Self-Determination Theory and Judaism


Recently I was introduced to a field of study called the Self-Determination Theory. SDT explores “the interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature”. Although I was turned on to SDT for non rabbinic reasons I quickly realized that it had relevance to my rabbinic work. In a nutshell, SDT suggests that intrinsic motivation and personal meaningfulness sustain passion and commitment much longer than do extrinsic forces. In other words, receiving pleasure or a sense of meaningfulness from an activity is a much powerful motivating force than guilt, fear or even rewards. You can easily see where this is going.

Judaism has a long history of depending on external forces to sustain and maintain itself. For example, scholars believe that the complex dietary laws of kashrut evolved as a means to keep Jews from co-mingling with non-Jews in order to sustain Judaism. Similarly, the mourner’s kaddish developed into an instrument for motivating people to come to the synagogue in order to “rescue” their relatives from Hell, as I pointed out last week. Of course, let’s not forget about anti-Semitism, an external force in extreme. Presumably it was once easier to guilt, scare or bribe (reward) people into maintaining their connections with Judaism because today external forces are certainly not very effective.

Today increasingly the people who populate and sustain Jewish communities are intrinsically motivated. They are stimulated by what they experience. They find the practices, rituals and teachings personally meaningful. They are not motivated out of guilt or fear. They certainly do not expect a reward for their participation. People who are intrinsically motivated embrace Judaism as a gift. 

 Judaism and the Self-Determination Theory

Above I wrote that increasingly the people who populate and sustain Jewish communities are motivated to do so for intrinsic reasons.  For them Judaism is not a “benign condition that flairs up occasionally” (Mordechai Kaplan, Not So Random Thoughts).  On the contrary, Judaism is a gift they give themselves to experience, savor and enjoy.  Indeed, intrinsically motivated Jews are not just uninspired by external factors, but are often turned off by them. To be sure, external factors such as fear masked as continuity or in the real form of anti-Semitism, guilt, children, tribalism or a vague call to peoplehood may stimulate a short term interest in Judaism. However, history shows that in the long run such reasons for connecting with Judaism, however noble, are not sustainable.

I believe that the premises of the Self-Determination Theory are valid.  As such, one of the tasks of a rabbi is to help people discover their own unique intrinsic reasons for embracing Judaism.  Shabbat is one my main intrinsic motivators for embracing Judaism.  When I was 17 I lived on Kibbutz Yavnah. The shabbats there were absolutely lovely, simple affairs full of a hard to describe rejuvenating energy.  I was at Yavnah 40 years ago yet there are tunes from the davenning and other smells and sounds that still trigger an avalanche of powerful feelings about Shabbat within me.  Every week I give myself the gift of the experience of Shabbat because doing so feels so good. It is not about trying to recreate the Yavnah Shabbats. It is about creating the gift of time that feels special.  Shabbat, no matter how I observe it, is such a gift I look forward to every week.

With a quarter of a century of rabbinic experience now under my belt I can say emphatically that Jewish external motivator factors are not sustainable.  Here are three examples of external motivators that consistently prove my point:  children, high holidays and death. Each of these has the potential to produce a short term level of interest in Judaism.  But as the children move into their teen years, the oomph of the high holidays gives way to the grind of the rest of the year, or the grieving dissipates invariably so too does interest in Judaism.  When we depend on external motivators Judaism in time starts to feel like a chore and a burden we don’t necessarily need or want to shoulder.  Is this inevitable?  No, it is not.  

Letting Go of “Shouldas,” “Oughtas” and Other Baggage

Above I suggested that a relationship with Judaism without intrinsic motivation is not sustainable. I provided a personal example of one thing that helps me sustain my involvement with Judaism.  I also offered several common examples of external factors that often have short term positive influences but in the long run do not provide what is needed for maintaining and sustaining long term passion and personal commitment.  In this third and final piece on this subject I will examine a strategy to intrinsically nurture passion and commitment to Judaism.  What follows is an adaptation of a motivational strategy developed by Dr. Michelle Segar and laid out in a book titled “No Sweat”. She calls it MAPS, which is an acronym for:  Meaning, Awareness, Permission and Strategy.

Start with the question:  What does Judaism mean to you?  This is not as simple a question as it may seem.  Meaning is constructed from what we learn about something through media, culture, community, communities, friends, and family.  Although it may not seem like it but “everything in our lives does have a deeper symbolic meaning that is unique to us”.  The better our understanding of the meanings of Judaism to us the greater our awareness of what repels and what engages us.  For example, one meaning of Judaism that attracts me are my warm childhood family associations with it.

As our awareness grows of the meanings we attach to Judaism we became better at identifying what stands in our way, or alternatively what attracts us, to Judaism.  For example, although my Jewish childhood was very pleasant, I grew up in a Jewish world of “ought” and “should”.  My problem then and now with “ought” and “should” Judaism is that it does not foster autonomy and de-emphasizes the importance of internal motivation.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and introduced to Reconstructionism that I encountered a form of Judaism that eschewed “ought” and “should”.  It was also when I was first introduced to the concept that we are all Jews by choice.  My adult encounter with Reconstructionism also taught me that I can give myself permission to make Judaism meaningful, stimulating and fun. In other words, Judaism can be a gift I give myself.

Giving oneself permission to make Judaism meaningful, stimulating and fun means saying it is okay to let go of unhelpful metaphors, past negative associations, and old hurts.  It means cultivating a strategy of engaging with the aspects of Judaism that stimulate, invigorate and generally give us pleasure.  In short, it means to cultivate ways to gift yourself with the kind of Judaism you want.  When one approaches Judaism the MAPS way then Judaism is not, as Kaplan put it, “a benign condition that periodically flairs up”.  Instead it is a gift that goes on giving.

© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen