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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Our changing relationship with authority

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I vote in two federal elections, Canadian and American. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility. Recently, it has been a difficult choice because of all the negativity. The U.S. presidential race especially has emphasized the negative qualities and actions of both candidates.

Yet my obligation is to find a candidate to vote for to whom I will yield authority over my country and myself. This isn’t an easy or casual task.

When citizens elects an official, especially a president or prime minister, they authorize that person to act on their behalf, to legislate or to yield power over them in order to ensure the functioning of the country, or more generally to guarantee the common good. Giving someone about whom I know mostly negative traits the right to command or the power to enforce obedience is a frightening or absurd mission.

Thankfully, in most democratic societies, the power given to control and legislate is not unilateral or absolute. Founding elders were wiser than current publicists. They established checks and balances on the power of any executive. So while this may get in the way of some reform and quick action, it also protects the electorate from the absolute authority of an authoritarian official.

But we do yield authority in elections, and the issue is a valid one. It’s especially important to consider where authority lies and where it’s valid.

For example, parents have authority over their children, but that dominion is currently being challenged. In previous generations, no one doubted a father’s right even obligation to “take the strap” to a wayward child. Now we hear of laws that ban spanking. What does that mean to our society? We have engaged a new level of government control – a level of government interference, some say.

But we also reveal a level of concern for children and child abuse. Children are no longer seen as the property of their parents. Parents may be the “authors” of the children, but they don’t retain sole authority. Yet they’re expected to raise, feed, clothe, protect, mould, train, etc.  There’s a mixed message in that bag that’s not yet sorted out. At this moment, we could say that authority is shared, but the route is unclear and the results unknown.

What other levels of authority in our lives are at play as modern notions of power over people are being redefined?

Education is an interesting field in which the relationship between teacher and student is being renegotiated. In the past, the teacher had absolute authority in the classroom. No one doubted her or his jurisdiction in the room or her command over text and people. But that’s no longer the case.

Now there’s a contract that one must gently finesse. Students rate the teacher’s performance. They can complain about any aspect of the situation, from her command of the subject matter – implicitly accepting the fact that they know enough to judge this – or his classroom preparation or any part of the course. Of course, the teacher still marks students, which is a form of power over them.

But many teachers avoid the authoritative approach and opt for a shared classroom experience. Yet the educational experience is at times based on the authority of the teacher as an expert in a specific field. What is gained and lost in this new non-authoritative approach?

In Judaism, we have a mixed bag of legal and non-legal issues. The believing Jew has a sense of God as Creator having authority over oneself, and the entire world for that matter. In halachic terms, the issue is confusing. The law is the authority, but there’s no one rabbi who has authority over the individual Jew. Rabbis are learned in the law, so some experts can be seen as authoritative legalists. But that doesn’t automatically give them personal authority over individuals.

Jews are directly responsible to God. There are no intermediaries. That’s our strength. When you ask a direct question to a specific rabbi, then by definition you accept that rabbi’s authority for that issue. But many people today fear individual responsibility in life, and, therefore, they accept the authority of a specific rabbi in all things.

The face of Judaism is changing, and with it, that fierce independence of the individual might be disappearing.

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