This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.
In Philadelphia, if you wait in a long line, you can get up close and personal with The Liberty Bell. When the Pennsylvania State House bought the bell in 1753, they inscribed a quote from Leviticus 25 – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” By “all the inhabitants,” they probably did not mean women or Native Americans or slaves – it would actually be another 27 years before Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition that stopped making new slaves but kept current slaves in bondage until freed by their owners or death. Right next to the Liberty Bell is a relatively new exhibit called The President’s House, which highlights the slaves that George Washington brought with him during his first term. The Liberty Bell itself was mostly obscure until the 1830s when abolitionists claimed it as a symbol of their cause, and it became still more popular over the decades as a symbol of American freedom. The inscription even makes an appearance in the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments – at the very end of 220 minutes, Moses tells Joshua to enter the Promised Land and “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof!” If you recall what we read from Deuteronomy last night, the Torah’s Moses had a very different message for the land’s inhabitants – segregation, destruction, religious persecution. People talk a lot about freedom, from the Bible then to the Bible Belt today but liberty for whom, and liberty to do what?
We see a world in crisis, and we want to find common cause with those who share our values. “Freedom” sounds like a good place to start – freedom to run our own lives, freedom to make our own choices, freedom to live our own truths. The devil is in the details, and what one person means by freedom is very different from another. In a civilized society, there must be limits to freedom – remember, your freedom ends when your fist hits my nose. Rabbinic literature makes a similar point – where the Torah describes the Ten Commandments as carved kharut into the tablets, a creative commentator quips al tikra kharut ayleh kherut – do not read “carved” but rather “freedom” – freedom in an ordered society. Freedom with NO rules would be anarchy, rule of the strongest; nasty, brutish and short. Of course, too many rules that we have no right to author or to amend would not be freedom either.
Maybe freedom itself is an illusion. In our basic human nature, are we really free? The more we learn about genetics, the less it seems we actually make our own choices – sometimes identical twins separated at birth like the same breakfast cereal, choose the same professions, even marry partners with the same name! Long before we have any choice, we are conditioned by our upbringing to see race, to speak a language, to understand history and our place in it in a certain way. We are trained to see the world through a particular frame of religion, gender, culture, economics and ideology from age 0. And group identity reinforces what we already believe, to the degree that changing our mind feels like changing who we are. How free can we really be?
On the other hand, are we really not free? Compared to earlier generations, our liberties are revolutionary. We marry for love, not family duty. We choose our professions, our leisure time activities, where we live with legal protection against discrimination. We can speak and assemble and petition and protest and post on social media. A Humanistic Jewish congregation like ours is only possible in a time and a place of intellectual and personal freedom. On the philosophical level, we live our lives and we treat others with an assumption of free will – I make choices, you make choices, we debate our choices, maybe we change our minds. One of my Humanistic rabbinic colleagues was once asked why he persisted in believing in free will. He replied, “I have no choice!” The very basis of Yom Kippur assumes the reality of freedom – why ask for forgiveness if you have no choice about what you do? Why offer forgiveness when regret is an illusion, since the regret itself was preprogrammed?
If we are free to choose in a philosophical or a moral sense, then we want that freedom reflected in law, politics and society. In real life, there is potential freedom, and then there is actual freedom. Freedom to work in our chosen profession? Freedom to live where we want? Sure, if you can afford it. Equal opportunity sometimes has an admission charge. I read recently that in 2014 my alma mater Yale University paid $500 million to manage its investments, 3 times what it spent on financial aid, and Harvard has more students from families earning over $500,000 than from those earning under $40,000. As for laws against discrimination, they do not instantly change hearts and minds. There are lots of laws against discrimination in home buying and selling. Yet we see case after case of home appraisals going up hundreds of thousands of dollars when black homeowners hide their pictures and have a white friend show the house to the realtor evaluating it. Even when Roe vs. Wade had technically legalized abortion everywhere, several states chipped away at that freedom here and there, undermining it by a thousand cuts before the national right was taken away. A national right to same-sex marriage equality which affirmed OUR religious right to celebrate such partnerships has not stopped opponents from claiming their religious freedom to discriminate. Is a High School football coach’s freedom to pray publicly and to invite players to pray with them more important than the students’ freedom to not be coerced or cajoled into praying? When we say “freedom of religion” or “freedom of conscience,” we may mean very different things.
Part of our crisis is a feeling that our freedoms are being taken away. Ironically, both the right and the left are worried about the loss of quote “freedom.” If someone said to you tomorrow, “my body, my choice,” what do you think they mean: are they pro-choice or anti-COVID vaccine? Is the most important amendment Freedom of Speech and Religion or the Right to Bear Arms to preserve life? What does Freedom of speech mean in an era of social media, microaggressions, calling out and calling in and calling names? If you are legally free to do something that provokes overwhelming social condemnation, are you really free to do it?
