"Only The Servant of God Is Free" – On Various Conceptions Of Liberty


אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי, … ואומר: “והלחת מעשה אלהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלחת”. אל תקרא “חרות” אלא “חירות”, שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה.1

Rav Yehudah Ha’Levi

Rihal has a characteristically elegant and pithy expression of this idea in verse:

עַבְדֵי זְמָן

עַבְדֵי זְמָן עַבְדֵי עֲבָדִים הֵם –
עֶבֶד אֲדֹנָי הוּא לְבַד חָפְשִׁי:
עַל כֵּן בְבַקֵּשׁ כָּל-אֱנוֹשׁ חֶלְקוֹ
“חֶלְקִי אֲדֹנָי!” אָמְרָה נַפְשִׁי.2

This is beautifully (how else?) set to music and sung by the great אתי אנקרי, as part of her Rihal project. From an interview with her:

“עבדי זמן עבדי עבדים הם, עבד השם הוא לבד חופשי”

(“עבדי זמן”- רבי יהודה הלוי)

כולנו רוצים להיות “חופשיים”…אבל חופשיים ממה? זאת השאלה. עבור כל אחד המילה “חופש” נושאת משמעויות אחרות לחלוטין. אחד השירים החזקים באלבום לדעתי, שמתנגן שוב ושוב כמו מנטרה, כדי שאולי נצליח לצלול לתוך לתוך משמעותן העמוקה של המילים קצת יותר, נקרא עבדי זמן: …

מה שמעניין לדעתי בשיר “עבדי זמן” הוא שפעמים רבות אנחנו לומדים שדווקא בתוך הסתירה נמצאת התשובה- לקרוא למי שאוהב את אלהים “עבד”- כדי לומר אח”כ שרק הוא בעצם חופשי בזכות העבדות הזאת, ושכל השאר, שעובדים את הזמן, הכסף ויתר האלילים…הם “סתם” עבדים- זאת גאונות. אני מתחברת לאמירה ש”כולנו עבדים”, ואני חושבת שזאת הזדמנות לשאול את עצמנו של מי אנחנו עבדים- של הפחדים שלנו? של התשוקות שלנו? של החברה המערבית שמכתיבה לנו מה לרצות, למה לשאוף ומהו אושר? או אולי אנחנו עבדים של הרצון הפנימי העז להתאחד עם הבורא והבריאה כולה? (ואם אתם חושבים שאתם חופשיים, אז תשאלו את עצמכם- על מי אתם עובדים??)

אתי אנקרי מתחברת לטקסט הזה ממקום מאד אישי בתהליך החיפוש הרוחני שלה- החיבור שלה למסורת היהודית הוא הרבה מעבר לרומן.

“בעקבות שבע שנות לימוד של השיטה היהודית למודעות עצמית “חשיבה הכרתית”, אותה ייסדה הצדקת ימימה אביטל ז”ל, התחלתי לשמור תורה ומצוות. כמו רבים שחוששים ממה שנקרא “עול תורה” כשחוזרים בתשובה, גם אני פחדתי מזה”, משתפת אתי אנקרי, “התורה יכולה להיראות כמו משהו שבא להכריח אותי לעשות דברים שאני לא אוהבת ולא רוצה, להפוך אותי לכאורה לעבד, אבל אני התקרבתי אליה דווקא ממקום של להתקרב לעצמי, למצוא יותר חופש בתוכי. גם כשיכולתי לעשות מה שבראש לי, תמיד היה בי חלק שהרגיש כבול.

היום אני מבינה למה, כי כדי להרגיש חופשיה אני צריכה את ההגבלות, את התיחומים, שנותנים לי מסגרת שבתוכה אוכל להיות חופשיה. בלי התיחומים אנחנו פשוט בכאוס, לא בחופש”. שאלתי אותה מה זו חזרה בתשובה בשבילה והיא העניקה את הפרשנות שלה לביטוי: “מה זו תשובה? ברגע שאתה שואל שאלה ואתה משיב עליה- כל השבה משיבה משהו לליבך. זו תשובה. יש מי שמשתנה בחוץ ויש מי שמסתפק בלבוש הפנימי. אף פעם אי אפשר לדעת תשובה של מי היא “התשובה”. ”

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron Sacks, Kt

R. Sacks frequently propounds a superficially similar idea:

If we look at the festivals of the bible – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot … they also belong to covenantal/linear/historical time. They commemorate historic events. Pesach celebrates the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot the giving of the Torah, and Sukkot the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. …

But the Omer is also part of historical time. It represents the journey from Egypt to Sinai, from exodus to revelation. This is, on the biblical worldview, an absolutely crucial transition. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin spoke of two kinds of freedom, negative liberty (the freedom to do what you like) and positive liberty (the freedom to do what you ought). Hebrew has two different words for these different forms of freedom: chofesh and cherut. Chofesh is the freedom a slave acquires when he no longer has a master. It means that there is no one to tell you what to do. You are master of your own time.

