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).


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.

Posted on January 14, 2013

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