Rethinking Jewish Life: Beyond freedom

Each Jewish self exists in a kind of “dialectical freedom” lived in Covenant with God and mediated by the wisdom and needs of the Jewish people, past, present and future.

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Freedom by itself, only for oneself, is not enough. When the ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they initially demanded spiritual freedom for themselves – they wanted the spiritual freedom to serve their God. Only when they had both spiritual and physical freedom could they begin the journey toward Sinai to receive the Law; and only once they possessed a guiding legal and moral code could they begin to imagine building a just society in the Land of Israel. It was the Torah that taught us that the gift of our freedom is the ability to uphold a system of law that repeats, like a chorus, our responsibility to those who are most vulnerable.
From that first terrifying and joyful moment of freedom echoed in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalah (Exodus 13:17-17:16), to the difficult challenges of upholding the responsibilities of Torah and building an ethical society, freedom has not become any less demanding with the passing of time. Freedom is not, and never was, just about us. God’s critique (Babylonian Talmud, Megila 10b) of the angels who sang as the Egyptian forces drowned in the Red Sea when they pursued the Israelites running frantically toward freedom is one indication of the complexity of freedom. Even when we’re free, we cannot forget the humanity of others. Freedom comes with enormous responsibility to God, to the Jewish people, to all other human beings and even to our enemies.
The classic commentators called ours a “difficult freedom” because of the complexity of the transformation from being enslaved to being free and because of the enormous responsibilities incurred. Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) called it “difficult freedom” because our ethical responsibility to the other is infinite and ultimately impossible to fulfill. Responsibility is inscribed upon us from every encounter with another human being.
For generations, halachic and other moral guides have sought to make clearer to us what the extent and limits of our responsibility are. Jewish thinkers from the medieval sage Nahmanides (1194-1270) to Levinas knew that neither Halacha nor any other legal code by itself is enough to ensure ethical behavior. Freedom – even freedom with Torah – by itself is not enough.
Today, the challenges of sustaining the ethical character of a Jewish democratic state are in many ways very different from the challenges facing the ancient Israelites, but no less difficult. As we know from the intensity of the debates around ethical issues during the recent election campaigns, it is much easier to focus on one’s own freedom and rights than it is to embrace the difficult freedom that the Torah demands – a freedom which means justice for all.
For some, the halachic legal codes seem to be enough. But Nahmanides is famous for his daring argument about the reality of unethical behavior even while ostensibly observing the law (Nahmanides on Leviticus 19:2). Because one can still be a disgusting person even while observing the parameters of the Torah, we also need broader ethical demands and vigilance to ensure that the law isn’t being misused and that ethical infringements aren’t continuing under its guise.
Because it is possible to reach halachic conclusions that are not necessarily ethical, some thinkers have questioned whether the halachic system is inherently an ethical one or if perhaps there is a meta-halachic ethic that must influence and correct it.
The limits and relevance of Orthodox halachic codes are part of what led some early modern Jewish philosophers, like Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), and, in our time, thinkers like modern Orthodox philosopher David Hartman and liberal Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz, to reject Halacha as the sole guide to ethical behavior.
The complete fulfillment of our freedom and its responsibility requires something greater even than Torah and Halacha. Especially in a world where most Jews do not see themselves as commanded by an Orthodox legal code, much less any other, freedom and personal autonomy must find other guides in order to direct their ethical behavior. Modern ethics hardly proved to be a sufficient guide, since even societies that professed to be its scholars have triumphed in unethical massacres.
This paradox led Borowitz and others to search for a source for ethical demands elsewhere.
Over half a century ago, he developed theological methodology for liberal Jews which has proved to be at least as demanding as traditional Halacha. (Borowitz’s most significant theological work, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Post-modern Jew, will be published in Hebrew translation in the coming months.) For post-modern Jews, the autonomous self of modernity must be a Jewish self whose autonomy is limited not (only) by Torah or secular ethics but by the Covenant of the Jewish people with God. According to Borowitz, Each Jewish self exists in a kind of “dialectical freedom” lived in Covenant with God and mediated not only by the sovereign self but by the wisdom and needs of the Jewish people, past, present and future. Even the modern Jew, seemingly totally free, is only truly free when our autonomy is limited by a deep sense of the responsibilities of the covenant; and only a freedom lived in covenant can be worthy of the living Jewish people.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her column appears monthly.