The chimes of freedom in a free society – Parshat Shlach

To be Free is to be Free in the Service of G-D – Emmanuel Levinas

The modern condition presents a great challenge to freedom. It’s radical freedom, at times, in fact bounds us in chains. The illusion of freedom is creation through liberation. Our attention is focused on one liberation – often formal liberation – while we take our eyes off of other processes that tend to enslave us. Take the end of the institution of slavery, for example, and the development of child slave labor in Asia, funded and maintained by the proponents of anti-slavery. The end of formal slavery brings an informal slavery, only when informal it is much more difficult to find the key.

But in a time of freedom in the technical sense, we will discuss freedom and slavery as conditions. What does it mean to be free in an age of freedom? What does it mean to be free, as an individual, in a free-trade society economically, and a post-modern society culturally. What is freedom, and how is it achieved, when the whole world seems to be available for your taking?

Needs are essential, and our relationship to them bears a direct correlation to the question of our individual freedoms. The extent to which we are at liberty to fulfill our own needs is a measure of our freedom, whilst at the same time, the extent to which we are controlled by our own needs is a measure to the limits of our personal and collective freedoms, too.

Our own needs as means to an end must be fulfillable in order to be free. A man who cannot put food on the table, is not free. If we cannot afford basic health care, we are not free. Maybe this is why we invoke the word ‘Parnasa’, livelihood, in relation to what a man must be earning. For in the need to earn a livelihood, what we need and not necessarily more, lies the radical dichotomy of freedom that is at the forefront of the struggle. Our own needs as ends in themselves restrict our freedom. It is the culture of consumerism, seeking to provide all of our needs and improve the material condition of man in order to stabilize and increase life, which in fact elevates and sanctifies our own personal needs, transforming them into ends in themselves.

Let us examine these concepts through through the thought of a few modern thinkers, and as reflected, at least metaphorically, in this week’s Torah portion.

Martin Heidegger’s philosophy is reflective of the consumer mode. For Heidegger, we are thrust into this world, and our concern is to Be, to realize our authenticity, and to continue our mode of Being. My instinct is continuity and a radical realization of the Self, and its own authentic Being. This philosophy does not begin with an ideal, it begins with existence, and the condition it brings. But nonetheless it idealizes the Self, and its needs, it elevates my own personal being. In contrast, the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, with awareness to human experience which seeks none other than to continue its own personal Being, posits the encounter with the Other as the ideal, and as the escape from Heidegger’s Being. I am awakened when I encounter the Other. It moves me away from my concerns with the Self, pushes me towards a responsibility towards the Other. The mode of Heidegger accepts the conditions of the human to fulfill his needs, to live for the Self, and through this acceptance comes to even idealize it. But is a human life which is in only in pursuit of the continuity of its own Being a free one? Levinas claims not, and he proposes a remedy in the encounter with the Other, which brings me towards a sphere of existence so radically different than my own. I cannot fully grasp what the Other means, I cannot successfully inject him into my own categories. I cannot assimilate him into the Self, into my own Being. I cannot simply turn him into a means towards fulfilling my own needs, because his Otherness is so far and distant from the Self.

Levinas is also critical of the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for it too, puts shackles on human freedom. Hegel’s world history is determined objectively, by the outcome of time, by what remains to survive. There is no room for the subject, for the individual, as the objective is the determinant. What is – is what lives to tell the tale. The subject, the moment, are measured by the object, by the story – in themselves they do not have value. The individual is worthwhile if he is part of a greater object. Hegel categorizes everything into his categories, he seeks to own history, relinquishing the individual of autonomy, of personal freedom.

Our freedom is curbed when we elevate ourselves and our needs to of utmost priority. Is it also limited when we are worthless as individuals, when the Self finds no expression. Levinas seeks the freedom of being in the encounter with the Other. This is not the only front through which we can and must be liberated.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Father of Existential thought, wrote in opposition to Hegel’s objectivity. Thought, abstraction, is already in opposition to experience. It cannot capture it. Religion and its experience must come to satisfy the human experience, as pure thought cannot. G-D is incomprehensible in the realm of thought and logic, but the commitment to him and the morality he demands, out of experience and not thought, is a fulfillment of the Self. A complete and whole commitment to it creates the necessary means for a fulfilling human experience, and a true sense of freedom.

