On Liberty (With Apologies to John Stuart Mill)

    One of the most famous phrases in American history was drawn from the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Vayikra 25:10). Those stirring words are inscribed on the Liberty Bell (not all that it’s cracked up to be, but still worth a visit) housed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.  The Bell actually predated the War of Independence but has been associated with the drive for American independence since at least the 1830’s.

     The Liberty Bell notwithstanding, the Torah’s choice of the word dror to signify “liberty” or “freedom” is unique. It is the only time the word appears in the Torah in the instant context, although Yirmiyahu uses it several times. We are more familiar with the word cherut to denote the same idea, even though cherut is not found in the Torah at all but is frequently cited in the context of the rabbinic dictum in  Avot (6:2): “Read not ‘engraved’ [charut on the luchot, tablets] but ‘freedom’ – cherut – as the only free person is the one who is engaged in Torah study.”  That is cherut, not dror. What does dror mean and how does it differ from cherut?

The Talmud refers many times (see, e.g., Shabbat 106b) to a tzipor dror, a “free” bird, a bird that is untamed, difficult to trap, and does not accept the mastery of another. Dror means liberty, but it is a liberty that does not tolerate any restrictions or controls. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, great philologist that he was, understood this tzipor dror as a bird “which only follows its natural trend, without altering it or being affected by human proximity.” It does its own thing, and that should ring a bell for all Americans.

As such, it really is an apt description of the American concept of liberty, even if Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly who selected it in 1751, had no such awareness of Hebrew nuance. From the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol from the Revolutionary era to the public protests erupting across America these days because of the onerous restrictions necessitated (or not) by the Corona plague, Americans don’t like to be told what to do. The “pursuit of happiness” is individualized, subjective. One size does not fit all. The Founders, for the most part, extolled the virtues of individual liberty and small government – as big government (as we have seen) is usually hostile to individual liberty. Big government is founded upon and can only endure by encroaching on the right, freedoms and especially the money of its subjects.

The verse is most suitable for the Liberty Bell as it is for the Jubilee, in which all slaves were freed and ancestral property generally restored to the original owners. Each person returned to his or her natural state and landed property to its natural owner. Artificial barriers and human fetters were removed and life returned to a halcyon past.

Notice, though, how Jews speak not of dror, the undisciplined form of liberty that allows people to follow their consciences, muses and desires, but of cherut, a freedom that is “engraved,” carved on the tablets of the law, rooted in something external to us – the Divine Word. Freedom is the right to live with abandon or a reckless rejection of any inhibition but is rather embedded in our capacity to choose, to subdue our inclinations and harness our energies and resources to serve G-d. And the choices that are presented to us are not simply trivial flavors of life or varieties of experiences but have real world consequences. We choose the good or the opposite, life or the opposite, and so develop our souls for eternal life.

There are two concepts of freedom and each reflects the milieu most appropriate for it. The American concept reflects the ideal for a secular society; the heavy hand of the ruling class has historically been unkind to individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness, and thus liberty remains the prevailing ethos and with good reason.

Conversely, the Torah view is the archetype for a religious nation. It promotes discipline and self-control, and mandates both behavior and values that bring a godly and sacred dimension to life. Such is only possible in a divinely-ordained system.

We must understand both systems and remember never transpose them. We must never let the American ethos pervade the Jewish moral standard – something that has been the bane of modern life and much of the last century. Only then can we remain faithful to our divine mandate and true to our mission.

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