What is freedom?
“Israel in Egypt” by Edward Poynter, 1867. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
There is a certain inherent ambivalence when we think of the meaning of freedom and its association with the holiday of Pesach. One of the essential features of the liberation story is our freedom from human subjugation: “Yesterday we were slaves to Pharaoh, today we are free men and women.”
This freedom, however, did not come about as a result of a revolution instigated by the Jewish people but, rather, as the biblical story relates, through the redemptive hand of God. As a result, this physical redemption is often connected with a religious duty: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods besides me.” (Exodus 20: 2-3)
What is the nature of this connection? Is it an obligation or an opportunity? Is our commitment to God and the Torah a price we pay for the Exodus, or is it a gift – a gift made possible by our physical freedom, but one that we may choose whether or not to receive? The question we as Jews ought to reflect on this Pesach is whether the freedom from Egypt is limited to liberation from physical servitude, or does it include freedom of conscience and faith.
Historically, Jews did not engage extensively in questions of personal autonomy; at most, they spoke about what Isaiah Berlin referred to as “positive liberty” (Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty). As opposed to the simple, more intuitive concept of negative liberty – “the freedom from” constraints or compulsion, positive liberty is “the freedom to” – the freedom to be all one ought to be, to do that which is the fullest expression of one’s potential. The notion of positive liberty is clearly present in the rabbinic tradition, in such statements as, “There is no free person but he or she who studies Torah.” (Avot 6:2) Freedom, for Jews, has traditionally meant “the freedom to” – the ability to achieve complete self-realization, through a firm, unwavering commitment to God and His word.
Standing alone, however, positive liberty is an extremely precarious concept. We need look no further than the 20th century, when different fascist leaders established their rule on a promise of positive liberty (the freedom to live in a stable society, the freedom to attain financial prosperity, the freedom to fulfil one’s destiny as a member of the master race), to appreciate the danger it harbours: the creation of oppressive, totalitarian regimes, violently trampling the rights of their citizens in the name of freedom. Without the underlying basis of negative liberty, positive liberty means nothing more than the freedom to do that which others determine you ought, to fulfil what others have decided to be your potential.
This question becomes all the more pointed in the context of the state of Israel. So long as Jews lived in Western liberal democracies, they vicariously inherited the value of negative liberty and functioned within its confines. But an essential question facing the modern state of Israel, the only Jewish democracy, is what concept of liberty does it officially espouse? Is Israel a “free state” that dictates the forms of Judaism that are most appropriate? Or does it guarantee its citizens the right and conditions to determine their own individual Jewish path?
If Pesach is going to be not simply a liberation story of our past but a modern, continuous liberation story “in every generation,” we must recognize that positive liberty is an incomplete liberty, that the freedom from Egypt – indeed, our very existence as a free people in our own country – must be accompanied by a commitment to religious freedom and the diversity it will engender.
The spirit of Pesach requires a national pledge to free Israeli society of all and any vestiges of religious coercion, including the manipulation of public funds in order to constrain spiritual choices. In the spirit of Pesach, we must commit ourselves to speaking only in the language of education, and never in the language of indoctrination and coercion.
One of the great paradoxes of Israeli society is that those who function in the name of positive liberty actively limit the actualization of the spiritual potential of Jews. Consequently, the state of Israel is one of the only places in which non-Orthodox Jews can barely receive a Jewish education. Religious coercion and legislation hasn’t furthered our marriage with God; rather, it has created an ever-increasing rift and divorce.
The freedom of Pesach has multiple dimensions. It is our responsibility to ensure it is understood and employed as a catalyst for progress, as a basis for assimilating the broadest notions of negative liberty within our religious language and values. Just as we reject being enslaved by Pharaoh, so, too, must we reject the subjugation of our minds and souls to any authority. In the end, if God is to be the God of the Jewish people, if Judaism and its values are to shape our lives, it will not be because we owe God for our redemption from Egypt, but because we choose a life with God as free men and women.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the 2016 book Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Articles by Hartman and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.