Responsibility in Judaism, where did it all go?
I recently heard of a couple who needed to make a relatively simple medical decision. They told the doctor they would ask their rabbi. I wondered: what kind of Judaism is this that calls for an intermediary?
When did it happen that we relinquished our direct connection to God and the consequential responsibility for our own actions? And how is it that I find this phenomenon in both the ultra-religious and nonpracticing sectors?
I was taught that when we pray, we pray directly to God — with no middleman, not even for women. A Jew’s prayers ascend directly to HaShem, as is clear in the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who, according to the Talmud, taught us how to pray.
Our private and public liturgy is based on this concept of direct access and immediacy. If synagogue services have come to rely on cantors and rabbis, it’s not because they pray for us, but because they help us articulate and direct our prayers properly. No one prays for me. I must do it for myself. In too many shuls today, cantor and choir pray while the congregation is entertained.
What has happened in some circles, in all spectrums of the religious world, is that more and more Jews expect their rabbis to do Judaism for them.
I am fully aware of the many cases in which Jewish law would require a legal ruling, and hence rabbinic advice, for a medical or life-altering decision. There are also times when families are assisted by the comforting words or presence of their rabbi. Serious medical issues such as organ donation, end-of-life treatment and birthing problems may all involve the law and/or the wise counsel of a rabbi.
But all too often in parts of the ultra-religious world, there is a complete abdication of any form of individual decision-making. From finances to how many children to have to how to raise them, young couples feel inadequate to make any decisions. They rely on their rabbi for everything.
I remember having a feeling of inadequacy and vulnerability as a young parent. We made mistakes, but we couldn’t refrain from living as adults. We had to make our own decisions. Without that level of maturity, one avoids taking responsibility for any actions. It makes life slippery, teflon-like and guilt-free. That is not the Judaism I know, which teaches human obligation and liability. We stand in a covenant with God, each individual alone and accountable.
Asking for advice when necessary is always a good idea, but we shouldn’t let that displace our own decision making or personal responsibility. Accepting and nourishing independence is difficult. But it’s the essence of being human — created in the image of God.
(Norma Joseph, a columnist for the Canadian Jewish News, is director of the Women and Religion specialization. She is also an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.)