May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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The Missing Question: How Do We Experience Authority?

This past fall, the Orthodox/halachic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.

While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1. authority and 2. authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1. In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2. When do we feel authentic? 3. What do the two have to do with one another?

In some ways, the second question really comes before the first one, so let’s start there. The dictionary on my Mac gives several versions of “authentic.” First, authentic means “of undisputed origin; genuine,” as in the sentence, “The letter is now accepted as an authentic document,” or “authentic 14th-century furniture.” In this definition, we see one of the key elements of the concept: that it is uncorrupted, pure, and exactly what it claims to be. Authentic here means that it’s honest, not a fake. It’s the genuine article.

The second definition is related to this, but gives an historical twist. It reads: “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.” In this definition, “authentic” means not just that something is uncorrupted, but that it exists in an unbroken chain with something from the past. In this definition of authenticity, we are aware of the fact that there’s an historical distance between us in the present and those in the past—the people who made the original Italian meals, or the people who lived in the time when the movie is set—but we believe that our experience here and now is just the same as theirs.

You can see where I’m going with this, I imagine. This conversation sounds a lot like a conversation about tradition and change, or continuity and change. Yet, in my experience, those conversations all too often fail to address the way we experience these questions of authenticity—what they mean to us. These are anxiety-producing questions for many people! Consciously or unconsciously, we ask, Is this the genuine article? Is this real Judaism? Is it the pure thing, uncorrupted from the past? Is this the same Judaism that the original Jews—those Jews from the past—practiced? Is our Judaism their Judaism? If it is, we take comfort in knowing we’re doing the authentic thing. If it isn’t, then we worry that we’re committing a fraud, or that we’re breaking faith with the past.

So there’s a lot riding on our experience of authenticity. Yet we also know that, try as we might, our experience cannot be the same as that of our ancestors. We know we live in a different time and place than they did. We know that, at Pesach, we have to see ourselves k’ilu, as if, we are leaving Egypt, because we know that, in fact, we are not. Like that k’ilu, authenticity requires an act of imagination. That doesn’t make it any less powerful or important. But it does remind us that authenticity is, in a fundamental way, in the eye of the person to whom it matters to be called authentic.

And this is where authority comes in. To return to our dictionary: “Authority: the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something: he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed; he spoke with authority on the subject.” The first part of this definition is the essence: Authority is the power to influence others. When we invest authority in someone or something, we allow it to influence us. If we don’t recognize the authority of someone or something, then we don’t. That is, someone or something is an authority only if we recognize it as such—unless, of course, that authority is so powerful that it exercises its power over us whether we like it or not. Think of a criminal who shouts, “I do not recognize the authority of this court!” But in the absence of that kind of coercive authority, the authority I’m talking about is that kind of authority that requires our assent.

To bring the two concepts together, we could say: We give authority to those things we deem authentic. And we experience authenticity when those people and institutions in whom we’ve invested authority tell us that what we’re doing is authentic. That is, we assign the power to determine authenticity to people and institutions with authority. Authority and authenticity thus become woven together in a braid, each reflecting and reinforcing the other.

And that brings us to an important question, the question that prompted this reflection in the first place: What happens when authority fails? What happens when the people or institutions we’ve relied on, to sift through the authentic and the inauthentic—what happens when we can no longer rely on them, when we can no longer trust them, when we can’t give them authority anymore? I’m less interested in what they do (that’s predictable—they try to hold on to their authority), than in what we do. What happens to us in that moment when our authorities lose our trust?

One possibility is that we look for new authorities. We find people and institutions we can trust, that we can rely on to judge the authentic from the inauthentic. Another possibility is we take authority for ourselves, and take on the burden of discerning the genuine from the fake. And a third possibility is to stop caring about authenticity, and thus obviate the need for the authority in the first place.

I think we’ve seen all of these responses in one way or another in recent months, years, and even decades and centuries. We may have grown up with rabbinic authorities who lost our trust for one reason or another. Some of us may have found new authorities—new rabbis, new books, new intellectual or spiritual gurus—and replaced our previous rabbis with new ones. Others may have decided that we can’t find a rabbi we can trust, so we’re going to take on the responsibility of halachic decision-making—that is, determining halachic authenticity—on our own, from issues in hilchot niddah to checking lettuce for bugs to whether partnership minyanim are halachically authentic. We study the halacha and make our own decisions, and we trust that those decisions are authentic. And some of us practice the third option, in which we say we can’t or don’t care about authenticity anymore, or at least authenticity as it has been defined up until now. We’re going to do what speaks most to us, and we’re not going to worry about whether it’s endorsed by an authority, or whether we experience it as halachically authentic.

Many of us may be confused about which camp we fall into. Most likely, many of us have pieces of all of these approaches within us. And that’s normal, as far as I can tell (not that I’m an authority).

My aim in framing the issues this way is to try to help us understand what I think is one of, if not the, major Big Question at the heart of not only halachic Jewish life today, but in many ways, society today (cf., trust in governmental authority, police authority, medicine, home schooling, and others that bear elements of this discussion): How do we experience authority? Too often, the question is posed in a detached way, as a variant of, “How does authority work?” When asked this way, we can get useful intellectual analysis—historical, political, religious—but we don’t wind up reflecting on the human dynamics of how authority actually operates in our own lives. And unless we publicly talk about that multicolored, nuanced process, our authorities will continue to fail us.

How do we experience authority? The time has come for conversations—in private and in public—on this basic question.

By Rabbi Joshua Feigelson

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