Freedom and its enemies
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
April 23, 2004
A new book by Ian Buruma and Hebrew University professor Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies, has been attracting a great deal of attention. The authors describe a congeries of ideas that characterizes enemies of the West from Japanese kamikaze pilots to today’s Islamists.
As New York Times reviewer Gary Rosen puts it, "the modern West comes to life as a collection of weak, complacent merchants, slaves to comfort who know nothing of self-sacrifice; or a cold, mechanical, ruthlessly efficient ‘mind’ crushing every higher ideal in the name of commercial and technological advance." The central locus of the evil is the Occidental city – "a zoo of depraved animals, consumed by desire."
As I read this description, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. The critique of modernity has a distinctly familiar ring. I have personally written many a column decrying the modern view of man as essentially nothing more than a more intelligent, pleasure-seeking animal, and the attempts of so many of our contemporaries to live their lives in fulfillment of that view.
Yet I confess to feeling little in common with Osama bin Laden or kamikaze pilots. That being the case it strikes me that Buruma and Margalit ended their inquiry at the very beginning. The issue, it would seem, is not visions of modernity. Rather it is why some anti-modernists seek a purgative in mass violence and blind hatred of those they hold responsible and why others find no attraction in violent solutions. Why, in short, does the Moslem muhajid have, in the words of Hebrew University professor of Islamic history Mordechai Nisan, have a "passion to kill" and the Jew not.
To start, martial virtues play almost no role in the Torah. "Who is strong?" Pirkei Avos asks. The answer: "One who conquers his yetzer. `Better one who is slow to anger than a mighty warrior; greater one who exercises self-control than a conqueror of cities’ (Mishlei 16:32)." (Pirkei Avos 4:1)
As a minority religion everywhere we dwelt for most of the last 2,000 years, our response to a host society based on values antithetical to the Torah has always been to attempt to shut ourselves off from that society to the extent possible not to wreak destruction on that society. to the impurity of the world we responded with ever greater focus on elevating ourselves spiritually.
Jihad, holy war, is central to Islam, and no role more elevated than wielding the "sword of Mohammed" to "fight for the cause of Al-lah" (Korah 4:74-76) and to punish "the infidels for their haughtiness and stubbornness in rejecting Mohammed" (6:158). Islam is a religion of conquest. It associates divine favor with physical expanse.
In its first seven centuries – from the time it swept out of the Saudi peninsula until it was repulsed at the Pyrenees – Islam spread rapidly. It’s subsequent retreat and submission in the face of a vastly more powerful and richer West has thus been a particularly bitter pill and a sign of the withdrawal of divine favor, giving rise to insatiable rage. A new caliphate, encompassing the Middle East and Europe, under Islamic law, remains the dream of Islamic fanatics.
Jews, on the other hand, never identified Hashem’s favor with military conquest. As the Men of the Great Assembly taught (Sotah 69b): "He restrains Himself and extends His anger towards the evildoers – that is His might. If it were not for awe of Him how could one small nation exist among all the nations – that is His awesomeness." Thus did we perceive Hashem’s might and awe, even as evildoers exulted in His Temple and enslaved His children.
The quest for revenge and to prove oneself in battle is totally foreign to us. As Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary on the Av HaRachamim prayer, believing Jews have at once been the most persecuted of people and the least vengeful.
Every time the term for revenge appears in the Torah, with only one exception, it is in terms of Hashem’s vengeance. Jews never attempted to appropriate the role of His avenging sword for ourselves. Again Rabbi Hirsch: "[O]ur people have entrusted to G-d and G-d alone the task of avenging the blood of their murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children. This promise sustained them and kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors and murderers."
The enemies of the West described by Buruma and Margalit are ultimately enemies of freedom, which they identify solely with licentiousness and materialism. Religious Jews are also repulsed by the libertinism and materialism in to which modern liberal society too frequently degenerates. But that does not lead us to a rejection of freedom.
Liberty is too central to our religious vision to be abandoned just because that liberty is frequently abused. Our central historical narrative – "And you shall tell your son" – celebrates our transition from slavery to freedom.
Servitude is inherently degrading in the eyes of the Torah. One who voluntarily submits himself to servitude has his ear pierced. "The ear that heard My voice proclaim at Sinai, ‘The Children of Israel are My servants’ – i.e., My servants and not servants of servants – went and took a master over himself. Let his ear be pierced," says the Talmud.
The slave lacks the most fundamental aspect of a religiously meaningful life: the freedom to exercise his free will. We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, says the Maharal, over the bread of the poor man because he possesses the greatest measure of freedom. Unlike a slave he retains his free will; unlike a rich man he is not thrall to his possessions.
Freedom can degenerate into pure hedonism. Yet it remains a precondition to any spiritual elevation as well. The oppressive enslavement of Egypt – the deprivation of spouses, children, and even a moment for reflection – could only lead to "kotzer ruach," a deafness to Moshe Rabbeinu’s message.
Human liberty inevitably offers the possibility of both good and evil. Yet it is a necessary precondition to the former. That is why Jews will never be numbered among freedom’s enemies.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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