In medicine, there has been a dramatic shift from the paternalistic model – the doctor knows best – to presenting all options and information to patients and encouraging them to make the decisions. In my (limited) experience, I have found that patients generally do not want this responsibility. I recently observed a patient, two weeks out from minor elbow surgery, asking her physician whether she could drive yet. When he responded, “I don’t know, can you? Do you feel you can drive safely with your arm’s current range of movement?” a look of befuddlement and discomfort crossed her face. She repeated the question.
Humans are created with two competing urges. Part of us yearns to be free, to make our own decisions and choose our own fate. Another part of us desires to be cared for, to have our decisions made for us – and to absolve ourselves of accountability for the outcomes of our actions. After all, if the responsibility for making decisions lies elsewhere, then blame for the results of those decisions also lies outside ourselves. This strikes at the very foundation of a sechar v’onesh belief system. It breaks the essential link between actions and consequences and leads to a culture where one’s choices and the resulting outcomes in no way instruct one’s future behavior.
Halacha acts to control these urges. On the one hand we are provided a framework of rules and boundaries within which to exercise our free will. On the other hand the Torah emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, self-determinism and personal accountability.
Judaism recognizes the seductive appeal of having all decisions made for you – the Oracle of Delphi model, if you will. This is the allure of slavery. It is why a Jewish slave who extends his servitude beyond six years, voluntarily relinquishing his free will, has his ear pierced as a form of dissuasion and reprimand. Rav Yisroel Salanter explains that performing this unpleasant task also functions as a punishment for the owner. His guilt lies in not serving adequately as a role model. He clearly did not demonstrate the proper behavior of a Jew, which is to seek, not shirk, a life of responsibility, difficult decisions, personal choice and growth.
The Torah also admonishes us an astonishing four times against turning toward Ov and Yidoni, a method of predicting the future that incurs the death penalty. This too shelters the individual from determining his own fate.
Given the lengths to which the Torah goes to warn us against the dangers of this choice of lifestyle, it should be no surprise that the temptation is still prevalent in modern society. Most blatantly, this is evidenced by the continued popularity of fortune-tellers and psychics. At a more subtle level, “the expert” has stepped in to satisfy this desire. We increasingly turn to career experts, marriage experts, education experts, and life coaches to tell us what to do. Many parents feel the need to consult experts on everything from how to put their children to sleep to how best to discipline them. Perhaps this suggests that what we seek is not so much the advice itself but more the absolution from having to make judgments of import.
In some sectors of the Jewish community we too have succumbed to the tantalizing pull of abdication of free will. Without even delving into the fads of mekubalim and segulos, suffice it to say we have created a culture wherein rebbeim are consulted on all of life’s major decisions and a fair number of minor ones.
I am not referring to halachic or hashkafic queries, but rather questions that lie well outside these realms: whom to date, what job to take, what schools to attend. These are questions that until relatively recently each individual or family felt capable of answering without outside help. Upon encountering the birth of this tendency, the Ba’al HaTanya (1745-1812) expressed alarm: “Where, in all the books of the scholars of Israel, whether the earlier or later ones, have you ever seen such a custom instituted, to ask about a secular question, such as what to do in some mundane matter…”
About the Author: Ari Lapin is an emergency medicine resident and entrepreneur living in Manhattan who writes on Torah issues, politics, culture, and his experiences in the never dull world of shidduchim.
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