Rabbi René Pfertzel – 26 April 2019
Freedom is at the heart of the Passover narrative. It is a very powerful word that inspired revolutions, that motivates political campaigns, and that also justified wars or liberation movements in History. It is the driving force that started the liberation process, which saw our ancestors leaving the shackles of slavery in Egypt towards being a free people with its own identity.
But it seems sometime that people do not always have the same thing in mind when they talk about freedom. Might there be different kind of freedom? If so, might they be in conflict with each other? Could even freedom be used to coerce people?
The 20th century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) made a distinction between two kinds of freedom in his essay “Two Concepts of Freedom” (1958): negative freedom, and positive freedom.
Negative freedom means that other people do not restrict what you can do. It means restrictions are imposed by other people, or by a government. Of course, we will all agree that we must accept some restrictions on our freedom to help us to live together in a community or a society.
Positive freedom means that we are free to control ourselves, that we are our own masters, able to make informed choices. However, some people are not able to control their lives and to make enlightened decisions.
This is why, it is necessary to make a compromise between the self and the collective, between our individual rights and the rights of the group.
What would be then, a Jewish/rabbinic answer to this dilemma, between personal freedom, collective freedom, and some necessary limitations?
Let us consider the following Mishnah:
- “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets” (Exod. 32:17). Do not read, “incised,” (harut), rather [read] “freedom” (herut) — for no person is truly free except the one who labours in Torah.(Mishnah Avot 6:2)
At first glance, one might think that the Law constrains freedom, that our ancestors left Egyptian slavery to fall into another type of slavery, God’s Law.
However, precisely because Pesach is called zman herutenu, there is another dimension to this freedom proclaimed on Pesach. Our festival is, if we follow Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, the best example of positive freedom. Our ancestors gained their freedom from Egypt, and were able to make their own choices.
But this type of freedom has its own limitations, the collective framework that contains and protects our personal freedom. This notion gains some clarity if we consider the other festival that is organically linked with Pesach, a Holy Day that occurs fifty days after Passover, the festival of Shavuot. Contrary to any other festival, Shavuot does not have a fixed date. We are only told that we have to count fifty days from the second night of Passover to reach this time, as if to emphasise our responsibility in doing so.
Shavuot is the festival that celebrates the gift of Torah, the Holy Day when we enter our covenantal relationship with God. Like every human relationship, a relationship with God limits our freedom. Every relationship we enter limits our choices and comes with responsibility, and yet, we choose to enter freely these interactions.
Counting up from Pesach to Shavuot, we acknowledge that our life is more meaningful when lived in connection with others and with God, even though it means some limitations and responsibilities. As the English poet John Donne said in 1624, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. The Jewish way of life is the acceptance of the risk that comes with every relation, the risk to be hurt, to be limited, but also the chance to be enriched, inspired, and loved.
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