The Abrahamic Legacy: The Jewish Ideal of Freedom

by: Mordy Oberstein

At first glance it may sound a bit peculiar to assert the strong ties between Judaism and libertarianism. After all, it is hard in the modern world to distinguish and disassociate Judaism from modern day Zionism, though the two to a large extent could not be more ideationally apart. To set the record straight Judaism is not modern day Zionism. While modern day Zionism wishes to advance certain political and social goals via the deification of the state, Judaism simply wishes to observe the world and understand its nature and mechanics. Judaism is a science and philosophy more than it is a religion or movement. It is from here, from the honest understanding of the world which Jewish philosophy seeks, that Judaism meets and grabs tightly to ideals paralleling libertarianism.

So how does Judaism as a philosophy respond to government intervention and the ideal of freedom? Well perhaps we should begin a bit historically. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his work ” The Emergence of Ethical Man,” describes Abraham as anarchic. The divine imperative to Abraham of “leave from your land” (Genesis 12:1), according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, was meant as a removal from a conforming society, society that adores institution for the sake of adoring institutions. The real ethical and charismatic man according to Judaism is the freethinking, unimpressed, non-coerced individual. Abraham left structured society to become a nomad and what he left in secure asylum he gained in free and meaningful inquiry. It could not be stated any better than how Rabbi Soloveitchik himself says it, “The charismatic personality is a political and social anarchist…he is not an ethical conformist who just subjects himself to an external authority, which over powers and enslaves him” (Emergence of Ethical Man pg. 156).

In a similar vein, the 15th-century bible commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno equates the idea of being “created in the image of God” to being an existence who acts based upon his own consciousness and understanding. Logically speaking this would be to the exclusion of internal or external coercion. It is no accident that authentic Judaism takes a staunch line of thinking towards the autonomy of self, as its very idea of a relationship with God is firmly based upon it. As opposed to a transcendental view of the Man/God relationship Judaism takes a wholly organic approach. In the eyes of Judaism the comprehension of reality and the interacting with it constitutes the very relationship to God itself. Through understanding and observing the world man gains a glimpse into the mind of God, so to speak, and that this itself is the relationship man has to God generally speaking. However, should man demean himself and choose to become sheltered from reality by allowing and even demanding the government to interact with reality in his place, then such a relationship to God is simply impossible. Freedom in Judaic theological terms is synonymous with a relationship to God. Maimonides in his 13 principles of faith (which are unanimously agreed with by the Jewish philosophers of old) considers it heresy to have an intermediary between an individual and God (Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna, Tractate Sanhedrin). Man was given a mind to be able to relate to reality and subsequently to God, and an intermediary is a denial of a) that God relates to man directly, and b) that man is a rational/intellectual being who is free to relate to God on his own.

In fact Judaism not only considers autonomy as vital to create a relationship with God, but even in creating a relationship to oneself, as Jewish philosophy holds that man as a free-willed being is a partner is his very own creation.

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