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Bo, Freedom and Meaning

“Let My people go!” Moses declares to Pharaoh. (Exodus 10:3)

This familiar verse is often cited as a defense of freedom and individual liberty. What is the meaning of freedom? Does it mean that we are free to do whatever we want? Is it permissible, for instance, to draw cartoons that others find offensive? Are we free to shout words that others find provocative?

Speech and the freedom of expression have limits. Most of us remember learning how the US Supreme Court drew its few lines around speech. The court affirmed the First Amendment but added that we are forbidden from screaming “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. In other words speech can be curtailed when there is clear evidence that our words will cause others physical harm. Now that people crowd together in lesser numbers in theaters will the court one day redefine “fire” for the internet age?

Judaism teaches that words can be among the most hurtful weapons people wield. Our tradition argues that lashon hara, gossip, can destroy a person’s reputation, that misplaced words, or even evil speech, can cause irreparable harm to another. Still would we want our country’s legal tradition to limit speech? Would we want our nation to differentiate between sacred and profane and draw lines declaring some words as profanity and others sacrosanct.

The danger then becomes the words with which I agree are holy and those which I oppose are blasphemous. While I might be sympathetic to Muslims’ feelings I am still unwilling to limit a cartoonist’s right to draw even the most offensive cartoons. Would I still affirm this freedom of expression if the cartoonist rendered caricatures of Auschwitz? I have no doubt that I would deem such cartoons blasphemy. Would I then want my nation’s laws to hue to my definitions of holy and profane? Who gets to define what is blasphemy and what offends religious sensibilities? In liberal democracies we have declared such drawing of lines off limits.

Like all religious traditions Judaism speaks about blasphemy, calling it hillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. Often Jewish literature describes actions as defaming God. If a person is clearly identifiable as Jewish, i.e. wearing a kippah, and cheats in business then this constitutes a hillul hashem. This person dishonors the Jewish tradition and brings shame to God. The object of leading a Jewish life is not only to add meaning to an individual’s life but also, and perhaps more importantly, to bring others to Torah. By doing something unethical we undermine this goal. Doing something unscrupulous amounts to blasphemy.

Like Judaism every religious tradition circumscribes freedoms. The question at hand is the proper balance between individual freedoms and a tradition’s dictates. Although we might disagree about where to draw such lines, the meaning of freedom is discovered when one draws limits and in how one curtails freedoms. That is the contention of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism believes that freedom only gains its fulfillment when wedded to obligation. It is the pledge to others and to God where freedom becomes meaningful. In the devotion, in the choice to do something for another, or for God, meaning is gained.

We discover that the portion’s verse is often misquoted and left incomplete. The Torah declares: “Send My people out so that they may serve Me.”

I must choose service. I must choose to pray. I must choose the ethical. Freedom is the necessary condition for meaningful devotion.