How Does Torah Make You Free?

by Rabbi David Silverstein

The Mishna (Avot 6:2) cites the position of R. Yehoshua ben Levi who says that “the only person who is truly free is one occupies himself with Torah study.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Koren Siddur p. 676) explains that the Hebrew language “distinguishes between two kinds of freedom, hofesh and herut. “Hofesh is negative liberty, the absence of coercion while herut is positive liberty.” Positive freedom, according to Rabbi Sacks, “requires habits of self-restraint; hence it belongs only to those who have internalized the teachings of the Torah.” Paradoxically the student of Torah becomes free by virtue of the restrictions that the Torah imposes upon him.

Tiferet Yisrael (Avot 6:2 comment 43) makes a similar point arguing that Torah study frees an individual from a life committed to the fulfillment of physical desires. True freedom for the Tiferet Yisrael involves allowing the soul to cling to world of the spirit (Torah) while avoiding the lure of the material world.

Rav Kook (Introduction to the Hagadah Olat HaRa’ayah) argues that “freedom” is not exclusively a social category. An individual can be a “slave” while being physically free. Similarly, in certain instances, an individual experiencing servitude may actually be able to assert some degree of freedom. For Rav Kook, freedom involves an individual (or a nation) being true to his internal essence. Servitude by contrast is a psychological state where a person is removed from his true self and seeks to escape his current reality and find his ultimate purpose elsewhere. According to Rav Kook, Torah study facilitates freedom since it allows a Jew to connect with his inner self.  Rabbi David Aaron (Living a Joyous Life, Page 84) articulates this point stating that “the Jewish people [at Sinai] understood that the Torah is not self-diminishing, it is self-fulfilling.”  According to Rabbi Aaron, “knowing the ethical and spiritual laws of the universe enables [one] to connect with the guiding forces of life and in doing so achieve freedom.”

The view that Torah study and by extension halachic observance allows one to achieve spiritual freedom and connect with one’s soulful desires has its sources in halachic literature as well. The Rambam (Hilchot Gerushin 2:20) rules that if a husband refuses to give his wife a get (bill of divorce), rabbinic courts are entitled to physically inflict pain upon him until he ultimately concedes and provide his wife with a get. On the surface this ruling seems troubling since Jewish law requires consent in order to actualize a religious transaction and in this case it seems as though the husband’s consent is only a function of physical coercion. To solve this problem the Rambam argues that the forced get is halachically valid since “[the person refusing to give the get] wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvoth and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him. Therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully.”

The working assumption of the Rambam is that at his core, a Jew connects to his inner self through the study of Torah and the performance of God’s commandments. Any attempt to avoid the fulfillment of divine precepts represents a misguided attempt at self-expression. According to this model there is no such thing as a principled sinner since the Jewish soul by definition yearns to connect to the world of ideas and ideals. Any forms of deviance from the Divine system is victory of the “evil inclination” over one’s higher self. The Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 12:14) expresses this idea elsewhere discussing the law prohibiting an individual from placing a stumbling block before the blind. According to the Rambam, even Jews who knowingly violate a halachic precept are considered “blind” from a halachic perspective. The Rambam argues that these people are considered blind since their behavior is a result of the yetzer haraleading them astray. The Rambam doesn’t consider the possibility that one is motivated by a philosophical rejection of the Torah ideal. Since the Jewish soul is metaphysically intertwined with the ideals of the Torah any deviation from the halachic model must be the work of the yetzer hara.

Interestingly, David Brooks ( recently made a distinction between “resume virtues and eulogy virtues.”  According to Brooks, .…”resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” Living a life committed to Torah encompasses not only formal halachic categories but “eulogy virtues” as well. In doing so, we affirm our freedom by committing to a life focused on the building of our “inner character.”

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