The Meaning of Freedom
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And G-d said to Moshe, 'go to Pharoah, and say to him, "thus says G-d
'LET MY PEOPLE GO...'"'" [Exodus 7:26]
This is, of course, one of the most famous quotes in the Bible.
It is also one of the most common half-quotes therein.
Verse 7:26 does not, in fact, conclude "let My people go," but "let My
people go, and they will serve Me." This, even though Passover is the
Festival of Freedom. What are we free to do? To serve G-d! And thus we come
upon an entirely different understanding of freedom than the view of modern
To be "free," as commonly understood, is to be free to do whatever one
wishes to do. As long as you do not harm another person -- thereby
interfering with his or her freedom -- you can do basically whatever you
want. There are no borders, no limitations.
According to this view, of course, even a basic moral code -- something
which claims to dictate that certain behaviors are "wrong" whether or not
they harm anyone -- is an obstruction to freedom. For better or for worse,
a moral code imposes borders and limitations upon an individual. This gives
people a profound motivation to dismiss moral systems, and the underlying
First Cause of a moral system. Or, as the scientist Aldous Huxley ("Brave
New World") stated candidly in "Confessions of a Professional
Free-Thinker," in 1966:
I had reasons not to want the world to have meaning, and as a result I
assumed the world had no meaning, and I was readily able to find
satisfactory grounds for this assumption... For me, as it undoubtedly was
for most of my generation, the philosophy of meaninglessness was an
instrument of liberation from a certain moral system. We were opposed to
morality because it interfered with our freedom.
If even a basic moral system is a limitation on freedom, then it follows
immediately and logically that a system such as that Commanded by the
Torah, with 613 mandatory and prohibited acts, with countless restrictions
and sub-restrictions upon behavior, consumption of foods, sexual activity --
"you name it, Judaism wants to control it" -- is repressive, restrictive,
limiting. And this is the vision of Judaism which many of us have.
The Torah itself is uncompromising. Pesach is called "the time of our
liberation," not "the time of exchanging one master for Another." This is
not "basically free, but with other limitations." No -- the Torah calls all
these laws and restrictions "freedom," and even has the chutzpah to claim
that what the world calls freedom -- that is limited. As Rabbi Yehoshuah
ben Levi says in the Chapters of the Fathers 62, "there is no free man
like the one who is involved with the study of Torah."
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that we have
rights, such as the famous "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If
we view this as an ascension from the most basic right (to life), to the
ultimate towards which we all strive, if Liberty is supposed to make it
possible for us to be happy, than the Torah's "freedom" seems to serve the
purpose very well. Those who visit an active observant Jewish community do
not find a restricted, shackled people, but one where sharing, generosity,
and happiness are the order of the day. There was actually a Los Angeles
Times survey that discovered that residents of religious communities were
significantly more likely to describe themselves as "happy."
Nonetheless, something more than an experiential argument is required.
Regardless of the sociological data -- how can this be? What is the vision
of "freedom" that the Torah gives us?
To answer this question, we must begin by understanding mental bounds.
While they are every bit as real as physical ones, they are not so easily
In the Chapters of the Fathers 428, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says "jealousy,
lust and honor remove a person from the world." What does this mean? One
explanation is that these things color a person's vision. Instead of
dealing with the "real world," he or she instead sees the world from a
distorted perspective. And, of course, this unrealistic perspective limits
the person, preventing him or her from doing things which otherwise would
be entirely possible and appropriate. The victim is shackled, regardless of
his or her self-perception.
Sigmund Freud came close to this concept, saying that a person must
continually battle primal urges for lust and power. But Rabbi Elazar
HaKappar presents them as items which a person can far more easily set
aside. They are the products of the Evil Inclination.
And what are we to do with the Evil Inclination? As the Talmud says, "drag
it to the House of Study." "There is no free man like the one who is
involved with the study of Torah." The study of Torah is the ideal
"sublimation" of those urges which otherwise bound a person, shackle him to
his drives and animal instincts. In a word, Torah gives a person
perspective. It enables a person to step away from the pursuit of lust,
power, or jealousy -- leaving him or her to pursue happiness instead.
There is yet another matter. We are creatures of accomplishment, creatures
of purpose. Just as G-d is Creator, we are naturally driven to emulate
G-dly traits, and to create, to do, to accomplish.
It should be obvious, yet it must be said in order to accomplish, one must
have a goal. For accomplishments to have meaning, the goal must have
meaning. And if all life is meaningless, then all goals will be lacking
ultimate meaning as well.
If we accept this axiom that accomplishments bring true satisfaction, then
Huxley, with all of his "freedom," can never achieve happiness. Because
meaninglessness was his ultimate belief, he could not imbue his
accomplishments with meaning.
This, too, is crucial to freedom, for freedom brings with it the pursuit of
Torah teaches meaning. Service of G-d imbues the most trivial of acts with
sacred purpose. It says that a person can perfect him or herself, and the
entire world, and sets out a path towards that destination. And this is why
the Torah can claim that its adherents are truly, ultimately, happily free.
[Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the director of Project Genesis.]