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Freedom is Ability to Conceive of Alternative Possibilities

The capacity to conceive of a world in which I see myself as if I left Egypt, going from enslavement to freedom, gives me a special perspective on society.
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

The intellectual process of posing questions concerning the accepted order while comparing it to other orders, existent or imaginary, is the very essence of human freedom. The difference between slaves, whose minds are subjugated, and free people in an open society, is the ability to conceive of a different life, a different social order.

Slaves rebel against their masters not because of their urge for freedom of expression, but rather because they have discovered another possible world order in which they need not live as slaves.

Slaves born into slavery may imagine that it is their nature to be subjugated and the tyrannical social order into which they have been born reflects the natural order, or the divine order. Moses, however, who was born into slavery but who grew up in Pharoah’s palace, is able to comprehend both humiliation and the meaning of freedom. Nechama Leibowitz explains the principle in the light of the comments by the Spanish exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (New Studies of the Book of Exodus, pages 43-53):

Divine Providence arranged things so that the redeemer of Israel (Moshe) would emerge from an idolatrous, hostile foreign upbringing. He was educated as an Egyptian, cut off from his people and his ancestors’ tradition. Why was that?

“Perhaps, Moshe had to grow up in the King’s palace so his soul would become accustomed to a higher level, not a degraded one, like the slaves who have become habituated to the House of Bondage” [and who will not rise up against injustice and who do not feel the indignity of a lack of freedom].

Similarly, it was Theodor Herzl , the assimilated Jew who grew up in a Western society during the onset of democracy and the rise of German nationalism who was able to become the visionary of the Jewish state, bringing to his brethren in autocratic Eastern Europe, the vision of liberal national freedom.

Herzl’s Western education led him to demand the national dignity and autonomy many Eastern European Jews did not take as their due. The ability to conceive of a different world for the Jewish people based on its glorious past and the changes other nations were undergoing in the present are what made him the visionary that he was.

The capacity to conceive of a world in which I see myself as if I left Egypt, going from enslavement to freedom, gives me a special perspective on society and allows me to criticize the current social order to which I am enslaved.

Three elements on Seder night

The Jew who lives successively in the world of Pharaoh, Ahashverosh, the Romans and the Nazis, all in accordance with the holiday being observed – Passover, Purim , Tisha B’Av or Holocaust Remembrance Day – has untold possibilities for comparison. That Jew can query the existent situation and discover the logic behind it and then choose his or her way in life.

Three elements converge on Seder night: the commandment to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt; the commandment to pose questions about the existent order; and the goal of education towards freedom.

Questioning is related to the tendency of Jews throughout the Diaspora to be original in whatever they do. This phenomenon is called in sociological terminology, the “creativity of the marginal man.”

Isaac Deutscher affectionately calls them “Jewish heretics.” George Steiner celebrates them as “meta-rabbis.” Daniel Bell lauds them as “prophets of alienation.” They are referring to the modern Jewish intellectuals and to the fact, as Steiner puts it, “that the Jewish element had been largely dominant in the revolutions of thought and of sensibility experienced by Western man over these last one hundred and twenty years . . . Without Marx, Freud, or Kafka, without Schoenberg or Wittengenstein, the spirit of modernity, the reflexes of argument and uncertainty whereby we conduct our inner lives would not be conceivable.” The disproportionate number of Jews among the intellectuals – individuals of critical dissent and cognitive originality – of Western society continues to intrigue the student of modern culture.

Authors who assume the former, sociological perspective generally emphasize the marginality of the Jewish intellectual. Having left the Jewish community, the Jewish intellectual has embraced secular culture without adopting, in Thorstein Veblen’s words, the gentile’s “heritage of conventional preconception.”

Other students of the subject feel that Jewish intellectualism must be explained culturally, by the peculiar Jewish bent of mind. Steiner ascribes it to a cognitive inheritance bequeathed by traditional Judaism. He observed that the traditional mode of Jewish thought was hermeneutic , based on a canonical text and the need to understand the present in terms of the eternal truths and the divine promise for the future contained in that text.

According to this approach, the source of the power of tyranny is not confined to the superior physical power of the tyrant. It lies in the overriding social totalitarianism of that regime. Tyrants teach their subjects to view the tyrannical order as natural and exclusive, and therefore the only rational one possible.

People living under these regimes are not permitted to visit other countries, to read other views or even to read history books or literature that could lead them to conclusions other than those of the current regime.

In the Soviet Union, for example, history books were changed each time there was a change of government in accordance with the new line of the regime. The famous joke on this subject has it that all over the world the future is obscure and uncertain, impossible to predict. Only in the Soviet Union was the future known, but history kept changing according to the dictates of the government.

In communist Bulgaria, the government used to employ a large number of policemen who received financial incentives to supervise the behavior of the Bulgarian citizens. Candidates for jobs in the police had to waive their right to carry a passport and travel outside of Bulgaria – including to other communist countries, where they might see that things could be different.

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