Commentary

Personal Autonomy in the Thought of R. Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch

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David Silverstein

In a 2016 article in Tablet magazine, Yair Rosenberg and Yedidya Schwartz compiled a list of ten influential Israeli rabbis that the English speaking world “should know” about.[1] The list was eclectic, and contained rabbis from across the denominational and ideological spectrum. Nonetheless, the age range of the rabbis was fairly narrow. The one exception was the seventh rabbi on the list, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch. Already in his 80s, R. Rabinovitch was referred to by the authors as the list’s “old timer.”

The fact that R. Rabinovitch is not well known among English speaking Orthodox Jews is puzzling. Intellectually, his resume could not be more impressive. He was a towering scholar who published a twenty-three volume, monumental commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. In addition to his doctorate in the history of science, he also wrote a book of Talmudic novella, two volumes of halakhic responsa, and books and articles on a wide range of contemporary topics in Jewish thought. Beyond his academic accomplishments, R. Rabinovitch had a successful career as a congregational rabbi in the United States and Canada. He helped establish the first Jewish day school in Charleston, South Carolina, and ultimately served as the head of Jews’ College in London, as well as Rosh Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in eulogizing his beloved teacher, said that R. Rabinovitch and R. Aharon Lichtenstein were the “gedolei hador,” the greatest rabbis of their generation.[2] Yet while R. Lichtenstein is well known in the English speaking Orthodox world, R. Rabinovitch still remains relatively anonymous within the same ideological group.

There may be sociological factors that explain this phenomenon. After all, R. Rabinovitch doesn’t fit neatly into any single subset of contemporary Orthodoxy. Educationally, he was trained in traditional yeshivot, and studied with great Torah sages who were culturally affiliated with the Yeshiva world. He even married the niece of his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of Ner Israel in Baltimore. Nonetheless, he earned a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Toronto and served as one of the halakhic advisors for the Centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. Even his Zionism was unique. He was the head of a religious Zionist Yeshiva, yet had no formal connection to the intellectual world of Rav Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, whose worldview shaped much of contemporary religious Zionism. In fact, R. Benny Lau penned an article protesting a headline that eulogized R. Rabinovitch as “the elder sage of religious Zionism.” According to R. Lau, R. Rabinovitch was a “man of Torah,” and any attempt to categorize him through denominational labels undermines his uniqueness and greatness.[3]

Whatever the cause, R. Rabinovitch’s anonymity outside of Israel makes it that much more critical to introduce his scholarship to the English speaking world.[4] In this essay I would like to explore one essential theme in R. Rabinovitch’s writing: the centrality of personal autonomy. This topic is not new, and R. Rabinovitch is not the first contemporary scholar to address this issue. However, R. Rabinovitch’s perspective on this topic is extremely innovative and provides an important counterweight to the traditional voices who try to limit the role of human autonomy in the service of God.

While the theme of personal autonomy permeates many of R. Rabinovitch’s theological writings, I want to focus specifically on two examples where his commitment to autonomy is particularly manifest. The first relates to his reading of a well-known Talmudic passage in tractate Shabbat. The second involves his understanding of rabbinic authority.

Shabbat 88a: From Coercion to Autonomy

The aggadic passage in Shabbat 88a is a classic. Expounding on a biblical verse in the book of Exodus, the Talmud embarks on an ambitious attempt to discuss the exact nature of the Jewish peoples’ willingness to enter a covenant with God at Sinai:

“And they stood under the mount” (Exodus 19:17):

R. Avdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’

R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.

Said Rava, Yet even so, they accepted it again in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.] (Esther 9:27): [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.

The imagery used by R. Avdimi describes God coercing the Jewish people into accepting the Torah. After all, the Jewish people at Mount Sinai were exposed to an unmediated interaction with God.[5] That encounter seems by definition coercive. Who would possibly say no to a covenant being offered by God Himself?

Aware of the theological challenges posed by a coerced agreement, the Talmud proceeds to quote Rava, who argues that the real acceptance of the Torah actually took place during the time of Mordekhai and Esther. The clear implication of the Gemara is that Purim is the mirror image of Sinai. God’s involvement in the Sinai revelation is undeniable. His strong hand, according to the Talmudic account, is what allows the covenant to be accepted. Purim, by contrast, involves God working from behind the scenes. The name of God is not found at all in Megillat Esther. It is exactly God’s lack of overt involvement in the Purim story that allows the Jewish people to actively choose to attribute the miracle to the Divine and reaffirm their covenant with God. Sinai is about coercion and authority while Purim represents autonomy and choice.

