Parashat Yitro

Negative and Positive Freedom

We are called on daily to "proclaim liberty throughout the land."

Print this page Print this page

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In this week's parashah, Yitro, we read of the revelation at Sinai that follows last week’s Exodus from Egypt. What is this relationship between freedom and revelation, between Exodus and Sinai? 

The Hasidic master R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger explains that Sinai follows the Exodus because "the purpose of all the commandments…is so that every person of Israel be free (Sefat Emet, Language of Truth, pp. 319-320)." Revelation follows liberation because while freedom might have been initiated at the Exodus, it is only completed at Sinai.

Yet what kind of freedom is this? What kind of freedom is maintained by the revelation of laws and commandments which, on their surface, seem to limit freedom?

Freedom From and Freedom To

We can begin to answer this question through Isaiah Berlin's famous analysis of the two kinds of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is defined as freedom from--the freedom from restraint on one's actions, enshrined in such concepts as human and civil rights. Positive liberty is defined as freedom to­­--the freedom to pursue a good life personally and communally, expressed in such rights as the right to vote, the right to organize, the right to education, and the right to pursue economic stability.

american jewish world serviceWhile negative liberty, the Exodus from Egypt, is essentially concerned with the absence of restraint, positive liberty, the revelation at Sinai, paradoxically often requires restraint for it to be realized.

Perhaps the clearest example of this paradox is found in our tradition's attitude toward education. Learning Torah is understood by the tradition as a positive commandment that one is obligated to fulfill (see Maimonides, Laws of Talmud Torah). One is expected to find time to study and to utilize one's financial resources to ensure that both oneself and one's children are educated. This requirement of education is understood as essential to freedom, to positive liberty, even though it seems to limit one's individual freedom of time and financial priorities. 

At the completion of revelation Moses descends from the mountain with the tablets of the law in his hand: "the tablets were God's work, and the writing was God's writing, engraved upon the tablets (Exodus 32:16)." The Rabbis famously comment, "'engraved (harut) upon the Tablets'--do not read it as engraved (harut) but rather as free (heirut) for there is no free person but one who engages in the study of Torah (Pirkei Avot 6:2)."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.