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Sunday, 24 April 2011

Thoughts on freedom

They say that satire died the day they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. (For those too young - or maybe too old - to remember, Kissinger was responsible for the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70 during the Vietnam War). Well, for me, irony died a little death the other week when I read that prior to his recent concert in China, Bob Dylan had been asked to submit a list of songs he intended to sing; and the government had vetted this list and agreed to the concert as long as he didn’t sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A’ Changing’. He also, apparently, had to sign a pledge promising "not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" during his performances.

We all make compromises, I suppose, in regard to our own freedom to speak our mind, express ourselves, speak truth to power...that Dylan did so in the very week that the Chinese government arrested and ‘disappeared’ the activist and artist Ai WeiWei – he of the million porcelain seeds in the Tate Modern exhibition – that just compounded my sense of the demise of irony. I suddenly, and rather inexplicably, felt very old.

It’s not that I felt critical of Dylan – I recognize that compromises on our independent-mindedness for the sake of some greater good are sometimes necessary. Or at least that’s how we like to think of it. After all, we say, isn’t it part of our freedom that we accept that there are limits to our freedom? In order to do his job, Dylan agreed to a limitation on his repertoire. And he didn’t mention Ai WeiWei, even though he had the freedom once there on stage to do that. He could have said no at any point but he didn’t.

Like one of my rabbinic colleagues who was invited to write an article for the Jewish Chronicle on Pesach and freedom - but on condition she didn’t mention the Palestinians. Or like me, who signed an agreement a few years ago that if I was going to work for a particular congregation I would “respect all the decisions” of Council, colleagues but also all members of the community “at all times” – whatever that was supposed to mean.

We all have to make these choices at some stage in our lives. Maybe we grow used to making these compromises to our higher values, to our understanding of what is right and true and godly, because if we didn’t…well, that’s an interesting question: we figure we’d probably end up an outcast, or out of a job; either that, or we’d end up a saint or a zaddik - and who could bear that for very long?

These thoughts on freedom and its limitations arise of course out of the Pesach/Passover season – and in particular out of the Torah text read in Reform synagogues this Shabbat: Exodus, chapter 13. The text contains a striking play-on-words, a transparent piece of punning. ‘You have come out of Egypt, which was your beit avadim, house of slavery/servitude...’, it says (13:3). And then it goes on to describe how the people will journey towards a promised land, flowing with milk and honey, and that when they arrive there, ‘v’avadata et ha-avodah ha-zot : you shall serve this days of unleavened bread...’ (13: 5).

Slavery is behind you, the text says - so you have a kind of freedom. But this is a freedom in which one kind of avodah is to be replaced with another. Slavery to Egypt is to be replaced with servitude to something else – the laws of Pesach, the laws surrounding hametz, leaned bread. You may no longer be slaves, the text says, you may be freed from avodah , but a new kind of avodah, of service, will be required of you: service of God, service of God’s laws, service in order to remember your story, your history. The paradox around the word avodah (slavery/service) is precise, fine-tuned: you are to submit to a new kind of servitude in order to remember that you are not slaves.

So on Pesach we celebrate our freedom from servitude, yes – but this freedom is seen in the Biblical narrative, and in subsequent Jewish thinking, in a very particular way. Freedom from bondage to Pharaoh does not mean you are free to do whatever you want. That kind of freedom is an illusion. The only freedom you have is about who and what you are going to serve: are you going to serve Egypt, the state; and Pharaoh, the powers that be? Or are you going to serve God, the divine, the highest ideals and values that exist? It’s a stark choice, maybe an unwelcome choice. Do you serve man, human authority – or do you serve God, the Holy One of Israel? Do you serve the cause of oppression - or the cause of holiness?

Freedom is such a simple word – it’s a bit like ‘love’: everyone’s for it, it’s just that the devil is in the detail.

One of the 20th century’s leading thinkers about the complexities of the theme of freedom was Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Russian-born but echt-British Jewish writer, social and political theorist and philosopher who taught how freedoms are inevitably plural and often incompatible. He accepted that ‘the fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement to others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor...’ This was the base-line of his thinking, but it quickly developed into the basic paradox that ‘Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings throughout many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted’.

And this recognition became a refrain in his thinking and writing: ‘Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not today need stressing...’ Well, he died in 1997 - more than a decade before the current debacle - so perhaps it still, and always, needs stressing.

Freedom from ‘beit avadim, house of slavery/servitude’ led straight to Sinai and the revelation that if you are not going to be a slave to the material world and its values and hardships and oppressive character, what’s left is the freedom to submit to another kind of value system, which we called holiness, the sacred, the sense of the divine presence that permeates existence and leads to the prioritising of certain vales: compassion, justice, righteousness, generosity, self-sacrifice, the capacity to care for and value others not only one’s self.

That freedom to submit is an act, a choice – it turns what is in essence an abstract concept, ‘freedom’, into something alive and personal. This week I freely submit to the tradition of avoiding hametz – for seven days, as the text dictates. I am avoiding those foods that symbolise leavening, swelling, puffing up. I do it as an act of freedom that reminds me: try not to puff yourself up - with pride, with your so-called achievements, with your abilities and accomplishments, don’t get bigger than you are, remember your limitations, remember your fragility, you are like matza, easily broken, easily fragmented – and perhaps not always easy to digest.

This is part of what freedom from slavery means – the freedom to say no, to set limitations on desires, the freedom to embrace a tradition that sets limits on freedom. And the freedom to fail: ‘There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail’ (Erich Fromm). We are like the children of Israel, who had experienced what the texts call ‘the hand of God’, a liberating power that released them from oppression, but that they could never quite trust, not back then in the desert, nor when they came to the land: ‘Take us back to Egypt. It was safe there. Leave us alone – whoever you are...’

That is the Jewish story, to this very day: the failure to trust, the failure to be humble in the presence of the divine energy that animates the universe, the failure to listen in to the divine voice as it speaks. This too is what it means to be free : that we are free to respond to (or ignore) the miracle, the blessing, that Torat Adonai b’ficha (13:9), God’s teaching is in your mouth, it’s inside of you, it’s in what you say, and how you say it; and it’s in what you don’t say, and why you won’t say it.

If you are God’s hands, if you are God’s mouth – that’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s what our freedom is really all about.

[Freely adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 23rd 2011]