The bondage of freedom

“…there is a kind of bondage in freedom: the bondage of law, obligation, and responsibility.” –Michael Walzer We’ve all seen … Continued

“…there is a kind of bondage in freedom: the bondage of law, obligation, and responsibility.”
–Michael Walzer

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker: Freedom isn’t Free. We know exactly what it means. We pay a price for our freedoms. Those who serve in the army to protects us must be willing to give up their own lives. We make compromises for freedom. We negotiate diplomatically when we can to bring about freedom. We follow rules that repress our own self-expression in order to protect democracy’s freedoms.

Michael Walzer might interpret the bumper sticker differently. Walzer is a Jewish American political philosopher at Princeton University. Among his many publications, Walzer wrote a wonderful book that is worth reviewing each Passover: Exodus and Revolution. In it, Walzer examines key aspects of the Passover narrative and shows how it has become a metaphor for the achievement of political freedoms across time and across the globe. From Savonarola to liberation theologians, the story of the Exodus marks one of the first and most powerful articulations of revolution that has inspired others to fight against political tyranny.

Walzer quotes the philosopher Rousseau who believed that Moses greatest achievement was transforming “wretched fugitives” into a “political society” by taking them out of servitude and giving them laws. In Walzer’s words, Moses “brought them what is currently called ‘positive freedom,’ that is, not so much a way of life free from regulation but rather a way of life to whose regulation they could, and did agree.”

Throughout the Exodus story, Walzer points out that the same word for slave – eved – is used both to describe the Israelites in slavery to Pharaoh and their status in relation to God in the wilderness. The same word is used but it implies a totally different set of regulations that limit freedoms. Freedom is not about self-expression with no restraint. It is about the power to control time and take responsibility for one’s destiny that is not permitted to the slave.

In a popular book of Jewish self-improvement, Strive for Truth, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler calls this condition, “higher unfreedom.” Giving oneself up willingly to a cause that will generate greater possibilities for empowerment is the ultimate state of higher unfreedom. Reframing freedom and embracing responsibility does not happen overnight. In Walzer’s words, “…the wilderness had to be a new school of the soul. That is why the Israelites had to spend such a long time in the wilderness.” The discipline of freedom takes generations to master. Sometimes, we submit ourselves all too willingly to those who would limit our freedoms. Sometimes, we give permission too easily to others to make decisions for us.

Not everyone can adapt to freedom when it is first offered. Walzer quotes Karl Marx, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, who compared the people around him to the ancient Jews:

The present generation is like the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It has not only a new world to conquer, it must go under in order to make room for men who are able to cope with a new world.

Freedom, like revolution, is not an act. It is a series of acts that begin with particular emotions and that generate changing emotions over time. The adage that revolutions eat their children shows just how hard it is to sustain a revolution that can have relevance and meaning over generations. Our ancient process of freedom did not end when we crossed the sea to freedom. Those initial steps were only the beginning. We are still walking.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Holidays.

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