This kind of freedom alone, however, cannot be the basis of a free society. If everyone is free to do what they like, the result will be freedom for the strong but not the weak, the rich but not the poor, the powerful but not the powerless. A free society requires restraint and the rule of law. There is such a thing as a constitution of liberty. That is what the Israelites acquired at Mount Sinai in the form of the covenant.3

[T]here is more to freedom than release from slavery. The first civil law Moses taught the Israelites, at the beginning of Mishpatim, is about liberating slaves. After six years of service, slaves were to be set free. The word the Torah uses for that kind of liberation is chofshi. But chofesh/chofshi is individual, not collective freedom. It means that you are not subject to anyone else’s will. It is what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty.

A society of free individuals, though, is not yet a free society. A group of individuals free to do what they like, generates not freedom but anarchy. A free society is one in which I do not exercise my freedom at the cost of yours. That requires restraint and a sense of the common good. It needs collective identity and responsibility. To turn the Israelites into a free nation, not just a group of free individuals, Moses had to create a sense of collective belonging. The book of Exodus tells us how hard that was.4

What is the meaning of sefirat haomer, the counting of the 49 days between (the second day of) Pesach and Shevuot? Nahmanides offers a fascinating speculation-deeply relevant to the global politics of today.

The forty nine days are, he argues, a form of chol hamoed-the intermediate days of the festival. Just as on Sukkot we have a festival of seven days followed by a Yom Tov, Shemini Atseret, so on Pesach we have a festival of seven weeks followed by a Yom Tov, Shavuot. Indeed the Rabbinical name for Shavuot was Atzeret, meaning, ‘end, closure, completion’.

Pesach and Shavuot form a single continuous sequence, as do Sukkot and Shmini Atseret. Sefirat ha-omer joins the two to show that they are connected, not separate events. Pesach and Shavuot are the beginning and end of a single journey-the journey from one kind of freedom to another.

Isaiah Berlin noted the difference between two types of freedom: negative (freedom from) and positive (freedom to). Negative freedom is what a slave experiences when he or she is liberated. They are free from being subject to someone else’s will. That is a great release, but it is individual liberty, not collective freedom.

A society in which everyone was free to do what they liked would be one in which the strong were free to dominate the weak and the rich to exploit the poor. That is not a free society, nor a just one. Had the Israelites known only that kind of freedom, they would have built a replica of Egypt, a society of rulers and ruled. Essential to the Torah’s view of a free society is that it is not one in which my freedom can be bought at the cost of yours.

There is only one antidote: the rule of law. For it is law that ensures that powerful and powerless are treated alike-that each has access to justice; each can have his or her complaints heard; each has equal dignity as a member of society. That is why Pesach was only the beginning of the journey. That was when the Israelites acquired negative liberty. They were no longer Pharaoh’s slaves.

It was only on Shavuot that the journey was complete, for that was when they received the Torah, the law which grants us equal dignity as citizens under the sovereignty of G-d.

Freedom involves responsibility-that is the revolutionary proposition at the heart of the Torah. You do not create a free society simply by removing a tyrant. That is only the first step. The second comes when the members of that society exercise selfrestraint, respecting the rule of law and impartial justice. We count the Omer to remind us that freedom is not won overnight. It involves a long journey-from winning my freedom to honouring yours.5

And see also his Dignity of Difference.6 The references to Isaiah Berlin are to his classic inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford, Two Concepts of Liberty(PDF).

But as I alluded earlier, I think that although R. Sacks’s point may seem similar to that of Hazal and Rihal, it is actually very different. The latter is a moral-religious proposition, that a man, in and of himself, can never be truly free without the yoke of religion and servitude to God, while the former is a political-societal doctrine, that law and order are necessary to prevent the strong and the rich from oppressing the weak and the poor and thereby depriving them of their liberty.

Moreover, while it is all very well to argue that negative liberty is insufficient basis for a free, just society, since “the result will be freedom for the strong but not the weak, the rich but not the poor, the powerful but not the powerless” and will “[generate] … anarchy”, R. Sacks is not at all clear about what, exactly, must be added to it to secure the ideal society. He repeatedly refers to law and justice, but while I admit to a limited fluency with the political theories in question, it is not at all obvious to me that these will not be included in a robust concept of negative liberty – i.e., a government and legal system that ensures that my negative liberties shall not be violated by another. This is, of course, the philosophy of (take your pick) classical liberalism / libertarianism / minarchism. R. Sacks, by his use of phrases like “collective identity and responsibility”, seems to be going further and advocating for some sort of conception of positive liberty, although he doesn’t flesh this out and explain what, exactly, he has in mind.

Update: Prof. David Skeel gives a Christian perspective on liberty that parallels the one we have seen in Avos and Rihal.

  1. פרקי אבות, (פרק קנין תורה) ו:ב – קשר []
  2. רבי יהודה הלוי, “עבדי זמן” – קשר []
  3. Covenant and Conversation – Counting Time (Emor – 10th May 2008 – 5th Iyar 5768) – link []
  4. Vayakhellink []
  5. The Long Journey To Freedom (in Toras Aish, Kedoshim 5765, Volume XII Number 34, p. 4) – (PDF) []
  6. p. 116 – link []

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