Friday, May 24, 2024

Radical Commitment


Rabbi David Hartman coined the term “covenantal anthropology” to indicate that the metaphors Jews use to describe their relationship with God will define their understanding of the covenant’s obligations. In the Tanakh and Talmud, varying terms are used. God is our father, and we are His children; God is our king, and we are His subjects; God is our husband, and we are His wife; God is our teacher, and we are His students; and God is our master, and we are His slaves. And each one of these relationships is very different than the other.

Some of these relationships require what Hartman calls submission, to accept the authority of God uncritically. Others expect humanity to be assertive and become God's partner in a shared covenantal mission.


In addition, different texts offer dramatically different perspectives on the question of submission versus assertion. The Akeidah, when Abraham accepts God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac, is a moment of absolute submission; Abraham does not hesitate and does not ask any questions. God is Abraham’s king and master.


A very different perspective is found in the Talmud in “The Oven of Akhnai” story. During a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues, God's voice calls out to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct. Instead of listening to God, Rabbi Joshua responds by rejecting God’s opinion and saying: “It is not in heaven.” Once the Torah is given, interpretation is left in the hands of mankind.


After Rabbi Joshua's response, God smiled and said: “My children have triumphed over me, my children have triumphed over me.” This text sees human creativity as critical; God wants us to implement his mission on earth in the manner we consider best.


How does one reconcile these very different visions? Hartman writes that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik hoped to create a dialectical synthesis; that is to say, one must integrate both assertion and submission into one’s religious life. However, he writes that Soloveitchik held that submission must remain the supreme value.


Hartman offers a different interpretation. The relationship between God and man is constantly evolving; like a child who continues to mature as they get older, after thousands of years in God’s covenant, the Jewish people need to take on greater spiritual initiative. The submission of earlier stages of Jewish history now needs to give way to assertion.


Leaving this debate aside, it is critical to recognize that submission and assertion are not always opposites. On two occasions in Parshat Behar, God declares about the Jews: “they are my slaves.” One might think these verses are intended as a demand for submission; but they are not. Instead, “they are my slaves” is the explanation given for why a Jewish slave must be sent free on the Jubilee year, and must be redeemed if bought by a foreign owner. If all Jews are already God's slaves, they can no longer be sold into slavery. As Rashi puts it, “God's contract comes first,” and any other contract to buy a slave violates God’s ownership rights. To be God's slave is to belong to no man.


Seforno takes this idea a step further. He writes that the verse teaches us that even if someone wants to be a slave, they are not permitted to be one. Slavery’s mindless lack of responsibility may be attractive to some. Individuals and communities often look to escape from freedom and its endless choices and responsibilities. If freedom is just about living unimpeded by others, then it would be reasonable to let people sell themselves into slavery, if they so choose. But a Jewish view of true liberty is to enable a person to become the best possible version of themselves. Paradoxically, being God’s slaves actually demands absolute human freedom.


But why use the metaphor of slavery at all? Because even the free must at times emulate slaves, and undertake radical commitments. Acts of total devotion, such as the Akeidah, are not merely the submission of the meek; it can be a way of finding one's true self. The Mishnah uses the metaphor of a “servant who served his master with no interest in receiving a reward” to describe serving God with love. This is puzzling: wouldn’t the parent-child relationship be a better example of a loving relationship?


The explanation for this lies in the idea of radical commitment. Every servant acts without hesitations or questions. But unlike a child, if the servant loves their master, it is not out of gratitude; it is because they have an absolute commitment to the master’s mission. And those who love as a servant who loves their master take on their mission immediately; Abraham runs to saddle his own donkey early on the morning of the Akeidah without any equivocation.


At times, one must learn devotion from a servant and a slave. 


Without radical commitment there would be no Jewish people today. Had Jews wanted their children to simply be happy, they long ago could have converted and had a comfortable life. But they chose to stay Jews, no matter how difficult it was.


They didn’t see their love for Judaism as an act of submission; on the contrary, it was their way of asserting who they are in a world that despised them. They declared they will never give up on the mission Abraham had taken on. Jewish pride is for the strong.


After October 7th we saw inspiring stories of radical commitment. Young Israelis found their way back to Israel to serve again in the IDF. They flew in from all parts of the world, often with help from others; an anonymous man stood in JFK Airport that day and bought, out of his own pocket, 250 tickets for soldiers returning to Israel. That week El Al flew on Shabbat for the first time in 41 years. On one flight from Bangkok an El Al stewardess brought 25 soldiers onto an overbooked plane and seated them everywhere, including the cockpit and bathrooms.


Here in New York City, Shai Bernstein rushed back to his unit in Israel, leaving behind his wife Naama and three young children. The children couldn’t understand what was happening and they asked Naama: “Why does Abba have to go?” Naama responded directly: “when Israel needs us, we come.”


That is radical commitment. In one sentence, Naama taught her children what has stood at the center of Jewish identity from the very beginning.

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