Being Our Own Masters

In the religious world, there has been much discussion over the past few years, and rightly so, of the struggle between what sociologists like to call the “commanding presence” and the “sovereign self.” The “commanding presence” is an outside source of authority- in the larger religious sense, God, or in a lesser religious sense, rabbis. The “sovereign self” is the autonomous individual, who chafes at being told what to do.

We live in an era of radical freedom of choice, particularly here in America. We can customize anything and everything, from durable goods to a cup of coffee. The sovereign self has great difficulty accepting the idea that anyone- or any power- can tell it how to live life. In a religious sense, the whole idea of being or feeling “commanded” is essentially antithetical to the sovereign self. “No one can tell me what to eat, what not to do or what I must do,” etc. It is, at least in the non-Orthodox sectors of the religious world, the fundamental issue of religious life in the 21st century.

Needless to say, we rabbis struggle mightily with our communities of sovereign selves, trying ever harder to convince them that surrendering some of their sovereignty voluntarily can enrich and even ennoble their lives. It is an uphill battle, to say the least.

But I am beginning to see the broader picture now, especially in light of the political primary elections of the past few weeks.

More and more, it would seem that Americans are rejecting the choices of their own party’s political establishment in favor of maverick candidates (no reference to John McCain intended). Who would have believed that Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts would go to a Republican?

Massachusetts, the safest Democratic state in America with the possible exception of California! And just this week, in Kentucky, the candidate of choice of none other than Mitch McConnell, the senior United States senator from Kentucky and Minority Leader in the Senate, was soundly beaten by Rand Paul, a physician whose allegiance lies much more with the Tea Party movement than with the Republicans!

It’s not just in the religious world that the sovereign self is making its presence felt- that much is clear. And like in the religious world, the political establishment is going to have to come to terms with the fact that the playing field has changed, and what resonated yesterday with voters is unlikely to resonate today.

I’m not quite sure whether to be more fascinated by all this, or more concerned. It reminds me of the opening line from that great Buffalo Springfield song: “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear….”

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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.