Between Obligation and Free Choice 

By :  Gordon Tucker Vice Chancellor for Religious Life and Engagement, Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy Posted On Mar 6, 2023 / 5783 | Monday Webinar The Space In Between

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Part of the series, The Space in Between: Thresholds and Borders in Jewish Life and Thought 

With Dr. Gordon Tucker, Vice Chancellor for Religious Life and Engagement, JTS 

Jewish tradition prizes hiyyuv, the obligation to follow Jewish law, whereas modern culture places a great emphasis on making autonomous choices, and commitments that are voluntarily chosen. How do we find a comfortable space in between? 

Lecture Summary

Gordon began by describing heteronomy vs. autonomy. He used this passage from The Jew Within to discuss autonomy: 

“Our subjects emphasize personal meaning as the arbiter of their Jewish involvement…..Judaism must be strictly non-judgmental. Each person interacts with Judaism in ways that suit him or her. No one is capable of determining for others what constitutes a good Jew. ‘My way is not right or wrong, it’s just my way’ [said one interviewee. And another] put it this way: ‘I don’t have any problem with what anybody does [as far as Jewish observance is concerned], as long as they don’t tell me what I have to do. So, if you want to be involved in something that’s very dear to your heart that’s fine, but don’t sit there and tell me about something that is clearly an option in life, that I have to be doing it, and I should be doing it, because I am Jewish’.”

He suggested 2 ways for bridging heteronomy and autonomy: 
1. A sense of obligation due to the way in which we feel obligated to our community and across our social ties. 
2. A sense of connectedness to the specific commandment, and therefore feeling a “self-imposed” obligation. 

About the Series

We are living in an undefined time: our daily existence is no longer dominated by the pandemic, yet neither have we settled into a new normal. This sense of being in transition—neither here nor there—  can feel destabilizing; but is the time in between really temporary, or are we always living in between moments, identities, and phases of life?  

In this series, JTS scholars will delve into the idea of liminality—the time or space in between—which we encounter often in Jewish ritual, identity, law, and life. Join us to consider what these many manifestations of “in-between-ness” can teach us about ourselves and about Judaism, and to explore how we might find strength and meaning in an orientation not of “either/or” but of “both/and.” 

We will explore themes of borders, thresholds and transitions as they pertain to the story of Creation, gender, conversion, birth and death, the duality of living as a Jew in America, and more.


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