The Concept of Liberty and Torah

One of the most famous biblical stories is the story of the Exodus, of God through Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through 40 years in the wilderness, eventually to freedom in the promised land. It is a story which has spoken to many different people across the globe, not just the Jewish people. The early settlers and founders of the United States viewed themselves similarly in such terms, that the United States was like a new promised land, a land of the free, and Europe represented Egypt. Martin Luther King, in the struggle for black civil rights in America related to the Hebrews experience of slavery compared with the slavery that blacks had endured and saw himself as their leader to freedom, like Moses was the leader to the Hebrews. The message that one often takes from the story, is that God created man in his image, for human beings to be free and that slavery is bad. On the surface this would seem to be the central theme. But in the more broader picture, we see that God took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and then He gave them the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is full of commandments.

They may have been freed from being slaves in Egypt, but are they really free? Now they don’t really have much choice but to be a slave unto God and have to keep all of these commandments. How does the idea of the value of being free coexist with having to be bound by 613 commandments for all eternity, and that your descendants are bound by, who did not have a choice in the matter.

If we look at the free world, it is characterized by freedom of thought, freedom to be religious or not religious, tolerance and respect for beliefs different to ones own. Or even in the sphere of identity, people are not bound by their upbringing, or have to confine themselves to living within the particular ethnic community that they are born into. People are free to make their own decisions on how they wish to live their lives, so long as they are not hurting anyone else.

We will return to this soon. One of the greatest scholars in the last century on the topic of Liberty, was Isaiah Berlin. In his famous essay The Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin identifies two forms of Liberty, one which he called Positive Liberty and the other Negative Liberty. Negative liberty means that individuals would be free from constraints, coercion and free from each other. Whereas Positive liberty is concerned with self mastery and the individuals ability to determine and control ones own destiny.

Berlin was a political philosopher, writing during the Cold war. These two concepts he was describing was in relation to the Western world lead by the United States, whose concept of Liberty was what he called Negative Liberty, whereas the Soviet Union under Communism was motivated more by the goal of achieving Positive Liberty. Although both seem to be admirable ideals, he remained suspicious of Positive Liberty as carrying with it the danger of authoritarianism.

The idea of positive liberty looks at the idea of a divided self, rational and irrational, this idea would be built upon by later Communist and other left wing thinkers, but of its earliest proponents who discuss it in the modern era, was the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was concerned with individuals fulfilling their needs by ridding themselves of their irrational desires, believing that we are only truly free and independent when our irrational desires become our rational needs. When we achieve this level of self control we become truly free to control our actions, able to self determine and capable of realising our potential without being a slave to our desires.

The conflict with this lies in that it means that some people are more rational than others, which would justify in the mind of the rational to know what is in their and others best interest. Because of the wiser more rational leaders ability to reason puts them in a higher authority to make decisions on behalf of the less rational, believing it to be for their own good.

Politically it means that by attempting to liberate people in helping them find their true selves, who is rational and concerned with the general will, one justifies coercion in order to free the individual, irrespective of whether the individual objects, for if he were as wise as the coercer he would not object, and that his objections are believed to be nothing other than the individuals irrational desires.

As admirable an ideal that positive liberty may be, it is quite difficult to achieve it through politics without coercion. Berlin therefore was an advocate of the concept of Negative Liberty as embodied in the west. It really is no surprise that so many of us identify with the Exodus story and the role that it has played in the projecting of western values throughout the world. The reason is, because it is the granting of Negative Liberty. Negative Liberty is all about being free from the will of others.

When God took the Israelites out of Egypt and freed them from slavery it was first Negative Liberty that they received. The western societies that we live in however, due to the fact that from those who attempted to achieve Positive Liberty has been shown to be potentially dangerous, therefore see Negative Liberty as a goal and an end in and of itself. The challenge is whether it is possible to have both?

The reason that Negative Liberty works, is because Negative Liberty is something that is achieved by way of Politics. Protecting ones civil liberties and basic human rights. Positive Liberty is not something that can be achieved by way of Politics. It is concerned with what in secular circles would refer to as ‘Self Realization.’ Reaching ones true potential through personal growth, character development, aiming to become wise, more moral by self evaluation and critical in order to improve oneself as a person, as one who sees himself less as a self seeking being concerned only with himself, but as being responsible for the welfare of others and to society.

Ultimately achieving this is done on an individual level, but the knowledge of what it is exactly that one should be aiming for and what the correct path is, is something that philosophers argue over.

Torah as a means to Positive Liberty 

Passover is the celebration of Negative Liberty. But then the Jews entered into a covenant which obligates them to keep the commandments in the Torah. The answer to this perplexing contradiction is in what Rousseau and others were trying to convey is that to be truly free we cannot be slaves to our desires and must learn to be disciplined and able to control them.

The Liberal, democratic world whilst it has contributed a lot by way of Negative liberty, we can see how many of the issues in those societies stem from a lack of means to achieving Positive liberty. Their individualistic nature too causes a decline in community cohesion and a sense of duty and responsibility to others where the emphasis is placed on ones rights. They are desires based societies. Advertisements for example, appeal to fulfilling ones desires, through promoting a consumerist culture. Where the aim is to achieve the American dream, to be rich and successful, to have a nice big house, luxuries, holidays, expensive fast cars, the latest iPhone or MacBook, to be in good shape physically, sex, good food and all the material pleasures in life. This to many people is viewed as ultimate freedom, pleasure and happiness and what people should aspire to in life.

