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.

The End Game

Is it too early to try to make sense of the Corona virus pandemic that has rocked the world? Trying to read God’s mind is always a hazardous and hubristic venture. We can never be certain of our conclusions.  On the other hand, we also risk losing the opportunity to evaluate where we are, what does God want from us, and further sink into the morass of materiality and happenstance.

One problem in this endeavor is that usually people try to interpret events in accordance with their conventional modes of thinking. And the ramifications of this crisis are multifaceted. It has shaken every societal and global institution. Americans have responded to the shutdown of society and infringements on personal freedom remarkably well, especially considering the disruption of family life and the collapse of the economy. The American economic juggernaut has ground to a halt. American politics, unpredictable for years, has descended into utter nebulousness.

The world has been brought closer in one sense, but in other ways remains the same. No place on the globe has been immune from the spread of disease; shared suffering has engendered some international cooperation. But it has also exposed some countries, such as China, as both victims and villains in this drama. The game of power politics and the desire for strategic advantage for some countries over others continue unabated.

All this misses the real point. Again, people are prone to seeing the world in a new situation as they have in prior situations. From a Jewish perspective, there are people who will look at any event and interpret it as a call for increased Torah study. Others perceive this plague as a divine mandate to do more acts of chesed, and in the current crisis opportunities abound. Aliya activists see the potential, with good cause, for a dramatic increase in Aliya. Still others will look at our closed shuls and conclude that God has not been happy with our communal prayer, and so has temporarily stripped us of it. And the Messianists see this, as they see everything, as an indication that Moshiach is coming soon.

All of that might be true and I hope they are true but I think they are reading into the situation more than simply interpreting the facts on the ground. And what are those facts? It is the one overpowering reality that mankind struggles with and has still not accepted: the reality of G-d’s existence and His mastery over the world. It is a time for teshuva, not just in the classic sense of repentance but in its literal sense of a “return,” a return to an awareness of G-d.

Even in nations that recognize God’s existence, He has been compartmentalized. G-d is “assigned” to a panoply of rituals, houses of worship, lifecycle events (especially tragic ones), and pious, platitudinous invocations often from impious people who enjoy platitudes. But the reality of His might, His dominance, and especially His morality is widely ignored. Society celebrates “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of man” (Tehillim 135:15). The explicit intent of government officials is not to introspect on the broader meaning of life, which should be easier in an environment devoid of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing entertainment industry, but rather to get the economy going and have people dive right back into the crass consumerism that for many is the purpose of life and the source of their contentment and meaning. Certainly, a prosperous economy is critical to a functioning polity – but only because it then facilitates the more consequential pursuits of life. It should be the means to an end and not the end goal itself. When there are no or few consequential pursuits, then we wrongly admire those who have power and influence, and generally set the tone for the zeitgeist.

Who are the powerful? One might suggest the politicians, the generals, the tycoons, the scientists, the doctors, the clergymen and others. They are the ones who claim to have the answers for everything and promise us the fulfillment of our life’s ambitions – as long as we subscribe to their assumptions. And now we see the limits of their powers and how their answers are really not answers at all.

Of course no one saw this coming. Anyone (many do, in fact) can irrefutably predict an impending calamity because until it happens it is always impending. I can’t criticize any person for failing to anticipate something unprecedented; that is as unfair as it is illogical. But the responses to the disaster are illuminating in that they spotlight the wide chasm between our egos and our inadequacies.

The approaches of some rabbis to this catastrophe have been spot on, while others have been deeply flawed. The doctors are trying heroically to save lives, as are the scientists in the frantic research. There is no explanation why one person succumbs and another survives, why one man is afflicted and another woman is unaffected, why the elderly are most vulnerable and the young almost unscathed. There are theories – but the theories ultimately testify to how little we know. Hundreds of scientific papers from across the world have been published in the last six weeks alone with potential cures or treatments. That indicates not just their creativity and their untiring efforts but also their limitations. When there are many answers it means there is no one, real answer. Thus we are treated to the daily spectacle of “this drug works” and “no it doesn’t!” “We are days or months away from a vaccine!” followed by “No, you’re not,” with the sincere, mercenary and political motivations all jumbled. And when someone finds the answer to this disease, who can say that this won’t be followed by other medical challenges which are similarly confounding?

Those who place their faith in science – a staple of secular mankind since the Enlightenment – should re-evaluate, to say the least. (I don’t know anyone who has faith in politicians.) Simple questions – the efficacy of certain drugs, the existence of herd immunity for Corona virus or any immunity at all for those recovered – cannot be answered, are answered in the alternative, or will only be answered after the fact. We ask rhetorically in the daily Shacharit: “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were, the wise as if devoid of knowledge (science?), and men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?”

It is indeed so, as jarring as it sounds and as humbling it is to the self-image of modern man. We try, we often succeed, we use our G-d-given intelligence to try to solve the mysteries of the universe and properly so – but “all is a fleeting breath,” a particularly evocative metaphor in these troubled times.

