Between Authority and Autonomy

Reviewed by Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition
by Ze'ev Safrai Avi Saguy Eds.
United Kibbutz Press, 1997, 511 pages, Hebrew.

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In the course of his journey to himself, modern man cast off many of his ancient burdens, and above all he cast off religion. Having found in reason sufficient proof of his own worth, modern man no longer felt the need for the yoke of God. His reality now comes from within himself, from his own thinking. Modern thought unites all human perspectives into a single gaze at the individual and his world: Art has become increasingly impressionistic, self-conscious and free-form. Political thought as well, liberated from its dependence upon sovereign authority, has produced an abundance of checks and balances which aim to neutralize all power, and to place the affairs of state in the hands of professionals rather than figures of authority. Even religions have changed, turning their focus upon the individual—as, for instance, the Lutheran renunciation of the Holy See. Authority, it seems, has become the sworn enemy of the individual.
Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition, a collection of essays edited by Ze’ev Safrai and Avi Saguy, tries to address the problem from a Jewish religious perspective. Yet to a large degree, the book mirrors the same modern denigration of authority, and anyone seeking a serious discussion of Jewish theology will be disappointed. While the book’s stated goal is to trace the source of authority in Jewish law, most of the essays toe a modern individualistic line, down-playing the role of externally imposed authority, trumpeting man’s individuality with respect to his duties, and inflating the importance of “voluntary” authority, that which man undertakes out of his own free will.
The most important essays in Between Authority and Autonomy are the editors’ own, the other entries being, for the most part, variations on a theme. Safrai and Saguy place the halachic authority stemming from the individual on a par with any external source. In the authors’ jointly written introduction, for example, the three classic sources for the obligation to obey halacha—divine revelation, rabbinic authority and popular consent—are weighed against the authority deriving from one’s own efforts and achievements. Only by mastering the law, they explain, can the individual earn the authority to render halachic decisions, and only through his judgment of other scholars can the individual choose whom to recognize as a halachic authority. Authority is dialectical: The individual “empowers” his own authorities, while the public or God imposes the authority of the halachic scholar upon the individual. What is important for our purposes is not the dialectic itself, but the high status it accords the individual in defining halachic authority, a status unprecedented in Orthodox thought.

R. Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz is a Senior Fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

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