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The Message of Freedom

by Larry Domnitch

The holiday of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. Shavuot also celebrates freedom, but not in the political sense of the term. The freedom granted the Israelites on Shavuot was an inner freedom of the conscious and soul that could not be taken away.

Over three thousand years after Mount Sinai, the Jews of Europe reveled in a different kind of freedom. An era of enlightenment arose in France and other corners of Western Europe and the notion of freedom took hold. After centuries of persecution and forced seclusion, Jews were offered rights of emancipation. The very term emancipation signified an end to the divisions that separated Jews from society at large, and appeared to many Jews as rays of light amidst centuries of darkness. Emancipation also had other effects it shook many Jews from their traditionalist foundations that they had tenaciously clung to for millennium.

One of the catalysts behind the movement for Jewish emancipation was German Jewish philosopher and leader in the movement for emancipation, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) who advocated civic emancipation along with fidelity to Judaism. He urged Jews to absorb themselves into the "culture of nations" while privately remaining observant Jews.

After the storming of the Bastille and the French revolution, the French followed the American example of declaring freedom and equality in 1789, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Two years later, after some additional struggle and debate, emancipation was granted to the Jews of France. Exuberant Jews celebrated, comparing the new laws to those given at Mount Sinai. Some called for the cessation of their observance.

Soon emancipation was declared in Holland and then in other lands. In a new environment, Jews sought to immerse themselves in science, medicine, commerce and many other fields once denied to them. The Western European Jew entered the New World leaving behind the old. Yeshiva education was replaced with institutions that taught secular studies. The types of clothing Jews wore changed, as did their spoken language. All facets of their lives represented the dominant culture of society. Despite the frequent revocation of emancipation rights in many regions due to wars and border changes, its memory remained with those Jews along with their fervent hope for its return. By the late 1860's, all Jews of Western Europe were granted emancipation.

The walls of the ghetto fell, and drastic changes followed. Like momentum down an endless hill, there were no limits to emancipation. No lines of demarcation could be drawn in a world whose acceptance of the Jew seemed to be based on the preconditions that they modernize. Traditional Judaism was viewed as a barrier separating the Jew from society. While many of the emancipated maintained some measure of Jewish observance, their offspring -- who sought complete acceptance as equals -- abandoned their Jewish identity, many choosing to undergo Baptism. The writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who himself was Baptized (but later did return to Judaism) mockingly referred to Baptism as the "entrance ticket to European society." During Heine's era, well over a quarter million Jews followed that path. Only a generation later, some of Mendelssohn's own children underwent Baptism. A century later, Mendelssohn had no surviving Jewish descendants. They all intermarried and assimilated into German society.

The rabbinical leadership amongst the Chasidim and the yeshivas of Lithuania bitterly opposed the Haskalah, or enlightenment, which was the Eastern European annex of the Emancipationist movement. As the Haskalah slowly made inroads into Russia, the traditionalists built more yeshivas and fortified them with students to counter their influence. The ideological differences that they feuded over for centuries seemed far less significant next to the emerging threat of Emancipation. In their view, it was better to live as a Jew confined to a ghetto and rejected by the outside world, then with the freedoms that came with Emancipation. The worlds of the traditional and the modern Jews became locked in a bitter struggle that continued in Eastern Europe until the Second World War.

Although freedom for American Jewry came without a struggle, the saga of American Jewry America in essence is not unlike Western Europe, The majority of American Jews today -- descendants of those who stepped off boats on to Ellis Island about a century ago to escape Czarist persecution and abject poverty-- have been a part of mainstream American life for decades. They are living their great-grandparents dreams of achievement and success, but as assimilated Jews. The majority were denied meaningful Jewish education and have foregone the traditions and observances passed down from generation to generation from Sinai, unaware and oblivious of what they have forfeited. As every day passes, less vestiges of Judaism remain among the descendants of the immigrants of Ellis Island serving as testimony to the pitfalls of freedom.

There are other connotations to freedom other than free exercise of one's rights. The Mishnah delves into the meaning of freedom. "Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi stated ...It says: 'The Tablets (containing the Ten Commandments) are G-D's handiwork and the script was G-d's script (Charut) engraved upon the Tablets.' Do not read Charut (engraved), but rather Cherut (freedom). For there is no freer man than one who engages in the study of the Torah." Freedom is the ability to resist outside influences in a world of diverse paths and maintain one's convictions. When one is truly free, one is not captive to one's impulses. Despotic regimes might have controlled the lives of the Jewish ghetto dweller, but not their spirits.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they also left its culture replete with idolatry and immorality. There were many Israelites who became too enamored with Egyptian civilization and opted to remain and not join the mission destined for the Israelites.

Soon after the exodus, the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai and declared their readiness to accept the Torah and they heard the Ten Commandments proclaimed and received the Torah. Throughout history, the Jews have marched carrying the banner of their unique traditions, which they received at Mount Sinai and have withstood all forms of hardships and adversity so they could continue to proclaim their allegiance to their Divine Lawgiver and His laws. Too often they were forced to suffer but no form of coercion could shake them from their obstinacy since their conscious' and souls were free to serve the will of their Creator. There is no greater freedom than that.


from the June 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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