The theological timeline that emerges from the Gemara is clear. Sinai is stage one of Jewish history, while Purim is stage two. R. Rabinovitch, however, reads the Gemara differently, setting up a model whereby Purim represents stage two of a three-stage process. The philosophical background that motivates R. Rabinovitch’s reading of this passage is his insistence that man’s unique divine spark (tzelem Elokim) is his ability to choose right from wrong.[6] As a twenty-first century theologian, R. Rabinovitch is certainly aware of the variety of traditional interpretations offered to explain the phrase tzelem Elokim.[7] Nonetheless, he adopts the view of R. Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk that “tzelem Elokim” is synonymous with “free choice.”[8] For R. Rabinovitch, “Only by exercising free will does man realize his essence. He who does not exercise the power to choose—his spirit is dimmed, and he does not reflect the Divine image.”[9]

The act of choosing by itself is not sufficient to capture man’s uniqueness. Choice is only of ultimate value if one “chooses the good because it is good.”[10] A proper choice made “due to any external constraints, pressures, or incentives” does not accurately express man’s “true essence.”[11] This is true with regard to observance of God’s commandments as well. Any type of coercion of man denies him the ability to express his unique capacity to choose. As a result, “fulfillment of the mitzvot only has value if it stems from man’s free will. Otherwise, it is mere apelike imitation.”[12]

Given his commitment to autonomy, how can R. Rabinovitch account for the Talmudic statement that God forced the Jewish people into the Sinaitic covenant? After all, in doing so God completely undermined their tzelem Elokim? To answer this question, R. Rabinovitch argues that just a child is educated in a way that acknowledges her own intellectual and spiritual maturation, so too, the Jewish people as a collective accepted the Torah in stages reflecting their own evolution as a people. Stage one was in fact coercive, and reflects the fact that it was essential for God to find a people to whom to give the Torah in order to justify the act of creation: “If there is no one to accept the Torah, which makes it possible to progress toward the goal of choosing good, then all of the world is not worthwhile, and it would be fitting for it to return to primordial chaos.”[13] This represents the earliest stage of Israelite history, that of Sinai.

Stage two begins at the time of Purim. While this stage does not involve direct divine coercion, it still cannot be described as a time when the Jewish people choose to observe mitzvah observance from a place of complete freedom. Why not? R. Rabinovitch highlights a subtle comment of Rashi in the Talmudic passage described above.[14] Commenting on Rava’s claim that the Jews again accepted the Torah during the time of Purim, Rashi notes that they did so out of a “love of the miracle” that God performed for them. For R. Rabinovitch this is a red flag. Referencing Maimonides’ description of how we educate children, R. Rabinovitch notes that as a student matures, we transition our educational strategy from a model rooted in fear to an approach based on incentives.[15] The transition from Sinai to Purim reflects this shift. At Sinai, God coerced the people into accepting the covenant. During Purim, there was no active coercion. Nonetheless, by saving the people from physical destruction, God “incentivized” the people of Israel to accept the Torah anew: “Like a youngster who studies Torah in order to receive treats, Israel accepted the Torah out of love for the miracle.”[16] The Jewish people were overjoyed after being saved from Haman’s decree. This joy was the source of their willingness to accept the Torah and therefore contained “an element of coercion.”[17] This subtler form of coercion prevented the Jewish people from fully expressing “the Divine image within [them].”[18]

While the Talmudic discussion ends here, R. Rabinovitch adds another layer. He begins by referencing Antigonus of Sokho’s teaching in Avot: “Do not be as servants who serve the master in order to receive reward. Rather, be like servants who serve the master regardless of reward.”[19] In R. Rabinovitch’s reading, Antigonus articulates the most pristine form of faith. In this paradigm, there is no coercion and no room for compliance motivated by a desire for reward.

