Is Freedom A Jewish Virtue?

Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).

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And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.

All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership).

But I think we are reading the Exodus narrative (encompassing parashot Sh’mot, Vaera, and Bo) incorrectly if we understand it as a direct call for liberty. Despite what we teach our children through songs during Passover, God did not have Moses tell Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Instead, God, through Moses, tells Pharaoh again and again to “let my people go so they may serve me.” (Ex. 7:26; 8:16; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3) This is a huge distinction! The Israelites are not released from servitude into some libertarian paradise where they could do as they pleased. Instead, God rescues them from bondage to a mortal ruler so that they can become God’s servants: the Hebrew verbal root eved, which connotes servitude, is used to describe the Israelites’ new relationship with God.

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The Jewish sense of freedom, then, was highly circumscribed. We were freed so that we could serve God’s command; we were liberated from physical and emotional slavery so that we could undertake new-found responsibility and obligation, devoting ourselves to becoming God’s agents and stewards. This prioritization of obligation over freedom would later be codified into normative Jewish law. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Kiddushin (31a-b), the question is asked: “Who receives more credit-someone who does mitzvot out of a sense of obligation or someone who does mitzvot as a volunteer?” Intuitively, I think many of us would assume that volunteering to perform mitzvot would be more desirable. But Rabbi Hanina instead holds: “gadol ha-mitzuveh ve-oseh me-me she-aino metzuveh ve-oseh–someone who is commanded to perform a mitzvah and does so is greater than someone who performs the commandment without being obligated to do so.”

According to Jewish tradition, therefore, obligation is held in higher esteem than freedom.  But here is the question: sitting here, in 21st century America, are we comfortable with this approach?  Do we embrace this heritage in which freedom and liberty are downplayed in favor of service and obligation?  Or does this normative Jewish attitude towards freedom no longer speak to us?  Is Rabbi Hanina obsolete?

What I would like to suggest is that, regardless of how we have internalized the language of Jewish legal obligation into our own lives, I think the counter-cultural nature of the Jewish approach to freedom can serve as a corrective to liberal and libertarian extremists who are poisoning our public discourse these days. Freedom from oppression and tyranny is a wonderful thing, and we are right to celebrate the Fourth of July as well as Martin Luther King Day. But the opposite of tyranny is not individual freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want.  It is empowerment to live our lives with virtue.  No longer beholden to the whims of others, freedom grants us the opportunity to do the right and the good.  The wisdom of our tradition is that political freedom is not an ends in itself but a means towards living a more purpose-driven, moral, and holy life.

Posted on January 14, 2013

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