Mitzvoth Observance or Choice Observance


Musings on Choice, Autonomy vrs. Tradition in Judaism


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Musings on Choice, Autonomy vrs. Tradition in Judaism

By Peter Bjel

The tension between traditional mitzvoth observance versus Reform Judaism's basis on informed choice and personal autonomy is a hard detail to knock because it proves to be both a catalyst and an open visual of the regrettable state of disunity in which contemporary Judaism finds itself. A simplistic argument may suppose that this tension emanates from an oft-repeated clash of old world versus new world values, between traditionalists versus modernists, or that it exists because of stubborn refusal to compromise that emanates from the leaderships of the four main streams of Judaism.

I view this inherent tension as, first, a product of history and time. Reform Judaism's embrace of modernity and radical changes emanated from the need to contour Judaism to changing times. Second, I view such an inherent tension as a conflict between this needed modernity versus this equally needed preserving qualities of the traditional, since it was tradition and the element of otherness that preserved Judaism in the past from limitless threats, fates and uncertainty. This may, perhaps, account for the aforementioned and ongoing irreconcilability.

My views on the tension between traditional mitzvoth observance and Reform's principles of autonomy and informed personal choice is grey, much like many Jewish definitions and concepts. It is a product of a broader and wider phenomenon that emanated from history and time, and was a necessary and inevitable outcome. Reform Judaism traces its earliest origins to the wake of the 1789 French Revolution, which spearheaded its development in the early 19th Century following the sweeping emancipation of Jews in several European countries. Unprecedented re-evaluation of values and the status quo taking shape around Jewish communities made these developments inevitable.

What made them necessary to Judaism was survival through evolution. As the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform made clear, scientific discoveries of the time were embraced and not seen as "antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism," for example; Judaism was, and had to be, "a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason." The other nations had a role to play: "We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men."

There is an informal rule that has been brought up now and again, mostly in the context of political systems, but which could also apply to religion, particularly if caught amid cases of historic change. They can only survive the changing times by contouring and adjusting to new developments and changes, for if this does not happen, then the future of such institutions may hang in the balance, or remain limited to a select few affiliates.

The early Jewish Reformers may, in hindsight, certainly have played with the danger of assimilation-risk when they teetered on the possibility of moving Shabbat to Sundays, or of rejecting outright the cause of Zionism in its early days. However, they embraced modernity as a necessity for the preservation and ultimate survival of Judaism, which remained unchanged into the 1976 Centenary Perspective Adopted at San Francisco.

With all that said, such needed modernity and contouring for the survival of Judaism is contrasted by the survival-laden qualities of the traditional, much of which falls within the scope of what the early Reformers wanted to tweak or eliminate. Everything ranging from the attire of traditional Jews, dietary laws, strict Shabbat observance and compliance with the Hebrew calendar are rooted in Torah and appear, at one point or another, within the list of the 613 Mitzvoth. The Reformers saw the need for change, and seized upon them. Yet, these exclusive qualities set Jews apart from others, and while this may have made them all the more vulnerable to persecution (the many pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust, etc.), it also guaranteed the preservation of Jewish identity, hardened and intensified in the face of derision and challenge.

Tradition is important to most people for this very reason of preserving identity; to remind them of who they are, where they came from, and where they (just perhaps) could be headed. Not surprisingly, this must partly explain even Reform Judaism's partial turn toward Jewish traditionalism in recent decades. To quote from the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, "The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship [added emphases]."

The tension between observing the mitzvoth in a traditional manner and the Reform Jewish principles of informed choice and personal autonomy stems from a clash between two phenomena that fundamentally are both essential to Judaism but find themselves at odds with one another.


A graduate of the University of Toronto, Peter Bjel is a political scientist, journalist and freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. This piece is drawn from a larger memoir he wrote on the subject of Reform Judaism. He can be reached at


from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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