Today I had an epiphany. Responsibility is a result of choice and choice is a direct function of not knowing!
How did I come to this, why is it so exciting to me and what the heck am I talking about?
I was sharing with someone the following meaningful text (my translation): “The most important factor in our service to God in every single thing we do is the part which is left up to our free choice. There is no imperative. No one is instructing us about what to do…This rule applies to every act of service to God. There is always an aspect that is left open-ended. No demand is made by God because it depends on human choice…This aspect of the commandment expresses the most important part of serving God and the element of choice inherent to everything we do, because there always remains a doubt as to what God wants from us, since God did not tell us what we should do.” (Hayei Moharan 197 par. 2)
This source by chasidic spiritual leader Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is absolutely fascinating. That he says there are things left up to our free choice is not new and not surprising. But that this is the “most important” factor in our relationship to God and that in everything we do there always remains a doubt as to what God wants from us is incredibly revolutionary!
Today I saw this source in a new light through an insight gained in the course of discussion with my friend and colleague. Until now I had always compared this and similar Jewish texts to Frankl’s concept of free choice as applied in logotherapy. Free choice is the basis for responsibility and accountability for our actions both in Frankl’s psychological system as well as in Judaism. This is one of the reasons I believe Frankl’s approach to healing and growth to be profoundly religious and to have an especially strong affinity with Judaism.
I knew this already. Yet, something new jumped out at me this time that I hadn’t seen before.
Frankl liked to say that we can only be half-sure but we can be whole-hearted. In the past my approach towards this statement was: It’s too bad we can’t be sure. If only we could be sure…but since we can’t, well, we’ll just have to do the best we can.
That’s not what Rebbe Nachman is saying. And putting his text together with logotherapy I am understanding Frankl’s words differently as well. Rebbe Nachman is saying that this is primary, central, the major and most important part of our relationships.
He’s saying: You know what? It’s not “too bad” we can’t be sure of ourselves. It’s wonderful that we can’t be sure of ourselves!
Why is it necessary to have a doubt as to what God wants from us in our relationship with Him? Furthermore how can a religious person even make such a statement?
For a religious person there are certain imperatives. We Jews believe in Torah as divine revelation through which God communicated to human beings, letting them know what He wants us to do in this world. Part of the meaning of responsibility and certainly the meaning of accountability is to fulfill the tasks that have been given us to do by the explicit instructions of Torah. I am not advocating for one religion or another, by the way. I am exploring the meaning of responsibility in a religious context. Jewish law is the foundation of commitment. Our relationship with God is like our relationships with people in this regard. In any relationship, human or divine, there is a need for commitment to the relationship. But where to we go from there?
After a basic commitment the primary meaning of responsibility is in our freely made choices.
The idea of free choice is the “I” that is behind everything I do. The fundamental question I will be asked is:
Where were you?
Along with this will be questions such as:
How honest were you?
How well did you listen?
How invested were you?
How devoted were you?
As intricate as Jewish law gets, the multitude of details in decisions we make every day are detailed and intricate sevenfold! Just the other day someone was telling me about leaving his job. I had to think about my feelings but not for the purpose of blurting out whatever was on my mind. I had to consider how my words would effect the other person. I wanted to convey at the same time understanding for his feelings of relief from the pressure and at the same time my affirmation of the good job he did.
God speaks to us through the events in our lives. Everything that happens should mean something to us. We should feel called-upon to respond in some way. It is only when we are not sure and admit as much that one can say we are taking responsibility for our choices and for the mistakes we made. Otherwise, if we are sure that this is what God wanted, how can we ever be wrong?
Responsibility means taking responsibility for our actions even though we can’t be one hundred percent sure we’ve made the right choice. And anyone who walks around saying he is sure of what God wants from him is either mentally imbalanced, narcissistic or engaged in delusional thinking.
This aspect of responsibility puts the whole human race in the same ball park. We all have doubts every minute of every day. We all need to try to hear God speaking to us through reality. We all need to learn to better “tune in” to our conscience, to be true to ourselves, to acknowledge when something is very important to us and to see and use all of our life experiences as the opportunities that they are to be in sync with God’s will for us.
We have to stand behind the choices that we made and take responsibility for them. Whatever the consequence of our actions will be, no one has told us what to do and no one but we ourselves are responsible for our actions.
Freely made choices are a manifestation of the person behind the choice. The act of taking responsibility in this sense entails a) the effort and process that goes into attempting to make the best choice and b) owning up to our autonomously made choices.
Most of the work is in the choices we have to make that no one can make for us.