Can You Be Free and Torah-Observant?


Moses told Pharaoh that the G-d of the Jews said: “Let My people go, and they will worship Me.” While the Torah narrative is often portrayed as us leaving the bondage of Egypt to be free to do whatever we want, the truth is that the Torah asserts that “My people” were let go so that they “will worship Me.” We see this mentioned again in Leviticus 25:55: “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.”

The Jewish people did not become free to do what they wanted but to a new type of servitude, namely the service of one G-d and the founding of the first monotheistic religion. Judaism does not consider it a value that people can do whatever they want. Jewish values advance the belief that every person has a mission to add G-dliness into the world. The Jew is charged with the mission to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) by observing Torah and mitzvot, and the gentile is charged to create a just world by observing the seven Noahide laws given to all mankind by G-d. Every person should live a life of service, one that is purposeful and mission oriented.

It is when your life revolves around a G-d-focused purpose that you are free to be you and true to your core self. In the words of the Mishna (Avot 6:2), quoting Exodus 32:16, “‘And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets.’ Read not ‘engraved’ (charut), but ‘liberty’ (chairut), for there is no free individual, except for him who occupies himself with Torah.”

We are accustomed to freedom meaning something similar to being free from an outside power over us, be that a Pharaoh or a G-d, free to give in to our instincts and free to do whatever we want without judgment. However, if that is how freedom is defined, America is no longer the land of the free once law and order are implemented. Anyone who follows the laws of the land in which they live is not truly free to do what they want, as some of what they want to do may not be legal.

Even the “free spirits” are limited. For example, an artist is limited by the size of the canvas, colors of the paints, brush sizes, paint texture and the need to practice.

If freedom is not freedom from an outside power, then it must be something else. Freedom means the ability to make a choice, to weigh the options and, based on the pros and cons, decide which way to go. In America, I am free to choose whether or not to steal. If I choose to steal,
I may suffer the consequences of the law, but that is my decision.

In the deepest sense, it is the ability to choose without being affected by our own self-destructive or negative instincts. Freedom is the ability to say yes and to say no to ourselves.

Some may ask where individuality is if we all practice the same laws.

The Torah and mitzvot are like the artists’ paints and canvas. The same colors of paint and the same size canvas can produce very different pictures. The same practicing of Torah and mitzvot can paint very different pictures, depending on whether the person is more academic, expressive or action focused. We will have similarities while maintaining our uniqueness.

As Herman Wouk writes in his book, “This is My G-d,” when talking about an encounter where a young girl was expressing her opinion that religion was all about conformity: “The burden of her tale was that Judaism meant ritualism and ritualism meant conformity, which was a great evil. The interesting thing was that my charming enlightener was dressed in garb as ceremonious as a bishop’s, from the correct wrinkles in her sweater sleeves to the prescribed smudge on her saddle shoes, and spoke her piece for autonomy in a vocabulary of the teens as rigid, as circumscribed and marked in intonation as any litany. Her gestures, her haircut, her paint were wholly stylized. … But this is all inevitable — there is nothing whatever wrong with it — human life cannot be formless. … We live by patterns, we move in comradeships, the sensible thing to do is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that — at least today — he will seem a mighty freakish nonconformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency and without fear, in the way that best honors one’s intelligence and one’s birth.”

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