For many, many years, Reform has embraced autonomy as the foundation of our form of Jewish life. That embrace came about not so much because we thought it was a good idea, but because we thought it was true. In other words, no one said, “You know what would make an effective, powerful basis for religious observance? Autonomy!” Rather, we accepted the reality of autonomy. We knew, based on then-cutting-edge scholarship, that the Torah, and the rest of our sacred tradition, did not get handed down, directly and literally from God. Where they did come from, and what that means, is a very, very long discussion. But, one very large implication was that we could no longer say that “we have to do X, because God said so.” Religion was now, like it or not, based on something else. And, ultimately, that meant that we had a choice.
You see, when we believed that “God said you have to do X,” then not doing X was a really big deal. It involved dissapointing God or, even worse, angering God. But, now? What does dissobedience really mean? If I choose to not keep kosher, or give tzedakah, or anything else, then what line have I crossed? Where is the authority behind that law?
It’s a complicated discussion, and I’m giving it short-shrift, to say the least. But you get the idea. When you take a literal commanding God out of the equation, and you don’t have some other source of authority, then what you have left is some form of autonomy – I do this because I choose to. So, Reform Judaism, I believe, embraces autonomy because it acknowledged autonomy – anything else feels like a lie, even if it’s intended to be a sacred lie.
But, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good, or effective system.
Autonomy may be real, so Reform Judaism may be “true,” in some large, philosophcal sense (I think it is). But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes a good basis for a religious life. It’s possible that, by focussing on autonomy, we’ve created a system which is better in theory than in practice
But trying to build a movement on the basis of this term is like trying to build a nation around the assertion that “it’s a free country.” Of course, we would say, but there is so much more that follows. A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have “personal choice” as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever. Rather, personal choice must been seen simply as a given and the starting point for a variety of commitments we make.
Personal choice is a seductive motto because it can confer a seemingly ideological veneer upon the most haphazard and unreflective religious decisions. Convenience can easily be masked as commitment. In addition, personal choice undermines the notion of standards of any sort, making anything defensible and everything an equally valid choice.
I’ve heard this argument before, and I think it has a lot of merit. What I don’t think I’ve thought about (at least, not much) is the tension that we’ve built around education. We claim, as a movement, that education is now even more important. How can you make Informed Choices (that’s the preferred term in the movement) if you aren’t well-informed? But, again, there may be a divide between theory and practice here:
Finally, personal choice may sound as though it is predicated on a high level of knowledge to be able to make such decisions. But the impetus for learning is greatest when one feels claimed by what one studies, and when there is a degree of engagement that joins the hand with the heart. While impossible for we post-modern Jews to read a classic text without a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” we are unlikely to do much serious learning without an accompanying “hermeneutic of embrace.”