I n his introduction to the Mishnaic Order of Nashim (Seder Nashim) Rambam/Maimonides poses a question: In the Six Orders of Mishnah why does the tractate Yevamos precede tractate Kesuvos? Yevamos after all deals with levirate marriage (a surviving brother must either marry or legally disengage from the childless widow of his deceased brother per Devarim 25: 5–10) while Kesuvos deals with the laws of marriage. Logically should not laws of marriage precede legislation dealing with the end of marriage?

Answers the Rambam: Whether or not a person should get married is an option. Although marriage is strongly encouraged no authority can force a person to marry against his will. To marry or not to marry is a personal decision. But the exercise of levirate marriage is not an option but a Biblical commandment. The surviving brother must either marry the widow (today no longer in force) or grant her the freedom to marry someone else through the process of chalitzah (similar to a divorce and still in force today). And adds the Rambam that which is mandatory overrides that which is merely discretionary and therefore tractate Yevamos which deals with compulsory action takes precedence over tractate Kesuvos which deals with the optional.

All of which flies in the face of today’s thinking where “choice” and “personal autonomy” are the prevalent buzzwords. Our natural instinct is to place more value on that which is done voluntarily over that which is done as an obligation. When I give tzedakah to a poor man on the surface it seems preferable to give out of the goodness of my heart than because I must observe the mitzvah of tzedakah. On the face of it giving out of compassion is the better way. Nevertheless the Sages demonstrate their profound insight into human nature when they declare that “gadol hametzuveh v’oseh — a person who acts because of a Divine commandment is greater than he who acts because he chooses to do so on his own” (Kiddushin 31a). That is in the eternal scheme of things serving G-d and performing mitzvos out of compulsion and not simply because we feel like doing them is more laudable in His eyes for in such cases we act not to please ourselves but to accede to a Higher Power.

Yes one’s heart should be in it; yes one should feel compassion for the poor man. But at bottom our actions should be motivated primarily because of the Divine Imperative rather than because of our own subjective feelings. For if the standard is our personal choice what is the poor person to do when we decline to help him because we have had a bad day or because we are not in a giving mood?

(Caveat: The primacy of acting because of compulsion refers to Torah commandments and not to day-to-day human interactions where subjective feelings are crucial. For example it is obviously much more meaningful to give someone a gift because one wants to and not because one has to.)

In brief performing G-d’s mitzvos transcends personal feelings. We obey the commandments no matter how we feel about them. We do not honor parents or observe Shabbos because we feel like it or are in the mood but because it is a mitzvah a Divine commandment. Of course mitzvah performance should be done with heart and love but at bottom it is not an option. As the old joke puts it: on Sinai G-d gave us the Ten Commandments not the Ten Suggestions.

This might be what lies behind the enigmatic Talmudic teaching that at Sinai G-d held the mountain over our heads and forced us to accept His Torah threatening to bury us all right there and then if we refused (Shabbos 88a). That is to say to follow or not to follow the Torah is not an option subject to our whims of the moment. It is an imperative to follow the Torah no matter how we feel about it.

At a time such as ours in which personal choice and “what’s in it for me ” like and dislike and obsession with the self and with personal needs and desires are the key contemporary slogans the words of Rambam reverberate powerfully. Behaving religiously because of good instincts is fine but behaving because it is mandatory is preferable. Doing what is optional and discretionary are indicators of who you are but doing that which is religiously mandated is an indicator both of who you are and of your relationship to G-d.

Not personal autonomy but Divine authority is the key to being a fully connected Jew. (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 686)