Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Iyar 5764 - May 5, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Freedom is Fundamental to Torah

by Mordecai Plaut

"Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Vayikra 25:10).

These words are etched onto the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, American symbol of freedom, proof apparent that the Torah regards liberty for all inhabitants as the proper state. Nonetheless, Orthodox Jews are constantly said to be at least opposed in principle to a free society, possibly opposed also in practice, and at best willing to accept it until an authoritarian rule supposedly more to our liking is installed.

Is this true? Is this an accurate representation of our most deeply held beliefs?

This quick summary of what we are supposed to believe is most commonly made by our enemies, such as the leaders of the Shinui party in Israel and their friends. That alone certainly makes it suspect.

Orthodox spokesmen often answer these critics by pointing out that, unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism has never tried to spread itself using force and for more than 2,500 years has not been at all involved in conquest.

This is certainly true, but it is also true, as those critics charge, that we await the imminent coming of our Moshiach who will certainly implement widespread Torah rule, including, they stress, capital penalties for sins such as chilul Shabbos.

Does the bell of freedom not ring in the Torah's plan for the Messianic age?

It most certainly does, and with the purest, most universal and beautiful tones. But they cannot be heard now. At this point the final vision can only be intellectually understood because the distance from where we stand is just too great.

The Torah is in fact opposed to all coercion -- social, intellectual and of course physical. The entire world will be "full of knowledge" (Yeshayohu 11:9) and that will be the reason that "they will do no evil and wreak no destruction."

Everyone then will do what only a few do now: choose the way of Hashem as a result of the exercise of their innate moral freedom. If everyone participates in the knowledge that floods the world ("like water covers the seabed") then they will certainly choose -- of their own free will -- to act on this knowledge.

A compelling vision -- but it compels free men who are willing and able to follow the utopian promise. It does not suggest -- even as a temporary compromise -- that any sort of external coercion be applied.

What about the punishments for transgressions mentioned earlier?

In fact, the courts and their punishments were not set up as a form of coercion. The clearest proof of this is the fact that the rabbinical judges stopped judging murderers precisely when murder was on the increase (Avodoh Zorah 8b). Just when one would expect them to step up their activity, if their punishments were a form of coercion, they instead gave them up entirely. In normal times, that is, normal for the Torah court system, a court would only convict someone of a capital crime less than once in seven years (Talmud Makkos 7a).

The motive behind the system seems to be, as said several times in Devorim (e.g. 13:6, 17:7, 17:12, 19:19 and many others): "And you should eradicate the evil from your midst." The elaborate requirements for conviction in capital cases, including an explicit warning and observation of the crime by two witnesses, further preclude the penalties from functioning as a coercive deterrent to violations.

The situation as the Torah sees it is laid out very clearly (Devorim 30:15): ". . . Life and death I have put before you, and blessing and curse. And you should choose life . . ." The alternatives are spelled out very clearly, but a choice is still there. You are free to choose evil, but you should choose life.

The Messianic vision of the Torah is an entire world in which all recognize and freely embrace the truth. There will be no need for swords of any kind: neither the sword of the warrior nor the sword of the executioner.

Freedom is a basic component of the Torah's perception of what man is, and also a foundation of how the Torah hopes man will live.

Let freedom ring.

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