traditions, self-fulfillment was realized by the identification of the individual self with this purpose or reality beyond the self.

In contrast, in our time the individual self is thought of as a cluster of claims of individual rights and privileges (see, for example, Charles Taylor's book, The Sources of the Self). Self-fulfillment, it follows, is viewed as fulfillment through one's own individual preferential pursuits on behalf of one's individual self. The pride of place that Reform Judaism today gives to autonomy as personal choice reflects this contemporary concept of the self.

Indeed, many a Reform Jew who is perturbed by the notion that Reform Judaism might teach any set of requirements based on religious obligation might be surprised to learn that the doctrine of autonomy initially came into liberal Jewish thinking heavily weighted with a sense of obligation to a moral law that is universal and beyond the self. …

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