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The Politics of Freedom

The Politics of Freedom

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Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Having set out the broad principles of the covenant, Moses now turns to the details, which extend over many chapters and several portions. The long review of the laws that will govern Israel in its land begin and end with Moses posing a momentous choice. Here is how he frames it in this week’s Parshah:

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing if you obey the commands of the L‑rd your G‑d that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the L‑rd your G‑d and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.1

And here is how he puts it at the end:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.2

Maimonides takes these two passages as proof of our belief in free will,3 which indeed they are. But they are more than that. They are also a political statement. The connection between individual freedom (which Maimonides is talking about) and collective choice (which Moses is talking about) is this: If humans are free, then they need a free society within which to exercise that freedom. The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) represents the first attempt in history to create a free society.

Moses’ vision is deeply political, but in a unique way. It is not politics as the pursuit of power, or the defense of interests, or the preservation of class and caste. It is not politics as an expression of national glory and renown. There is no desire in Moses’ words for fame, honor, expansion, empire. There is not a word of nationalism in the conventional sense. Moses does not tell the people that they are great. He tells them that they have been rebellious, they have sinned, and that their failure of faith during the episode of the spies cost them forty extra years of delay before entering the land. Moses would not have won an election. He was not that kind of leader.

Moses’ vision is deeply political, but in a unique way.

Instead he summons the people to humility and responsibility. We are the nation, he says in effect, that has been chosen by G‑d for a great experiment. Can we create a society that is not Egypt, not empire, not divided into rulers and ruled? Can we stay faithful to the more-than-human hand that has guided our destinies since I first stood before Pharaoh and asked for our freedom? For if we truly believe in G‑d—not G‑d as a philosophical abstraction, but G‑d in whose handwriting our history has been written, G‑d to whom we pledged allegiance at Mount Sinai, G‑d who is our only sovereign—then we can do great things.

Not great in conventional terms, but great in moral terms. For if all power, all wealth, all might belong to G‑d, then none of these things can rightfully set us apart one from another. We are all equally precious in His sight. We have been charged by Him to feed the poor and bring the orphan and widow, the landless Levite and the non-Israelite stranger into our midst, sharing our celebrations and days of rest. We have been commanded to create a just society that honors human dignity and freedom.

Moses insists on three things. First, we are free. The choice is ours. Blessing or curse? Good or evil? Faithfulness or faithlessness? You decide, says Moses. Never has freedom been so starkly defined, not just for an individual but for a nation as a whole. We do not find it hard to understand that as individuals we are confronted by moral choices. Adam and Eve were. So was Cain. Choice is written into the human condition.

But to be told this as a nation—this is something new. There is no defense, says Moses, in protestations of powerlessness, saying, We could not help it. We were outnumbered. We were defeated. It was the fault of our leaders or our enemies. No, says Moses, your fate is in your hands. The sovereignty of G‑d does not take away human responsibility. To the contrary, it places it center stage. If you are faithful to G‑d, says Moses, you will prevail over empires. If you are not, nothing else—not military strength nor political alliances—will help you.

If you betray your unique destiny, if you worship the gods of the surrounding nations, then you will become like them. You will suffer the fate of all small nations in an age of superpowers. Don’t blame others, or chance, or ill fortune for your defeat. The choice is yours; the responsibility is yours alone.

Don’t blame others, or chance, or ill fortune for your defeat.

Second, we are collectively responsible. The phrase “All Israel are sureties for one another” is rabbinic, but the idea is already present in the Torah. This too is radical. There is no “great man” theory of history in Judaism, nothing of what Carlyle called “heroes and hero-worship.” The fate of Israel depends on the response of Israel, all Israel, from “the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers” to your “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” This is the origin of the American phrase (which has no counterpart in the vocabulary of British politics), “We, the people.”

Unlike all other nations in the ancient world and most today, the people of the covenant did not believe that their destiny was determined by kings, emperors, a royal court or a governing elite. It is determined by each of us as moral agents, conjointly responsible for the common good. This is what Michael Walzer means when in his recent book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible he calls biblical Israel an “almost democracy.”

Third, it is a G‑d-centered politics. There was no word for this in the ancient world, so Josephus had to coin one. He called it “theocracy.” However, this word has been much abused and taken to mean what it does not, namely rule by clerics, priests. That is not what Israel was. Again, an American phrase comes to mind. Israel was “one nation under G‑d.” If any single word does justice to the vision of Deuteronomy, it is not theocracy but nomocracy, “the rule of laws, not men.”