For R. Rabinovitch, this represents stage three of Jewish history: a time when faith can be appreciated on its own terms, divorced from external pressure. Purim symbolizes faith rooted in an appreciation for a miracle performed by God. For Antigonus, by contrast, faith should reflect the idea that one “should believe in the truth for the sake of truth.”[20]

Yet while R. Rabinovitch accepts Antigonus’s model as a philosophical ideal, he faults Antigonus in prematurely introducing this idea to the Jewish people. Antigonus mistakenly thought that stage two had come to an end. The Jewish people, however, had yet to achieve the theological maturation needed to accept his teaching. In fact, the Rabbis note that two of Antigonus’s students misunderstood their master’s ruling, erroneously thinking that he denied the existence of reward and punishment.[21] As a result, they decided to abandon traditional rabbinic Judaism and found other sectarian groups. It requires a deep appreciation for nuance to understand that Antigonus was affirming the metaphysical truth of reward and punishment while simultaneously rejecting it as a legitimate motivator to inspire authentic faith. R. Rabinovitch affirms that Antigonus was correct in principle. His challenge was the timing, not the content of his teaching.

At what point, then, are we intended to transition into stage three of Jewish history? When will the Jewish people be sufficiently ready to choose to worship God divorced from external pressure and motivated by a commitment to truth? Interestingly, R. Rabinovitch sees modernity as providing a unique theological opportunity that didn’t exist in previous generations. He notes that “until the modern era, an authoritarian worldview, which viewed obedience as the supreme value, prevailed. Today, however, freedom is at the top of our priority scale.”[22] The rise of post-enlightenment modernity posed significant theological challenges to traditional Judaism. Reason, not revelation, became the preferred medium for attaining truth. This philosophical shift forced Jews to struggle with classical faith categories that do not easily harmonize with a scientific worldview. R. Rabinovitch is aware of this, noting that “in our times, there has been an increase in the number of people who are not impressed by the notion of reward and punishment.”[23] How are religious leaders to respond to this challenge? Instead of rejecting this modern ambivalence, R. Rabinovitch decides to embrace it. In a fascinating twist, R. Rabinovitch argues that it is exactly this orientation that makes authentic faith more accessible. Obviously, traditional Judaism believes in reward and punishment. However, in pre-modern times Jews were more emotionally enamored with this idea, and it often served as their motivating factor for religious compliance. While the net outcome was positive, this type of observance is by definition compromised. Modern Jews, influenced by scientific thinking, often lose this direct religious connection to the world of reward and punishment. Paradoxically, it is modern man’s experiential disconnect from certain traditional categories that allows him to connect with tradition in its most authentic form.

R. Rabinovitch is certainly also aware of the challenges posed by modernity to halakhic commitment. For example, assimilation is a greater threat now than it ever was. R. Rabinovitch directly acknowledges this point, stating that, “our generation, relative to earlier generations, is lacking with respect to faith and mitzvah observance.”[24] His broader claim about the nature of faith, however, is theological, not sociological. Given his profound commitment to human autonomy, he is particularly intrigued by modernity’s commitment to freedom. The more autonomous man is, the more he can truly express his tzelem Elokim:[25] “Our generation is approaching national maturity, the age in which the human spirit recoils from any attempt to coerce it. There is no greater guarantee that mankind is on the verge of a great age, when the divine image within man will appear in all its radiance.”[26]

What emerges from his reading of this Talmudic passage is that any form of coercion[27] limits a truly authentic affirmation of traditional commitment. Because man’s defining quality is his ability to choose, external pressure can pose a threat to classical faith. While modernity creates significant challenges to traditional observance, it also provides the philosophical framework for Jews to experience an authentic connection to Torah. Divorced from both social as well as theological pressures of previous generations, modern Jews are blessed with a unique opportunity to activate their tzelem Elokim in its purest form.

Rabbinic Authority: Restoring the Autonomy of the Questioner

The second area where R. Rabinovitch’s commitment to autonomy is overtly expressed is in his understanding of the traditional category of emunat Hakhamim.[28] On the surface, rabbinic authority poses a direct challenge to R. Rabinovitch’s vision of personal autonomy. After all, turning to rabbinic sages for halakhic guidance seems to undermine the autonomy of the questioner. Shouldn’t a learned Jew, capable of navigating rabbinic texts, be able to answer a halakhic question for himself? Wouldn’t this be the greatest expression of his divine spark?

