Shouldn’t personal choice play a part in my religious observance?

February 7, 2023 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why should I obey the Jewish commandments if I don’t want to? Shouldn’t personal choice play a part in my religious observance?

A. “If I don’t want to” is highly subjective.

Try a different context. Can I say, “Why should I obey the traffic laws if I don’t want to?”

Regardless of your feelings we can presume you do not drive on the wrong side of the road because you know you will endanger yourself and others, the law will punish you, and your conscience will feel bad about it.

Your possibly rebellious feelings are not necessarily the only criterion. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein says, “Conventional morality holds that anyone and everyone is entitled to do as he pleases provided that he steps on no one else’s toenails; that, as master of his self, he is free to mould his own destiny.

“Halachah is radically opposed to this attitude; it holds that even with respect to his own personality, man is more trustee than master…

“The whole of halachah is grounded in profound faith in man’s capacity to choose freely and to chart his own course. It is precisely this faith which makes the stress upon duty – the incessant call to respond to commands – possible. Halachah grants man less but believes in him more.”

The crucial element is that though the Divine command comes from above, man freely and voluntarily responds to it.


Q. What makes a Jewish writer?

A. There are Jews who are writers and writers who are Jews, but that does not mean that either group produces Jewish writing.

Jewish writing is ambiguous. If a Jew writes in a Jewish language the result is not necessarily Jewish; if they write in another language the writing can still be Jewish. A “Jewish” writer might be a gentile; it depends on the theme, not the origin of the writer. Writing can totally omit the word “Jew” and yet be Jewish (Kafka doesn’t use the word “Jew” outside his diaries, yet he is a Jewish writer).

Jewish writing is not always pro-Jewish: some Jewish writers rebel against Judaism and Jewishness, and have no interest in Jewish achievement or destiny. Cynthia Ozick says that Jewish writing has a liturgical quality…but what does “liturgical” mean?

SJ Goldsmith says about Josef Herman the artist, “Actually he is a Jewish Jew and a universal painter”. A Jewish writer, like a Jewish artist, is “a Jewish Jew”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “Shouldn’t personal choice play a part in my religious observance?”
  1. william roche blave says:

    thank you, rabbi, for those words of Christian man who lives in Pensacola Florida. And i love god Jesus and the bible.

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