The wealthy – the group that is most idolized in a materialistic world – have seen the ground on which they walk shaken. The world economy is crumbling, and the markets are volatile. For sure, they are better able to absorb the blow than are the middle class or the poor. Pity those whose businesses will fail or are unemployed from companies that will not reopen. It was unthinkable even two months ago that supermarket shelves in the United States would be empty and that people would be lining up by the thousands to receive boxes of food from local authorities.

Everyone is groping in the dark for answers and perhaps the message is to look up. The atheist and vulgar materialist will find their explanations in nature and the like. They will be unrepentant until the end. They will continue to impose their amorality (often, immorality) on the world under the guise of rights, ethics, kindness and even morality but all “the works of the hands of man.”

Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1) writes that “when troubles, such as famine, a plague, or locusts befall a community, we are to cry out to G-d… It is one of the ways of repentance… And those who do not cry out but conclude that this is just ‘the way of the world and these tribulations are mere coincidence,’ this is nothing but cruelty that causes them to cling to their evil ways and it only invites more suffering.”

Why is this “cruelty”? Because cruelty (achzari’ut) is the feeling that “I am a stranger (a zar) to all this hardship. It has nothing to do with me. It is all coincidence.” Even an earth shaken to its core will not dislodge the unbeliever or the materialist from his world view; that too is an ordeal, of a different sort. Nevertheless, it seems that the scourge is having some positive effect. Last week, a Pew survey indicated that more than 25% of Americans report that they are praying more than they did before the crisis. If it is sustained, along with the humility engendered by this blunt encounter with our evident vulnerabilities, a vital transformation in society will have begun.

The times demand a reassessment of priorities and life’s purposes, a return to G-d as the Source of all life and not as a cliché, not as an image that we trot before our mind’s eye during periods of stress only to relegate Him to some corner (large or small, depending on the person) of our world in more normal periods. We know that Moshiach will arrive amid some global cataclysm, when mankind concludes that nature, science, wealth, or power do not have the solutions to what ails us. That despair forces us to look away from ourselves, to “lift our eyes on high and discern Who created all of these” (Yeshayahu 26:26). The sooner we do that, the sooner we will see an end to human suffering and malaise, and behold the dawn of the era of redemption.

 

Ask the Rabbi, Part 4

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the fourth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Should a person be comfortable or uncomfortable davening in an airport or on an airplane?  And should he act conspicuously or inconspicuously?

Setting aside security considerations, our mandate as Jews is quite straightforward and is presented to us at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch (1:1). The Rema states that “one should not be embarrassed in front of people who (might) ridicule his divine service.” After all, what do we have to be ashamed of – that the Creator and Master of the Universe has called upon us to serve Him? There could be no greater honor.

Of course, there are practical considerations to be weighed as one must strive not to be unduly provocative to other people. Davening on an airplane often inconveniences other passengers. Congestion in the galleys or aisles is so disruptive that many modern day poskim have recommended that people on airplanes daven alone and not in a minyan, especially where provisions for group tefila are not made. Even in the airport, davening in the middle of crowds of quizzical onlookers is not conducive to the kavanah required for tefila. But airports have plenty of semi-private spaces (some even have designated prayer rooms without overt religious symbols or icons) that are amenable to prayer.

I have frequently davened in airports without incident. Decades ago, I was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Düsseldorf, Germany – my first time in that country. Without any options, I davened with talit and tefilin in a corner of the waiting area, with numerous passersby stopping to glance or gaze at this unusual spectacle. I thought to myself at the time: “Good, let Germans see a Jew wearing talit and tefillin on their soil.” And I survived. The rest of the world can only benefit from the presence of proud, fearless Jews. So can we.

 

Is it appropriate to analyze one’s parents? 

Much depends on what is meant by “analyze.” Certainly, sitting in judgment of one’s parents is forbidden. We are mandated not only to honor (kibud) but also to revere (mora) our parents. Analyzing one’s parents, and their virtues or vices as parents or as individuals, would violate the latter prohibition. And this applies even if parents act abusively. As the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates, a story codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240:3), “if a child is wearing expensive clothing and sitting among noblemen, and one’s father or mother tears his clothing, strikes him in the head and spits in his face, the child cannot embarrass them but must remain silent, fearing the King of Kings who commanded him so.”

Admittedly that is an extreme case but the point is clear: scrutinizing, critiquing or rebuking our parents is generally forbidden.

However, if a parent torments or traumatizes a child to the point of psychological dysfunction, it would certainly be permissible, even therapeutically indispensable, to discuss one’s upbringing in a counseling setting. Discussion of parents and parenting is a staple of certain types of therapy. But it should be done, wherever possible, with respect and reverence, and eschewing the tendency to blame all of one’s troubles on other people. Indeed, recognizing that no one is perfect can even engender the assumption of personal responsibility for one’s own fate in life, and that can lead to healthy outcomes.

If “analyzing” parents means better understanding their decisions in order for the child to learn parenting skills, then that is proper as well. After all, as a wise Rav once said,   “G-d eventually takes revenge on children by  making them parents.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of four books.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 3

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the third selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

 

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

 

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

  

Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.”