Of course, there are degrees of freedom. If you read memoirs of people who have left ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, like Shulem Deen, these communities have many problems – a lack of general education dramatized in recent news reports, limitations on women, contempt and fear of the outside world, omnipresent surveillance of one’s ritual practices and inner beliefs. In the other direction, some secularized Jews are tempted to join these rigid communities despite the costs to their individuality; they hope it will help them manage the almost-infinite freedoms of modernity. When I meet with wedding couples, I outline their options – breaking one glass or each breaking a glass, choosing their own ketubah marriage agreement text, choices from preset texts for readings and vows and exchanging rings, or writing something original for any of these. When some couples look at me in a mild panic, I remind them that this is the downside of freedom: so many choices! For those who leave Orthodoxy, their freedom, however costly, is worth it. In the movie Inherit the Wind about teaching evolution in a fundamentalist community, one character describes the temptation of conformity at the price of freedom:
It’s the loneliest feeling in the world. It’s like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. But all you have to do is to knock on any door and say, “if you let me in I’ll live the way you want me to live, and think the way you want me to think,” and all the blinds will go up and all the doors will open and you’ll never be lonely ever again.
Even the exiters recall, for all the benefits of their new and hard-won freedom, the warmth of that ideological community as long as you agree to their rules.
That traditional, rigid world is a world of conformity, a world of heresy and blasphemy and intellectual inquisition. It’s telling teachers in Florida elementary schools to avoid all LGBT topics, lest a parent’s religious sensibilities be offended, or the University of Idaho suggesting its faculty avoid discussing abortion lest they be “non-neutral” and run afoul of state prohibitions on recommending the procedure. Yet accusing others of heresy and blasphemy is an equal opportunity temptation for both right and left. Have you ever been tempted to offer a thought on social media that diverges from the political consensus of your circles, and then you delete it because you just do not want to deal with the arguments? You can legally say what you want short of provoking violence, but there will be social consequences for what is deemed offensive. And the standards of what is acceptable evolve, sometimes rapidly. Watch a favorite TV show or movie from 30 years ago and marvel at how rapidly. Some lament this evolution as the end of humor, or unfair retroactive judgment. Others see increased sensitivity to what might be offensive as kindness, and respect: empathy for human experiences beyond one’s own. Is speech itself a kind of violence, and therefore subject to restriction – Your freedom ends where your words hit my ears? Or is speech related to thought, which should be free of coercion?
This is the challenge of freedom – what should the rules be? Who should enforce them: government, social judgment, ostracism…. What goes beyond hurtful to full-on hate speech, and what should the consequences be? Representative Rashida Tlaib recently declared that “among progressives, it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” Fellow Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz responded,
The outrageous progressive litmus test on Israel by @RashidaTlaib is nothing short of antisemitic. Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.
Tlaib is the progressive inquisition rooting out heresy. Wasserman Schultz answers with an accusation of blasphemy, “the A Word,” without a Scarlet Letter. Both Wasserman Schultz and Tlaib might agree on teaching American History, maybe even Israeli- Palestinian history, admitting bias and structural inequality and historical racism, but the power of sectarianism is strong. It is said that Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but it’s also a question of red lines – for some, an anti-abortion Democrat is a heretic to be excommunicated while an anti-Israel progressive is a hero. Same with anti-Trump Republicans like Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger, or scholars of US history who dare to challenge the sacred cows of American Exceptionalism. These all may be secular subjects, but religious-style reactions are part of our basic wiring.
Today is Yom Kippur, a day that celebrates the power of speech and the importance of taking correction. The power of speech is reflected in the tradition of observing the holiest day in the Jewish calendar by reciting a 300 page book out loud in unison. We have chosen to break that particular tradition to make our services relevant, interesting, and under 90 minutes. The power of speech is also reflected in the importance of apologies and forgiveness. Apologies and forgiveness may be accompanied by actions, and they are made more believable by actions. But in their essence, they are speech – I was wrong, I forgive you. Two millennia after the Jerusalem Temple’s atonement through animal sacrifice was ended, this day is dedicated to accepting responsibility for what we have done. Sometimes we only know that we’ve done something wrong if someone tells us. Our freedom is not infringed if we learn what upset someone else, or what we can do differently in the future. It is more effective to receive a private message of correction, calling someone in by assuming their willingness to listen rather than calling them out and assuming their moral failure. Public correction is often shaming, private correction is more likely helping. Yet our stance receiving this correction is also important – this too is a relationship, like those discussed last night. Accepting correction, admitting we were wrong, asking for forgiveness is limiting our freedom for the good of community – community with family, with friends and with each other. The crisis we face today is a breakdown of community. Therefore restoring this community, restoring our secular faith in humanity, living our best lives with courage and integrity and joy demands the strength to accept correction and to do better next time.
We turn a new page in the book of our life, one that we are free to write with our deeds and our words. We can write what we will, but accepting a few edits is important too. Shana Tova, may we all write well, and then still better.
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Wonderful. Thank you for sharing this!