Interestingly, some contemporary Orthodox thinkers express the opposite idea. They claim that deferring one’s autonomy to rabbinic sages is one of the defining features of classical faith. In its most extreme form, this ideology, sometimes called Daas Torah, assumes that great sages “possess a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they really are, and apply the pertinent halakhic principles.”[29] Not only is the autonomy of the laymen limited, but “even knowledgeable rabbis who may differ with the gedolim on a particular issue must submit to the superior wisdom of the gedolim and demonstrate Emunat Hakhamim.”

R. Joseph Soloveithick also tries to limit the halakhic autonomy of the layman. In his famous essay, the “Common Sense Rebellion,” he challenges attempts to bring common sense into the realm of halakhic discourse.[30] Halakhah is an a priori construct that contains its own inner logic. “The Oral Law has its own epistemological approach which can be understood by a lamdan who has mastered its methodology and its abundant material.”[31] For Rav Soloveitchik, to commit to the halakhic system means to “surrender to the Almighty the every-day logic… the logic of the businessman..and…embrace another logic—the logic m’Sinai.”[32] A full treatment of both Daas Torah as well as R. Soloveitchik conception of rabbinic authority, is well beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, both Daas Torah theology as well as Rav Soloveitchik’s rejection of “common sense” assumes limited autonomy given to a non-scholar in navigating one’s halakhic life. True commitment requires one to suspend his thoughts in service of the view of Gedolim (Daas Torah) or the “logic of Sinai” (R. Soloveitchik).

R. Rabinovitch argues for a different model. On one hand, he wants to preserve the dividing line between the scholar and novice. After all, the Shulhan Arukh rules that only a sage who achieves a certain level of scholarship (hakham she-higia le-hora’ah) is allowed to issue halakhic rulings.[33] While later scholars debate the exact parameters of this rule,[34] it is clear that only certain sages are truly autonomous in terms of their ability to decide matters of Halakhah. Other Jews must seek their counsel and not rely on their own limited knowledge of halakhic material.

On the other hand, he argues that a reality whereby ordinary Jews cannot adjudicate on their own is far from ideal: “Until one has studied sufficiently and become capable of issuing halakhic rulings, he has no choice but to choose a rabbi to ask what to do and what path to take.”[35] Instead of seeing submission to great sages as a sign of piety, he argues that true commitment requires one to take responsibility for his own religious life. This should certainly be done in consultations with great scholars. Nonetheless, in the ideal sense, every Jew should become a scholar capable of issuing rulings. Only then is one truly halakhically autonomous.

Moreover, he provides a quasi-autonomous model even for those Jews who are not yet able to issue their own rulings. Instead of rooting their piety in an ethic of submission, these Jews have a responsibility to actively try to understand the rationale for a halakhic ruling given to them. Addressing this point, R. Rabinovitch argues that “even one who asked a rabbi for instruction and was indeed given a ruling is not absolved of his duty to try to understand the reasons for the ruling.[36] Quoting from the Ba’al ha-Maor,[37] R. Rabinovitch notes that an individual questioner can actually be held legally liable if he follows the view of a sage that contained an obvious error; “one who consults even an outstanding rabbi can be considered negligent if he does not ascertain that the ruling he received is correct.”[38]

This allows R. Rabinovitch to restore a maximal amount of autonomy to the questioner. While he is certainly not able to offer a halakhic opinion on his own, the requirement to fully investigate and understand the logic of the rabbinic ruling given to him provides the non-scholar with at least some degree of autonomy in the halakhic process. Blind obedience cannot be seen as an expression of religious virtue. Understanding, not submission, must be the motivating factor in navigating our halakhic lives. As R. Rabinovitch notes, “One must not think that since a great rabbi gave him a ruling, he must therefore follow blindly.”[39] Ultimately, even the non-scholar has a perpetual responsibility to “learn, so that he can understand his rabbi’s instruction.”[40] By doing so, he activates his tzelem Elokim.

R. Rabinovitch is an extremely creative theologian. While much of contemporary Orthodoxy embraces the language of submission and authority, R. Rabinovitch provides a nuanced voice advocating for autonomy, while still deeply rooted in the world of traditional learning and commitment. For R. Rabinovitch, autonomy is a traditional category, emanating from the bible’s earliest description of man. It is this insistence that allows him to see religious possibility in modern man’s experiential disconnect from the world of reward and punishment. Nonetheless, while advocating autonomy, he still preserves traditional reverence and respect for the word of the scholar. Seeking halakhic guidance when we are unsure or untrained reflects a posture of humility. Only a truly arrogant individual would think that he has all the answers. Ultimately, R. Rabinovitch articulates a unique model that prioritizes autonomy while still validating the self-transcendent quality of authority.