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s critique of the modern condition points out the lack of freedom in today’s radical freedom. Instead of being free, we have subscribed to a group of needs as an end instead of a means to an end. When we worship an individual, his needs become of utmost priority. But the promotion of needs to top priority, which only comes from the technical liberation of man, only serves to further enslave man by forcing him to act in constant attempt to satisfy his needs, which don’t satisfy his condition anyways. Needs are vital, but as means to an end, not as an end in itself. The modern condition – the autonomy given to man by Kant, the Protestant revolution, the French revolution and the founding of United States of America, have led to the elevation of needs from means to an end to an end in itself. As Heschel puts it, ‘We all share a supreme devotion to the hard-won freedoms of the American people. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist in the fact that I can act as I desire.’

Heschel, like Kierkegaard is a ‘religious man’. The Heschelian response is freedom through commitment, the ability to slow down and experience the Divinity, to be needed by G-D, instead of objectifying him through Hegelian and Heideggerian means into a server of our own needs. We must ‘carry the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven’. ‘There is no freedom without awe. We must cultivate many moments of silence to bring about one moment of expression. We must bear many burdens to have the strength to carry out one act of freedom’. The modern and postmodern condition cheapens our value of things. The speed of life moves at the speed of light, ‘sensitivity to words is one of the many casualties of the process’, whereas they are supposed to serve as the vessels of the spirit. Without them as a balanced and sensitive tools, when they are broken, ‘our relationship to the spirit becomes precarious’. Instead we must be committed, inspired. Instead of taking a picture of the moment, owning and consuming it, we must experience it. The religious tradition claims that we are capable of more than the banality of the modern condition tells us. We can be disciplined, committed, we can make sacrifices, we can reach higher spiritual and moral heights than we had ever imagined. Man’s false sense of sovereignty essentially strips us of our freedom. The re-anointing of G-d, commitment to his lofty demands, liberates us from the bonds that freedom has imposed upon us.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik responds to the modern condition existentially too, but from an alternative perspective to that of the likes of Heschel and Kierkegaard. While Heschel and Kierkegaard’s existential modes of being deal with the religious experience, the commitment to G-D manifested in awe and divine encounters and moments as response to the existential crisis, Soloveitchik demands an existential ‘lawfulness’, rooted in Jewish law. As opposed to the ‘religious man’, he seeks an ‘Halakhic Man’.

Kierkegaard says that to love one’s neighbor perfectly is ‘the fulfilling of the law’. R. Soloveitchik says that ‘living under the law’ requires much more than loving the neighbor. There is a much larger body of law that gives the Jew the ability to connect to God in a more concrete way. Judaism emphasizes law and the commandments:  ‘When Halakhic man looks to see the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn..he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments. Dawn and sunrise obligate him to fulfill those commandments that are performed during the day: the recitation of the morning Shema, tzitzit, tefillin, the morning prayer..It is not anything transcendent that creates holiness but rather the visible reality’

Instead of simply wondering at the beauty and mystery of God’s creation as the ‘religious man’ (like Kierkegaard or Heschel), Soloveitchik’s ‘Halakhic man’ has laws to follow for every natural phenomena and life cycle event he encounters, sanctifying his life and the existence of the universe with each day. Instead of being created by reality, subjected to its dictation, he creates through his freedom to act according to his a priori vision. A commitment to an idea is not enough. There must be a clear cut commitment to a language, to a set of actions. The Halakha is Soloveitchik’s answer to the question of how to make a human being’s life meaningful, how to be free.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, Moses sends twelve spies to the land of Canaan. They return carrying a huge cluster of grapes, pomegranates and figs. They depict a beautiful, lush, and plentiful land. But ten of them warn that those who inhabit the land are giants and warriors, ‘more powerful than we’. Caleb and Joshua alone maintain that the land can be conquered, as G-D has commanded.  The people cry. They prefer to return to Egypt then enter the land. Instead, they receive neither. G-D decrees that Israel will only enter the land 40 years later, a timeframe which will see that entire generation die out in the desert.

The need to Be, to consume today’s needs for the sake of continuity, keeps us in shackles. We cannot make the commitment, we cannot take the risk of entering the land. The land is potentially a place of greater freedom than we have ever known. It bears milk and honey, the material sustenance we can only dream of. It gives us the freedom of authenticity, to establish a society and culture in which we can have the freedom to worship according to our particular ways, a space in which we can imbibe the laws that ensure prosperity, that protect the freedoms of the Other. It is a place where I can establish the Self, build my own home, have my own family, yet in proportions appropriate for the balances of freedom. A Self which is authentic, which is real, which is free, yet partakes in a bigger project. A Self which is committed to peoplehood, to Otherness, to society, to law. A Self which is free to do all the above.

