Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, author and award winning journalist

A Pesach Handmaid’s Tale: Freedom To vs. Freedom From

“There is more than one kind of freedom,” says Aunt Lydia in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” recently brought to life in an award-winning miniseries; “freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

If the average American Jew were given the opportunity to choose between two types of freedom, there is no question that “freedom to” would win hands down. It is “freedom to” (choose) that has been embraced by so much of the world, especially since the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s “freedom to” that separates democratic societies like ours from dictatorships and kleptocracies. It’s “freedom to” that gives women control over their bodies and investors control over their bank accounts.  It’s “freedom to” that gives us at least a shot of electing our leaders without coercion or illegal manipulation.  It’s also the “freedom to” live a dignified life that was so cruelly denied an octogenarian French Holocaust survivor murdered in Paris this week.  FDR would have conflated that with a “freedom from” in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech, the freedom from fear; but Atwood’s book defines “freedom from” differently, as the opposite of “freedom to,” particularly in regard to choice.

“Freedom to” is the American way.  Margaret Atwood sought to protect this freedom – that’s why she constructed her novel’s terrifying Orwellian theocracy called Republic of Gilead just at a time, in 1985, when religious fundamentalism seemed the wave of the future, with Iran just having fallen to Khomeini and the Moral Majority on the rise in America.  Things aren’t so different today, with democratic values eroding across the globe – the Economist saw 2017 as “the worst decline in global democracy in years.”  In an appearance last year, Atwood was particularly concerned about growing restrictions on abortion in the US, comparing it to slavery “to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them.”

Bruce Miller, the executive producer of “Handmaid” mini-series, posited that Gilead is “a society that’s based kind of in a perverse misreading of biblical laws and codes,” modeling itself after morally problematic narratives from Genesis.  Atwood said that Gilead embodies the “utopian idealism” present in such notorious 20th-century regimes as Romania and Cambodia, as well as earlier New England Puritanism (although both Atwood and Miller add that the people running Gilead are “not genuinely Christian (or) interested in religion; they’re interested in power.”

Passover also celebrates “freedom to” – in particular the freedom to worship as we please and the freedom for Jews and to identify and thrive individually and as a people. But Passover also celebrates “freedom from,” reminding us that traditional Judaism places very defined limits on free choice. We are not free to enslave and other people, for instance, or murder, or eat Wonder Bread at our Seder table.

Our task as post-modern, autonomous and self-reflecting Jews is to define our own limits, either by the painstaking method of trial and error, or by voluntarily buying into the intricate system of preset limits known as “halacha,” which is simply translated as “the way.”

Or, as is the case with most of us, something in between.

The Margaret Atwood in us says, “Don’t trust any outside authority. Decide for yourself. If you are sucked into a preset system, you lose that precious freedom to choose.”

We tend to believe her. We’ve been trained to be skeptical of authority, especially one claiming divine authorship.  We’ve been burned too often by those in power.

But we are tired – tired from all our freedom. It’s hard to have to choose all the time – there are so many choices: an infinite number of things to read, shows to stream, places to go, items to purchase. We yearn for structure in our lives, a framework that can help guide our choices, and maybe, just possibly, make a few for us.  We also understand that within halacha there are still a myriad of choices, and that most will not lead to the nightmarish world of Atwood’s novel. Sometimes it’s just nice to be home on a Shabbat afternoon and know that going to the mall is not an option.  It makes me a little less free but a little more free at the same time – free to read great books like “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Since the enlightenment, Jews have lived with this tension of “freedom to” and “freedom from,” a dialectic epitomized by the celebration of Passover.  The great paradox of Passover is that although it is our most difficult holiday to prepare for (admit it – making bricks out of straw was a snap compared to making a Seder) and one that binds us to the most restrictions, the Seder is nonetheless and most widely observed ritual.

Go figure.

In the end, the more we buy into Passover and its elaborate set of rituals, and the more work we put into preparing for it, the more we get out of it.

On this festival of freedom, we celebrate the freedom to do with it what we wish. We are free to question tradition and to scoff at it. But equally powerful is our freedom to enrich our lives by scouring counter tops, exchanging sets of dishes, and obliterating each and every breadcrumb, thereby turning just another March or April evening into a night different from all other nights.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of forthcoming book, Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books)
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