Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on August 21, 1999
Haftarah Reading

Are We Commanded Or Are We Free? In our own age, the question of whether or not Jews are obligated by the practices and values of our religion is one which has divided our people into separate camps.


On the one hand, an intense and thriving religious coalition insists that the Commandments come from God verbally, and are therefore binding for all time, regardless of changing insight, circumstance or preference.  Passionate about fidelity to the 'mitzvot' of the Torah and the Talmud, these Jews hold obedience as the cardinal Jewish virtue.  After all, we are told not to be "seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes."  Loyalty and obedience are the core of Jewish religion.


On the other hand, another large and thriving coalition of Jews is equally insistent that God's voice is unclear.  While holding our traditional texts in great esteem as guides and repositories of wisdom and historical experience, these Jews nonetheless affirm that each individual must decide what is God's will for him or herself.  After all,  we are urged not to "follow a majority to do evil." Autonomy, therefore, is the guiding, indeed pre-eminent, principle of Jewish faith.


Both of these perspectives offer a valuable insight for Jewish living and Jewish vitality.  It is unquestionable that Judaism has specific content.  That content may be dynamic, but it has real contours and priorities which remain constant throughout the ages.


Our religion's ability to construct a path to holiness and a relationship with God results from its wisdom and its viewpoint, both of which are distinctive and concrete.  We cannot simply list our preferences and then call the emerging brew "Judaism."


It is also clear that the very basis of Judaism is the power of human beings to make choices, to be responsible for their own lives.  In the words of the Mishnah, "All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given."


In this week’s Torah portion, as well, God tells us, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." The Rabbis of the Talmud note that the Hebrew grammar of this phrase is surprising.  It begins in the singular and ends in the plural!  "What lesson," they ask, "is buried in that awkward formation?"


According to our Sages, we learn from the singular "re'eh" (See) that the 'mitzvot' are given to the entire people -- all Jews as a group.  The contours of our religion are not the personal preference of each individual Jew.  Yet, at the same time, the phrase ends with "lif'neichem" (before you [all]), a plural construct, to remind us that each individual must decide whether or not to commit heart, mind and soul to cultivating our 'brit' (covenant) with God.


No one can force you to be obedient, no one can compel observance of the Commandments.  Each one of us has the power to choose, to say, "Yes" or to say, "No."  In fact, the very notion of Commandments implies the idea of free choice; otherwise, it means nothing.


Dogs don't need to be commanded to eat.  When they see food, they eat out of an inner compulsion; there is no choice involved.   Jews do need to be commanded to keep kosher, or to love the stranger, to visit the sick or to observe Tishah b'Av, because those matters don't come naturally to anybody.  They require conscious choice, discipline and desire.


For a 'mitzvah,' a command, to have any ability to elevate and to make holy, we must retain the power to decline to act.  Only then does our choice to be loyal to Torah, our efforts to serve God in all our ways, reflect a commitment of thoughtful acceptance, rather than an automaton's programming.


Throughout history, Jews have had the power to choose. But the power to choose doesn't mean that every choice is equally wise, equally sacred or equally conducive to the transmission of Torah and Judaism. We can choose to let the elderly homeless remain on the streets.  We have that power.  One can choose to elevate our eating to an act of holiness and solidarity with Jews throughout time.  We have that power too. In ritual, as in ethics, we can choose.  And we can choose wrongly. And God has given us the choice. "See,  this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the Commandments of the Lord your God . . . and curse, if you do not." Choose wisely.