But the need to Be right now, to fulfill the needs of today, makes the people of Israel refrain from commitment, from the leap. They prefer to return to the ‘comforts’ of Egypt, in which they have a form of stability, albeit without freedom. Even the freedom of the desert is preferable to a commitment. But the freedom of Israel must be cultivated, it must be earned. The nation must grow, it must develop, before it can realize its greater freedoms. It must turn needs into means and not ends, it must escape the bonds of Being by learning a law which introduces the Other, which makes ethical demands.

Freedom presents choice, it is solidified through commitment. Some want us to commit to our ‘Self’, to our individuality and authenticity. Levinas wants us to commit to the ‘Other’, to the responsibility to that which does not fall within the boundaries or categories of the ‘Self’. Heschel wants us to commit to a moment, to an idea, to the Divine aspiration. R. Soloveitchik to a structure, to a way that is free of the constraints of today and tomorrow. To be free to create a reality that we envision, independent of the dictations of the reality we face.

Freedom does not happen in a moment. We can be free for a moment, but not liberated. Even when offered complete freedom, albeit through its daunting demand to commit, we seem to turn it down.

Freedom is no simple matter. Greater freedom is comprised of different elements. The individuality and authenticity of the modern condition contributes to our freedom, as does living for the ‘Other’, along with commitments to a higher ideal and a structure which expresses that ideal. Freedom is a long march. But these things come together. A moment of freedom, a lifetime of it, is an equilibrium of these elements. To be free is not to work them out in the abstract, to organize the elements categorically, to ‘own’ the concepts of freedom as Hegel’s history would have, or Heidegger’s Being would do. Freedom is a mode of being, a dynamic existence which strives for both authenticity and commitment, for a realization of my individual dreams, and a gesture to help the Other, to contribute my hand towards the relief of his suffering.

The fight for freedom takes place on all fronts. And if we choose to continue to wander, we have to work even harder to earn our freedom. To wish for an easy freedom, the freedom of the four cubits of the Shtetl, is a regression. To return to Egypt is not an option, to live permanently as nomads in the sands of the open-free desert is not an ultimate freedom. But wandering may be necessary in order to cultivate freedom. Our first taste of freedom is frightening, it demands commitments we may not yet be ready to make. We retreat to the desert by the sight of the dangers of the promised land.  The greater freedom is the one earned through commitment, by entering a new land, unripe, yet with the soil that can produce milk and honey if properly cultivated.

To be free is to be free in the service of G-D. I think the different elements are encompassed in that  phrase. Freedom in the service of G-D is an authentic form of worship. It means to be needed by G-D and to do so through the tools which define the Self. It is the ability to be in pursuit of our own dreams, legitimate dreams which seek improve ourselves and the people and places we come into contact with.  It means to have the materialistic freedoms of the consumer market, as means to an end of higher purpose. It means to have a language, a structure which allows us to encounter the Divine, to inject It into concrete reality, to know how to be ethical, how to approach the various situations in life and subject them to just and moral treatment. And finally it means to retain the sensitivity to escape the Self for the sake of the Other. It is, as the famous Chabad story goes, the ability to pause the worship of G-D in order to take care of the crying baby. To run to violate the Sabbath in order to save another human being. To be free in the service of G-D is to be free to serve G-D by stopping all, self-pursuit, and the worship of the Divine, in order to hear the Other, escape and transcend the Self in order to tend to him.

To be free often means to take the long path. It make take the 10 spies, and another 40 years in the desert in order to obtain a greater freedom. In fact, we may be always be wandering. As Levinas puts it, the Other is metaphysical, I can never truly reach him, yet I am always striving. There may be never be an absolute freedom, but we can wander in its direction, we can gravitate towards freedo

About the Author
Eli Friedman recently finished his IDF service and is now pursuing Rabbinical and Academic studies in the Jerusalem area. Between studying for tests and running up the hilly streets of Jerusalem, he enjoys writing about the Halakhic and political issues facing the Jewish people today (and about philosophical and contemporary topics in general, too).
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