There few things more delightful that getting into an argument with your teenage child about the meaning of “freedom”. No, my dear son, it doesn’t mean the absence of a curfew or being free to do your homework at the last second. No, my beloved daughter, it’s definitely not the freedom to stay out that late at a party.
But to a certain extent one can’t blame them, because, after all, the whole of Judaism is a meditation on human freedom. Our faith can’t work without free will and our People can’t exist without our original escape from slavery to freedom. Without freedom there’s no Judaism, because if humanity is not free to choose right or wrong, all the edifice of Jewish morality comes tumbling down. What’s the point of having mitzvot if people are automatons who can’t decide whether or not to fulfill them? What’s the meaning of reward and punishment if you are not free to choose one path over another? Without the Exodus, too, there’s no Judaism because the experience of slavery and redemption is so central to Jewish thought that Judaism would lose all content without it. The scores of laws and rules that we observe because “we were slaves in the Land of Egypt” would lose all meaning.
Thus, deciding what freedom is and what it isn’t—as you do with your teenagers—is not just a mere philosophical debate, but a conversation that is critical to the ethos of our people. This romance with freedom started with our patriarch Abraham, who challenged the determinism of the pagan world by believing in a universe in which Man has the freedom to act and shape history. But it came to full bloom with Pesach. Then, Moses confronted a second enemy of freedom: the tyrant, who suppresses the liberty of others by force and coercion. It was then, 3,468 years ago, that we became the first culture in the world to build its foundational myth around the notion of freedom. And since then, we added another dimension to our struggle for freedom: a fight against a misguided idea of what freedom really is.
In modern times, we tend to think of freedom as the absence of constraints. The “sovereign self”, liberated from the yoke of both religion and monarchy, can now be free to express himself and seek the full realization of her potential. The individual, rather than the society, is seen as the only “sujet de droit” (subject of rights) and those rights are sacrosanct.
That liberation indeed freed the enormous creative potential of the individual and allowed for the incredible progress that we have seen in the past few centuries. But the problem with that vision is that it sees freedom as purely an individual matter. Anything that impinges on individual freedom is bad by definition and everything that removes barriers from the individual is good. In that context, my social obligations, my concern for the wellbeing of others, are unnecessary limitations. When that idea is taken to its extreme—when the “greed is good” philosophy is fully unleashed—there can’t be any limit for the individual to exert his powers. The “world of right” then becomes the “world of might”. Following this logic, one can even defend slavery in the name of freedom; the “freedom” to hold slaves was once a rallying cry for a major segment of the U.S., and hundreds of thousands were ready to fight and die for that “freedom”.
While few people will defend that particular “freedom” today, many still think that Ayn Rand’s injunction against limiting people’s greed should be the main organizing principle of society. That vision assumes that caring for others, taking responsibility for my fellow humans, only limits my freedom and prevents me from realizing my full potential.
Judaism understood that the key to freedom is a balance between four players: me, my fellow human being, society, and God: a delicate equilibrium between my freedom and yours; between freedom from (the lifting of constraints) and freedom to (the capacity to work towards a goal beyond myself); between freedom as an end in itself and freedom as the foundation of a collective project.
Judaism is not against individualism as such. Moreover, we can say that Judaism invented the individual. We believed, 3,500 years before Thomas Jefferson, that every human being is created in the image of God and has, therefore, inalienable rights and freedoms. But Judaism has also believed, since the Exodus, that freedom is a collective endeavor. I can’t be free if my neighbor is not. Judaism understood that true freedom is not the absence of bondage, but the presence of justice and purpose. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased the prophets when he wrote that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”.
Judaism realized that freedom without responsibility means slavery to one’s basest impulses. When Moses confronts Pharaoh in God’s name, he doesn’t say just “let my people go”. He adds “so that they may serve Me”. In other words, freedom has a goal, a higher purpose than just being able to do what we please. That higher purpose is what we can do for others, the responsibility we take for society as a whole. Responsibility in Hebrew is ‘achrayut’, from the word ‘acher’, “other”. Only when I comprehend and embrace my responsibility towards the other I can be truly free. Only when I balance my individualism with that of the acher, only when I transcend my own needs and desires in favor another human being does my freedom have meaning. Freedom becomes license if I don’t see myself as part of a community. Jewish liberty is not freedom from responsibility towards the other, it’s the freedom to exercise that responsibility fully.
Judaism understands that the individual and the collective are a perpetually swinging pendulum that we need to keep balanced. Too much collectivism and the individual can’t move; too much individualism and life becomes a soulless struggle for power and domination. Keeping the balance is deceivingly simple; it demands permanent adjustment and a continuous effort to keep one extreme from overtaking the whole. That’s why Emmanuel Levinas described Judaism as “a difficult freedom”. Ayn Rand once said that “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” In this issue, as in so many others, Judaism begs to differ. There are two sides to freedom—me and my fellow human—and they are both right, and the middle is not evil but golden. The balance is not cowardly, but critical.
This Passover finds us in times of resurging autocracy on the one hand and rampant individualism on the other. One wants to submerge our liberties in a sea of conformism and oppression; the other offers us a meaningless mirage of selfishness that poses as freedom. Today, the message of Pesach is as critical as ever. As we’ve been doing for the last 3,500 years, we need to keep telling our story to the world and ourselves: the story of our love affair with a freedom that is inseparable from responsibility; a freedom that begets generosity and solidarity with those who suffer; a freedom that recognizes the value of the others and connects us instead of isolating us; a freedom that places demands instead of merely lifting barriers; a freedom that helps us live with others in peace and justice. May this Pesach, this beautiful holiday thick with memories and meaning, make us full partners in the vision of our prophets: “Proclaim good news to the humble… bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for captives and, for prisoners, release from darkness”.