Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Dear Modern Orthodox Teenager: Let’s Redefine Freedom

Last week, Eitan Gross posted a heartfelt article about the challenges of Modern Orthodoxy from a teenager’s perspective.  His post probably garnered a lot of attention because it was coming not from an educator or a rabbinic leader, but from a teenager who finds himself struggling to identify with an ideology that seems to be nice in theory but difficult to implement in practice.

One of the challenges that the Modern Orthodox teen faces is not simply the material temptations of the outside world, but the seduction of freedom. Freedom is seen as a basic American value, a value which distinguishes democracies from dictatorships. The definition of freedom is generally understood as having the ability to act according to your own will, as long as it doesn’t affect the ability of someone else to act according to his or her own will. As part of normal adolescent development, teenagers have a propensity to seek more and more freedom. Freedom from parents, from teachers and from rules with which they cannot agree. But living a meaningful, halachic Jewish life oftentimes means surrendering our freedom to choose. Halacha forces us to behave in a certain manner. When teenagers confront the tension between the American value of freedom and halacha, very often they are swayed by American values, asking “who are you to tell me what to do?”  And if we don’t address this tension successfully in high school, then the Modern Orthodox teenager grows up as a Modern Orthodox adult who will also pick the American value of freedom over halacha.

One response to this challenge is to express to the teenager that freedom is not the ultimate value.  Surrender to God is a higher value than freedom.  In fact, Rav Soloveitchik has written extensively about the man of faith surrendering himself in submission to God.  This idea hopefully will resonate with many teenagers, but for those who are not moved by this idea, maybe we must re-define “freedom” for them.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two different types of liberty, positive liberty and negative liberty.  Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.  When we speak of freedom or liberty, we tend to refer to this type of freedom or liberty, namely that I am free to do what I want without anyone telling me what to do.  In this respect, halacha stands in opposition to freedom and tells freedom to stand down.

However, Berlin describes a different type of liberty, which is positive liberty.  He writes: “The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer – deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role – that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them. … I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not.”

This type of freedom, positive freedom, is the freedom to express who we truly are, our very essence.  This type of freedom may not allow us to do anything we want, as it will not allow us to engage in destructive behavior that will threaten our ability to be a somebody.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states, “ein lecha ben chorin ella mi she’osek b’Talmud Torah,” or “there is no free man except one who is involved in Torah learning,” because when we understand the depths and intricacies of Torah and a Torah lifestyle and we embody that lifestyle, we are free to achieve our true destiny.  After all, “etz chayim hi la’machazikim bah” – the Torah is a tree of life to those who grab hold of it.  It gives us life.  When we engage in teshuva, “return,” Rav Kook explains that we return to ourselves, our very essence, whom we are meant to be.

If we can impress upon both Modern Orthodox teenagers and their parents this definition of freedom, enabling us to act in accordance with our strengths, talents and our very essence,  and how halachic rules and regulations do not curtail but, on the contrary, strengthen our freedom, then hopefully we can help them navigate the complexity of the outside world through the prism of Torah and Torah values.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.