Biblical Israel is the first example in history of an attempt to create a free society. Not free in the modern sense of “liberty of conscience.” That concept was born in the seventeenth century in a Europe that had been scarred for a century by religious wars between How can limits be placed on the power of rulers to turn the mass of people into slaves?Catholics and Protestants. Liberty of conscience is the attempt to solve the problem of how people with markedly different religious beliefs (all of them Christians, as it happened) can live peaceably with one another. That is not the problem to which biblical Israel is an answer.

Instead, it was an answer to the question: How can freedom and responsibility be shared equally by all? How can limits be placed on the power of rulers to turn the mass of people into slaves—not necessarily literally slaves, but as a labor force to be used to build monumental buildings or engage in empire-building wars? It was the great nineteenth-century historian Lord Acton who rightly saw that freedom in this sense was born in biblical Israel:

The government of the Israelites was a Federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant . . . The throne was erected on a compact, and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among the people that recognized no lawgiver but God . . . The inspired men who rose in unfailing succession to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers . . . Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won.4

It is a beautiful, powerful, challenging idea. If G‑d is our only sovereign, then all human power is delegated, limited, subject to moral constraints. Jews were the first to believe that an entire nation could govern itself in freedom and equal dignity. This has nothing to do with political structures (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—Jews have tried them all), and everything to do collective moral responsibility.

Jews never quite achieved the vision, but never ceased to be inspired by it. Moses’ words still challenge us today. G‑d has given us freedom. Let us use it to create a just, generous, gracious society. G‑d does not do it for us, but He has taught us how it is done. As Moses said: the choice is ours.

Footnotes
2.

Ibid. 30:15, 19.

3.

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5:3.

4.

Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), 7–8.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
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John Smith FL August 23, 2014

Alone like David And now I understand why I feel so alone in a cave looking out for trouble to clear. I am ready to leave the cave any day now once I know the coast is clear from barbarians and evil doers. When will that be exactly if stuck in one of those pre-existing lands?

I really was not around when the decision for how and when the land and inheritance would be divided. I was not in on the "negotiations" years ago. We have witnessed what happened in recent century of who to and not to "trust" walking the earth. We scattered from country to country just trying to stay alive.

It seems where you ended up is where you are for richer and/or poorer regardless who has "honestly" done and or lived by Truth and/or "G-ds Laws." All the raping, killing and pillaging that has gone on for centuries and all of a sudden .....now....is where you "are" ....with nobody to blame but "yourself"... Really? How convenient now that all the profit sharing has been predetermined before my existence on the planet. Reply

Anonymous August 18, 2014

Moses Moses insists on how authority of choice is made by posing extreme opposites. In other words, will you "Bless evil?" and "Curse good?" Faithfulness or Forgetfulness.

I brought you out of the land of Egypt. Moses freedom determined the Israelites destiny. Reply

Ron Springfield ore August 2, 2013

Freedom Thank you for your insight. How fragile freedom is given to men who are capable of making the wrong choices. The precious stones in the foundation of the temple are those people who know the true value of their choice. Reply

Beatrice van Langenhove Antwerp July 28, 2013

Thanks, Rebbe... Reply

Eberhard Weisz Nurnberg, Germany August 18, 2012

Thank you so much Rabbi Sacks for this enlightening and refreshing statement revealing and remembering us what freedom in the jewish perspective really means.
I am convinced like you: it is up to us and our choice.
Daily life has proven it to me numerous times: the blessing and the curse of how I make my choices.
There is no excuse. No compromise. It depends on us. I recommend to everybody to make a personal test. Despite all turmoils life can present I rather 'd like to stay on the path of life. My daily life proofs that despite whatever tests: G-d never will let you down if you love G-d truely.
I wish to all of us that we may experience this and grow deeper to finally reach our final destination: to become a light in this dark world. Reply

Abdullah Jeddah, S. Arabia August 15, 2012

Greatful For You! What an insightful article is this! It is very interesting.
Thanks! G-d Bless! & keep in touch Reply

Anonymous Birmingham, AL August 14, 2012

How Do We Do This? What is we are not one of the "haves" in this society that are supposedly charged with the responsibility of feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger into our mids? What if we are the poor? The stranger? Is it enough for us to believe in G-d, to remain faithful to Him, even while the "haves" let us fall by the wayside? Are we responsible just for ouselves, or can we somehow feed the "haves" and welcome them into our poverty? How, if we are all but invisible to them? Reply

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