That is not to say that according to the Torah none of these things are to be desired. But God clearly did not bring the Israelites out of Egypt so that they may live the American Dream in the Land of Israel. Nor does the Torah command Jews to suppress all desire and live like Monks in a mountain somewhere.

The Jewish approach lies in between. We may enjoy the material pleasures in this world, but not in such a way that we become enslaved to them. The commandments provide us with the means to regulate our desires.

The laws of Kashrut for example teaches one self discipline when it comes to food. That we may enjoy food, but we can’t just eat anything. Leaving aside what the purpose of the laws of Kashrut are. From working with people in the area of nutrition, it is people who have dietary requirements who are more successful in sticking to a diet to lose weight, compared to those who will eat anything, where the ability to exercise self restraint and will power is more likely to be weaker.

A more commonly cited example is Shabbat. More and more people, whilst they recognise the benefit that technology has brought to our lives, we seem to be on call 24 hours a day, deleting junk emails non-stop, on Facebook, Twitter and glued to electronic devices. On Shabbat we turn all of that off for 25 hours so that we can focus more on the spiritual side of our existence, on God and on the people around us face to face, without any interruptions. This proves to be of incredible value in an age where people interacting with one another face to face is becoming rare.

There are many examples of this, but I will not mention here. The Torah does not say that we cannot enjoy all of these things, but that everything must essentially be used appropriately and the commandments are the key for how we are to achieve that. Many believe that fulfilment of their natural desires is what brings ultimate pleasure and happiness. This is rarely the case, there is a limit to how much Belgian chocolate one can eat before that pleasure of enjoying a delicious delicacy becomes gluttony with a feeling of sickness causing one to get fat, with feelings of regret, depression, feeling self conscious and inadequate and lacking self control.

The Torah’s message is that ultimate pleasure comes not when our desires are eliminated, but when we have control of them and are consistent in controlling them. What makes us slaves to our desires and out of control is what in Judaism is called the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination) which pulls us to do things we shouldn’t, our Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination) tries to pull us back in the opposite direction.

The remedy for the Yetzer Hara is the Torah. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (the Ramchal) in his book The Path of the Just (​Mesillas Yesharim) says:

“For there is no one who truly recognizes the illness of the evil inclination, and the power with which it has been invested, except for its Creator, Who created it; ­ and He has warned us that the only remedy for it is the Torah.”

Attaining Positive Liberty is something we deal with on both an individual level and on a societal level. It is the role of communities and families to encourage and guide others in. On a government level this simply results in what we call the Nanny state or worse the tyrannies of the Socialist regimes of the past that scholars on the idea of Liberty such as Berlin and Friedrich Von Hayek were so critical of. Government has its role, and that is the protection of ones Negative Liberty. But the additional message is that freedom and fulfilment is twofold and that Politics cannot achieve everything, there is a sphere where it is the role of the people and each individual themselves to take on the responsibility.

It is no surprise that Pesach is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays amongst the Jewish people as a whole. It is because it reflects the Western value of Negative Liberty. But Pesach is followed fifty days later by Shavuot, which is not as widely an observed festival by most Jews, because it concerns Positive liberty,  the receiving of the commandments, discipline and self control.

Ironically, it is Pesach that is the celebration of Freedom, but doing so through following rules. Not eating Chametz and the family gathering around a dinner table and following a Seder. A Seder means an Order. There are certain, specific things you have to do at prescribed points in the evening. Yet on Shavuot, we do the opposite, we celebrate the giving of the Torah/commandments in a more informal way. There are very few strict practices and observances, but yet the festival marks the taking on of strict commandments.

The custom is to stay up all night learning. Contrary to the general assumption that keeping the commandments is an act of submission of the intellect and free thinking to following the will of God blindly, the occasion is marked by study and learning an intellectual and enlightening experience.

It is on Pesach, when we celebrate our Negative Liberty where for example the youngest child is told to ask the four questions, and the Haggadah provides us with what to answer. We are told that in each generation we are to feel as though we personally were redeemed from Egypt.

It is a very interesting contrast, logically it should be the other way around. Pesach should be celebrated in the informal manner of Shavuot and Shavuot in the formal manner of Pesach. But that would make sense from how the modern philosophers understand these concepts and how things are celebrated in the non-Jewish way. One need only think about when they are at work and tell their colleagues that it is Rosh Hashanah coming up and that you will not be in work those days because you are celebrating the Jewish New Year. And your colleagues, ignorant of the festival ask if you are going to be getting really drunk at some party somewhere. Assuming that Jews must celebrate their New year the same way they do. When in fact you are going to be in Shul, being judged by God, reflecting on your deeds over the past year, thinking about the year ahead.

Likewise too on Pesach, whilst we are celebrating our redemption from Egypt, we could potentially now do as we please. But the structural and disciplined laws of Pesach teach us that freedom is not an end in and of itself. We were redeemed for a higher purpose. That purpose is then celebrated on Shavuot in a more relaxed manner as a way of teaching us not to make the mistake of thinking that accepting the Torah equals the end of freedom, but rather that it is the beginning of a different freedom which Isaiah Berlin defined as Positive Liberty.


Berlin, I (1969) Liberty Britain: Oxford University Press

​Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (2013) M​esillas Yesharim,​ Artscroll, Jaffa edition:Brooklyn pp.99

Hayek, F.A (1960) The Constitution of Liberty London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

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