You know what Reform Jews call it? The Ten Suggestions.
That joke lies at the heart of a quandary that all Liberal, Progressive, Modern and Post-Modern Jews share, including those of us who call ourselves Independent: Heteronomy vs. Autonomy. Or, in other words, obedience to something outside myself, vs. “you ain’t the boss of me”.
Heteronomy, “the state of being influenced or ruled by another,” means that I am obedient to something outside myself.
Autonomy, “the state of freedom from external control or influence”, means that I am self-governing.
This week’s parashah is called Tzav, “command”. It is the heart of the word mitvah, “commandment” or “obligation”, the very opposite of “suggestion”. Yet somewhere, we moderns decided that they are all, really, just that – optional suggestions. That is because our Western, modern world is founded philosophically against the Church of Europe, and holds up the ideal of a freedom that comes with autonomy. We Jews who live in the West have taken on that culture as our own. It sets up a rather fundamental conflict with Judaism, which is founded upon a heteronomous reality, in which we are committed to a Covenant relationship with a G*d who is m’tzaveh, giver of mitzvot, “commands”.
Autonomy is defined as a capacity for independent decision making, or, more often perhaps, “an inchoate desire for freedom in some area of one’s life”. As such, our culture is understood as being against heteronomy, which makes it, among other things, anti-religious. However, it is probably more accurate to define it as anti-religious institution, and anti-coercion.
The funny thing about that is that the Who are still right: Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.
The song is taken as cynical, perhaps, but it’s a cultural truth: none of us are really autonomous, and none of us is without a Boss – and yes, we will be fooled again, and again, into believing that we make our own decisions and have control over our lives. and we may indeed free ourselves from some identifiable influence or commander, but we will immediately seek out some other influence. Mass marketers know this and depend upon it, but so do leaders of mass movements. The question is not whether we are commanded, but are we aware of the commanding influences upon us?
Addiction? Anxiety? Fear? Ego? …. or Justice? Love? Compassion?
We are herd animals right down to our DNA. We cannot really live alone and independent of all others. That is the insights behind the midrash in which the G*d of the Israelites tells us I took you out of the slavery of Egypt; now you are free to serve Me. Out of this conundrum Isaiah Berlin created the concept of “freedom from” vs “freedom to”. We must first free ourselves of that which enslaves us. Only then can we choose that to which we will commit ourselves, with all the power of which we are capable in our empowered obedience to the highest possible ideal, rather than the lowest levels of temptation that entice us, scare us, and pull us down.
Tzav is a parashah that comes to ask you a very simple and profound question. What commands you? Are you proud of it? Can you do better?