“If we would be free, we must choose to discipline ourselves.”
In his sermon of October 31, 1965, Rabbi Olan argues that self-discipline is essential to education, to the creative life, to family life, and to life as a citizen. The alternative is oppression imposed by external authorities. To understand this, it is important to remember the historical context in which he was writing: fascism in Germany and Italy had been defeated only 20 years earlier, and Stalin’s iron grip on the Soviet Union had only begun to relax with his death in 1953.
However, in 1965 the Free Speech Movement was in full swing at the University of California at Berkeley, and a counterculture suspicious of all authority was developing across the nation. It was between those poles of dictatorship and what he saw as “anarchy” (we might say “impulsivity”) that Rabbi Olan was struggling to find a middle way.
At the heart of his sermon, Rabbi Olan tells us that “to become mature means that a person begins to act in freedom and with responsibility.” Living in the tension of this dialectic between freedom and responsibility is the alternative to living as a slave in an authoritarian state.
Rabbi Olan is left with a paradox: we cannot choose to live without discipline, we can only choose between self-discipline and the oppressive discipline that outside authorities are all too ready to impose upon us. This is what he means when he says that “man has no choice.” Rabbi Olan’s own choice is to choose to obey God’s commandments while struggling to live the authentic life of a critical thinker.
*Written by Frances M. Olan and Lionel S. Joseph.*