Spiritual Subjectivity & Authority
Torah is the ultimate spiritual authority … or rather, the Pope has the final word … or maybe imams reading the Koran … or perhaps it’s the bishops, or the general conference, or the synod, or the elders, or ….
In free societies, and in the freedom of our hearts and minds, we get to decide who has spiritual authority and who does not.
Sure, you can argue that God, or set of writings, or office or position, really has genuine authority … but at the end of the day, you decide this, you agree to participate in communities that think this way, and you decide whether you will submit to these authorities, live by their teachings and rules – or not.
There is no way to objectively determine who has genuine spiritual authority, no way to arbitrate between the competing claims.
Does this mean that spiritual truth is relative to the individual? Nope. Truth is objective – either kindness is a good thing or it’s something for foolish weaklings to practice. Either the pope is infallible or he’s not. I’m not arguing for relativism, individualism, or even some sense of universalism.
What I am arguing for is a certain epistemological primacy to the individual. Truth is relevant for persons and speaks to us as persons, asking us to dispose over ourselves as we see best.
Each individual must decide for himself or herself what constitutes a meaningful spiritual path – no one can force meaning onto another person. Part of our task in life is to wrestle with profound questions and formulate answers that satisfy us in the best sense of the term. Therefore, there is a legitimate and indispensable aspect of subjectivity and individuality to any theology and spiritual path. For any spirituality to be mature, it must be fully integrated into subjectivity.
The insights for living a good life arise from a reasoned, teleological reflection on our own nature and our relationships to others. Deity or religious authority does not impose morality; rather it is an integral part of my natural identity.
We may decide to hold a religious authority or text as a reliable source of genuine wisdom and engage such teaching and insights. But we should never capitulate responsibility for our lives nor abandon a healthy sense of rightful autonomy grounded in reason and reality.
If you think the pope teaching in union with the bishops comprises an infallible magisterium that you need obey, then you’ve decided that, accepted the arguments, and agreed to go along with that spiritual-religious program. If you think the Koran is the final word of God and that imams may reliably interpret the sacred text, then you’ve decided that, accepted the arguments, and agreed to go along with that spiritual-religious program.
Authority & Unity
When I was Episcopalian, many of my Catholic friends would ask how a church that allows such theological dissent and disagreement – leaving many issues up to the conscience of individual believers – could function as a unified body?
I would explain that, first, the Catholic church in reality is just as divided, with most of its members disagreeing over this or that issue with the magisterium, only most dissenters simply remain quiet. Second, I’d explain that the Episcopal church attempted to foster unity through liturgy, the sacraments, and mutual respect and love for one another.
Finally, I’d also offer that every tradition has parameters that help it almost naturally keep some sense of unity. If you claim you’re a Christian, but believe Jesus isn’t God, but rather an alien from another planet, then you might be tolerated on Sunday mornings, but you’re pushing the boundaries of the somewhat natural parameters of the tradition to their breaking point and dabbling in the absurd.
(I know … who gets to determine the boundaries? Who decides what’s out of bounds? What’s core and vital to one is not to another. And so on. Central questions!)
Intellectual and theological conformity does not always produce unity. Unity comes through shared experience, shared struggle, shared compassion, and shared goals. Yes, those goals will be highly influenced by theology, but merely having everyone nod that they accept such and such doctrines delivers very little worthwhile in the end – and usually allows for controlling and sometimes abusive authorities to develop, not to mention often puts us at each other’s throats in the name of orthodoxy.
Authority in Judaism
Judaism recognizes and affirms that every person must reach their own conclusions concerning the nature of deity, moral truth, and meaning. Jewish tradition and texts offers parameters for sorting through such mysteries and questions. As such, there is ample room within Judaism for diversity of thought, variance in practice, and personal expression.
This is what it means to be a Jew: to steep yourself in the stories of Jews – Torah, Talmud, and our shared history. To be a Jew is to treat all beings fairly, to question everything, and to write down and share the wisdom, challenges, questions, and doubts you discover while doing all of this.
What unites Jews is a commitment to rationality, genuine exploration, tolerance, mutual respect, and above all, love. What we share are the insights of interconnectedness, human dignity, and a deep awe for nature as our spiritual touchstone.
Traditional Rabbinic Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about God, humanity, and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and Shabbat, and perhaps most importantly, how to honor God, treat other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah.
Halakhah is constantly interpreted by Rabbis, beit din, and individuals in their local communities and in the various movements of Judaism. These ongoing interpretations are called Responsa in the Reform Movement and some other branches of Judaism.
Halachah is the integral decision-making process of Judaism. All branches of Judaism develop their own unique halakhah. And halakhah helps form the parameters for identity and unity.
As Rachel Adler states, “Halachah belongs to liberal Jews no less to Orthodox Jews because the stories of Judaism belong to us all. A halakhah is a communal praxis grounded in Jewish stories.”
Permission to innovate, to be sure, is not an invitation to anarchy or radical individualism. Our innovations are in accordance with the basic guidelines by which the tradition defines and structures itself.
Reform Judaism keeps one eye on the tradition; the other on the contemporary needs of our members: lay people and clergy alike, as together we create an evolving consensus as to where our boundaries lie.
As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, insights, and disagreements.