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    Living in a cage – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Keeping the commandments seems to put you in a cage which gives you no freedom. You have to obey or else. How can Judaism demand this?

    A. Emmanuel Levinas used this analogy when he said that to take refuge in moral or ritual codes is to abdicate responsibility. (Martin Buber said, “Religion no longer shapes but enslaves religiosity”). But the person who lives by the mitzvot doesn’t feel like this at all.

    It is true that without the codes you have more freedom of movement – you don’t have to pray, you don’t have to limit what you eat, what you wear, what you do on Shabbat, or whether you have a m’zuzah on your door.

    The problem comes when you have had your fling and your life doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere.

    Having a set of traditions to honour gives you fixed points and endows the days and weeks with personality and colour. But more than this, the life of mitzvot is a constant series of symbols that indicate the principles that you serve.

    In the words of Eliezer Berkovits, you are “governed by a fixed set of moral values”, such as k’vod hab’riyyot, human dignity, and dar’kei shalom, “the ways of peace”.

    You might say that it is precisely there that the cage analogy is to be found, in the existence of a (cage-like) “fixed set of moral values”.

    Why, you might argue, does one have to be controlled by values that are fixed?

    Let me challenge you: find better values. Or tell me why fixed values are necessarily inferior.

    Work it out, and I suspect that you will come back to Berkovits’ way of thinking before long.

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