Monday, July 06, 2009

On Authority and Autonomy

A classic Mussar Schmuess by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sha'arei Chaim-Sikhos Mussar 78

Mistranslated, misconstrued and maladatpted
by the Bray of Fundie,

Many Meforshim puzzle over the description of the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah as the Khukas HaTorah = the statute of the Torah rather than as the Khukas haTaharah= "the statute of purity" or Khukas HaTumah="the statute of impurity". The Ohr HaKhayim answers that observance of this most inscrutable of Khukim= the irrational Mitzvos that offend reason and lack rationale, is reckoned as observance of the entire Torah. Fulfilling a Mitzvah absent a rational reason testifies to the faith one invests in the Metzaveh=Commander and assent to fulfill all that the Creators desires.

Elaborating on this Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz makes several observations:

1. That when people "do the right thing" because of their internal moral compass they are not manifesting subservience to HaShems authority. The likelihood of their internal moral compass being their motivation for doing good and eschewing evil rather than being motivated by subservience to HaShems authority is much greater when they are observing Mishpatim=the rational Mitzvos. They do those Mitzvos because THEY hold it is the right thing to do. In fact when the Mitzvah in question is a "khok" then, by definition, it is almost impossible that the motivation to perform it is internal. On the contrary, the mind cannot accept it and the emotions often recoil as a result. Performing Khukim brings a new "subservience to HaShems authority" sensibility even to ones performance of Mishpatim.

2. Human nature is very resistant to this type of subservience or to anything that will keep us chained or bound. Human beings affirm their own autonomy and it's trappings of freedom of conscience and of movement whenever possible and recoil from any authority even, or especially, a Divine one, that would demand total surrender of personal autonomy. This authoritarian compulsion is another word for slavery and humans desire freedom and total autonomy.

Among his many proofs is the case of Shimee ben Geirah whom Shlomo HaMelekh "tricked" into incurring the death penalty (to fulfill his fathers deathbed vendetta) by limiting his movement to the Jerusalem City limits.

3. Ba'al Pe'or was the idolatry that the daughters of Moav seduced the Bnei Yisrael into worshipping as a precondition for fornication. Rav Chaim opines that the bizarre cult of Ba'al Pe'or is predicated on the human desire for autonomy and TOTAL liberation from external authority. It was worshipped by defecation upon the icon itself. It was, says Rav Chaim, the religion of non-religion, the worship of denigrating worship and subservience. The exercise and demonstration of "Nothing being sacred". In essence the creed of Baa'l Peor can be summarized as follows: "So you're my god? So YOU"RE gonna tell ME what to do and not do? I s**t on you!"

But it is not merely some quirky historic relic of a bygone ANE culture. It is, concludes Rav Chaim, the defining Zeitgeist of our own era.

Addendum: Rav Chaim's approach makes me wonder; were all the esteemed authors in the genre of Taamei haMitzvos literature, including works e.g. the Moreh Nevukhim, the Kuzari, the Sefer Hakhinukh, to name a few, guilty of וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל= "Don't bait another to sin" by providing intellectually and emotionally satisfying reasons "tastes/flavors" for so many of the Mitzvos,-Khukim and Mishpatim alike? Aren't they making it exponentially harder for us to become Avdei HaShem= Slaves of G-d?

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