God did most of the work of the Exodus. At Sinai, however, the people spoke: Na'aseh venishma"We shall do, and we shall listen." The Israelites committed to a disciplined way of life. In case the Jews had any doubt about the nature of their freedom, Sinai demonstrated to them that freedom would not mean complete autonomy. The former slaves may have lusted for this kind of carefree existence, but after Sinai there would be laws; there would be expectations; there would be values. These would forever anchor the Jews to their God. The Midrash says that when the Israelites finally departed Sinai, they marched as fast as they could for three days. They did not want any more commandments. They behaved like children who run quickly away from school after being dismissed so that their teacher does not call them back.
In our age of radical autonomy and rampant individualism, it is wise to recall that it was the setting of individual and group standards that characterized the Jewish experience. Progressive Jews should not fear setting religious standards. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver once preached that any religion that does not set standards is not worth its weight in salt. Of course, the interpretation will change according to the circumstances of the day. Tradition imagines Moses being unable to recognize his own laws in the academy of Akiva - which did not alter the fact that they were, nonetheless, the laws of Moses.
Reform Jews are at our best when we free ourselves from the shackles of stultified interpretations, yet remain anchored to the Sinai process. In our era, autonomy should not be the only guide. All Jews today are essentially Jews-by-choice anyway and thus are free to do whatever they choose. There will be those who run away as quickly as possible from any obligation we may articulate. As they run they will tell us that Reform Judaism is all about "doing whatever you want." The lowest common denominator should not dictate. Words like responsibility, obligations, boundaries, standards, values should find an equal place of honor in our Reform vocabulary alongside autonomy. As the Israelites themselves discovered, autonomy alone, without boundaries, is insufficient to sustain a living vibrant faith. Autonomy alone will not anchor us to Sinai.
Ammiel Hirsch is the Executive Director of ARZA for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.