As discussed earlier in this article, R. Rabinovitch’s personal biography is eclectic and transcends simplistic categorization. He was loosely affiliated with the Yeshiva world, Centrist Orthodoxy, and Religious Zionism simultaneously. Clearly, R. Rabinovitch’s commitment to personal autonomy was not simply theoretical. This central religious virtue was instead a guiding principle both in the works and in the life of this great Torah scholar.


[1] https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/israeli-rabbis-you-should-know.

[2] https://www.makorrishon.co.il/judaism/230239/.

[3] https://www.srugim.co.il/445678-%D7%94%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%AA%D7%A8%D7%AA-%D7%96%D7%A7%D7%9F-%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%A0%D7%99-%D7%94%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%94%D7%93%D7%AA%D7%99%D7%AA-%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%A9%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%95.

[4] So far, very little has been written to familiarize English speaking audiences with the work of this great sage. For two excellent essays in English, see Dr. Alan Nadler, “Maimonides in Maale Adumim,” available at: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/3235/maimonides-in-maale-adumim/, as well as Dr. Avraham Feintuch, book review essay at: http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%2012%20Feintuch.pdf. For a student’s perspective, see R. Yoni Rosensweig, “My Rebbe: Rav Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch,” at https://thelehrhaus.com/commentary/my-rebbe/.

[5] See, for example, Meshekh Hokhmah to Exodus 19:14.

[6] See R. Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Mesilot Bilvavam (Maale Adumim: Maaliyot, 2015), 3.

[7] See R. Chaim Navon, The Image of God, available at: https://www.etzion.org.il/en/image-god. Also available in Idem., Genesis and Jewish Thought (Ktav Publishing House: Jersey City, NJ, 2008),  43-58.

[8] Mesilot Bilvavam, ibid. R. Rabinovitch argues that this is the view of Rambam as well. This creative Maimonidean reading is discussed at length in Ido Pachter’s doctoral work, The Ideological Development of Modern Orthodoxy in America: Models and Methods (Hebrew), (Bar Ilan University: 2016), 295-300.

[9] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), 4.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Shabbat 88a s.v. “bimei.”

[15] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 10:5, as well as Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to the Tenth Chapter of Sanhedrin (Perek Helek), 131.

[16] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Fischer, 20.

[17] Ibid., 21.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Avot 1:3.

[20] Maimonides, Commentary to Avot, 1:3.

[21] Avot de-Rabbi Natan 5:2. See also Maimonides on Avot 1:3.

[22] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Fischer, 22.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] There are challenges with this model. For example, what if one chooses to reject the tradition on philosophical grounds? Would this be at least partially an affirmation of one’s tzelem Elokim? Assuming the answer is no, does R. Rabinovitch think that the epistemological claims of traditional Judaism are clearly rationally demonstrable? If so, how would he respond to some of the contemporary challenges posed against the rational defensibility of traditional faith? R. Rabinovitch’s writings do provide guidance in trying to answer these questions. I hope to address these in an upcoming essay.

[26] Ibid.

[27] R. Rabinovitch is aware of the challenges of neutralizing external pressures entirely. He recommends limiting external constraints “to the extent possible.” Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Fischer, 5.

[28] Cf. also Nachum Rabinovitch, “What is ‘Emunat Hakhamim’?” Hakirah 5 (Fall 2007): 35-45.

[29] Bernard Weinberger, “The Role of Gedolim,” Jewish Observer 1:2 (October 1963): 11. Cited by Lawrence Kaplan, “Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority,” in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, ed. Moshe Sokol (Jason Aronson: 1992), 5.

[30] R. Abraham Besdin, Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought (Alpha Press: Jerusalem, 1979), 139-150.

[31] Ibid., 147.

[32] Cited by R. Herzl Hefter in his article, “Surrender or Struggle: The Akeidah Reconsidered,” available at: https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/surrender-or-struggle-the-akeidah-reconsidered/.

[33] See Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 242:13-14.

[34] See Pithei Teshuvah Yoreh De;ah 242:14, 8.

[35] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Fischer, 7.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Sanhedrin 12a in the pages of R. Alfasi.

[38] Mesilot Bilvavam,. trans. Fischer, 8..

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.