Becoming Free in Judaism

From the beginning of biblical time, man has struggled to break his binding ties in order to become free, independent, and fully human.

Excerpted from You Shall Be As Gods with permission of the publisher (Henry Holt and Company).

Man is seen as being created in God’s likeness, with a capacity for an evolution of which the limits are not set. “God,” a Hasidic master remarked, “does not say that ‘it was good’ after creating man; this indicates that while the cattle and everything else were finished after being created, man was not finished.” It is man himself, guided by God’s word as voiced by the Torah and the Prophets, who can develop his inherent nature in the process of history.

What is the nature of this human evolution?

Incestuous Bondage

Its essence lies in man’s emergence from the incestuous ties to blood and soil into independence and freedom. Man, the prisoner of nature, becomes free by becoming fully human. In the biblical and later Jewish view, freedom and independence are the goals of human development, and the aim of human action is the constant process of liberating oneself from the shackles that bind man to the past, to nature, to the clan, to idols.

Adam and Eve at the beginning of their evolution are bound to blood and soil; they are still “blind.” But “their eyes are opened”after they acquire the knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge the original harmony with nature is broken. Man begins the process of individuation and cuts his ties with nature. In fact, he and nature become enemies, not to be reconciled until man has become fully human. With this first step of severing the ties between man and nature, history–and alienation–begins.As we have seen, this is not the story of the “fall” of man but of his awakening, and thus of the beginning of his rise.

But even before the story of the expulsion from Paradise (which is a symbol of the mother’s womb), the biblical text‑-using non-symbolic language‑‑proclaims the necessity of cutting the bond to father and mother: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The meaning of this verse is quite clear: The condition for man’s union with woman is that he shall cut the primary ties to his parents, that he shall become an independent man. Love between man and woman is possible only when the incestuous tie has been severed. (Rashi also interprets this verse as implying the prohibition of incest.)

Social Bondage

The next step in the process of liberation from incestuous ties is found in the beginning of the national history of the Hebrews. Abraham is told by God to cut the ties with his father’s house, to leave it, and to go into a country which God will show him. The Hebrew tribes, after long wanderings, settle in Egypt. A new dimension is added‑-the social one of slavery‑-to the ties of blood and soil. Man must cut not only the tie to father and mother; he must also cut the social ties which make him a slave, dependent on a master.

becoming freeThe idea that man’s task lies in the growing emancipation from the”primary ties” of incestuous attachment is also expressed in some of the main religious symbols and services of the Jewish tradition:

The goal of man’s development is that of freedom and independence. Independence means the cutting of the umbilical cord and the ability to owe one’s existence to oneself alone. But is such radical independence at all possible for man? Can man face his aloneness without collapsing from terror?

Not just the child, but even man the adult is powerless. “Against your will you are formed and against your will you are born and against your will you live and against your will you die…and against your will you are destined to render all account to the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He” (Rabbi Eleazar ha‑Kappar, Pirkei Avot, IV, 29). Man is aware of the risks and dangers of his existence, yet his defenses are insufficient. Eventually he succumbs to illness and old age,and dies. Those whom he loves die before him, or after him, and there is no comfort in either case. Man is uncertain; his knowledge is fragmentary. In his uncertainty he looks for absolutes that promise certainty which he can follow,with which he can identify. Can he do without such absolutes? Is it not a question of choosing between better or worse absolutes, that is to say, between absolutes which help his development and those that hinder it? Is it not a question of choosing between God and idols?

Independence and Obedience

Indeed, full independence is one of the most difficult achievements; even if man overcomes his fixation to blood and soil, to mother and clan, he holds onto other powers that give him security and certainty: his nation, his social group, his family; or his achievements, his power, his money. Or he becomes so narcissistic that he does not feel a stranger in the world because he is the world, there is nothing besides and outside of him.

Independence is not achieved simply by not obeying mother, father, state, and the like. Independence is not the same as disobedience. Independence is possible only if, and according to the degree to which, man actively grasps the world, is related to it, and thus becomes one with it. There is no independence and no freedom unless man arrives at the stage of complete inner activity and productivity.

The answer of the Bible and of the later Jewish tradition seems to be:Indeed, man is feeble and weak, but he is an open system which can develop up to the point where he is free. He needs to be obedient to God so that he can break his fixation to the primary ties and not submit to man.

Discover More

Women in Rabbinic Literature

The rabbis of the Talmud designated specific female roles and activities, and were wary of women's nature, but they also tempered biblical laws that caused hardships for women.

Judaism & Science in History

Jewish tradition and scientific reasoning provide two different and sometimes contradictory sources of truth, and Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have struggled to address these contradictions.

Women in the Bible

In the Bible, women are sometimes portrayed as men's equals and other times, as men's subordinates—or property.