Sunday, April 2, 2017


Freedom, Arvut, and Responsibility

Rabbi Dr. Amir Mashiach
 Chair, Department of Jewish Philosophy

The Nation of Israel is the people of freedom. This freedom engenders responsibility not only for oneself, but also for the spiritual and physical welfare of the other (arvut). So powerful is this notion that the halacha permits the court to compel a person to give charity (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 256). A person might think that this is an instance of religious coercion, but it should not be seen in a negative light.
What is meant by the Rabbis’ statement, “No one is truly free (ben chorin) other than he who busies himself with the Torah” (Avot 6:2)? Isn’t this simply a deception? What is freedom? After all, the halacha dictates our lives in every respect, to the degree that we are instructed how to lace our shoes and cut our nails! And yet, we are free?
Indeed, it would seem that this is a contradiction, but it is not so. Freedom does not mean lawlessness, rather the yoke that I place upon myself, in accordance with the definition suggested by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “Not freedom from… rather freedom for....” This means to say that freedom is not that I do whatsoever I please without any responsibilities at all. For instance, I may not drive through a red light or at an excessive speed. That does not mean that I am enslaved. Actually, I am a free citizen, a free person in the State of Israel. The very fact that I accept its laws upon myself demonstrates that I am free.
And so it is with respect to all other examples which are not necessarily determined by the fear of automatic incarceration or prosecution. For instance, the fact that I am vegetarian means that I am a free person who has chosen to impose upon myself the discipline or the values which define certain limits. In this way, I demonstrate my freedom. The decision to accept upon myself a yoke, as in the responsibility to help another, is itself freedom. It is “freedom for something”.
When we speak about freedom, it is incumbent upon us to turn to the thought of psychologist Viktor Frankl, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. Of all places, it was there, within the terrible inferno, that Frankl reached the awareness that “the last of man’s freedoms” is the freedom of the consciousness that the Nazis could never take away. While they were able to do whatever they wanted with his body, including putting him to death at any given moment, they remained unable to take away his freedom (Man’s Search for Meaning).
Frankl argued that there is a strong bond between freedom and responsibility. According to him, they are two sides of the same coin. At the moment that a man assumes freedom, he also accepts upon himself responsibility. Because of this, Frankl suggested that the United States must erect a Statue of Responsibility along its West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty which stands along its East Coast (The Unheard Cry for Meaning). He even defines human existence in terms of “being responsible”; man is a “responsible entity” (The Unconscious God).
Frankl speaks more about man’s need to take responsibility for his own life, which is what gives life meaning. However, we would widen the scope of freedom to taking responsibility for others.
The Jew, by virtue of his very existence, is a Statue of Eternity. Internally, he is the Status of Liberty; but through his behavior, he is charged to be a Statue of Responsibility, through his responsibility to tend to the other.

No comments: