Frum and Free? Passover and Jewish Views on Liberty

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A foundational value of modern Western democracies is freedom, or its sometimes-synonym liberty. Modern states quibble regarding the appropriate parameters of liberty, but they hold the principle as a fundamental, and for some even intrinsic, value.[1]

Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew have numerous terms for freedom, including the biblical hofesh and deror, and the later herut and reshut; modern Hebrew has added autonomiyah. While medieval and later scholars use these terms somewhat arbitrarily and interchangeably, Shalom Rosenberg detects three semantic fields: Herut is national freedom (political liberty); deror is freedom within society (economic liberty); and hofesh, reshut, and autonomiyah refer to freedom of individuals to do as they choose (social liberty).[2]

Hazal tend not to directly engage philosophical questions, even those that engaged their Greek and Roman contemporaries[3]; such issues occupied the Rishonim, but their views are often widely divergent from each other and cannot be presumed representative of their classical predecessors.[4] In the case of political theory, one author notes, “The rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia never (1) seek a systematic characterization of the different forms of rule; nor (2) speculate on their causal interconnections and development; nor (3) seek to determine the nature of the best regime.”[5]

We can glean insights regarding Rabbinic views on a subject from maxims, parables, and narratives, but the prayerbook, most of which also coalesced during the first millennium, may also prove revealing of earlier rabbinic thought.[6] The siddur celebrates herut as the subject of the Passover holiday zeman heruteinu, “the season of our freedom” as well as a key feature of the anticipated redemption teka be-shofar gadol le-heruteinu, “Sound the great shofar for our liberation.” It describes the redemption from Egypt as delivering the Jewish people to herut olam, eternal liberty.

The Seder, the liturgy and structure of the Passover night service, which crystallized in the Tannaitic and early Amoraic eras, offers a compelling portal of entry into the Rabbinic view on freedom. A careful examination of the Biblical narrative of the Exodus reveals the elaboration of four distinct but complementary models of freedom, all of which the Seder appears to refract in commemorating that narrative — and to take a critical step further.

Freedom from Political Domination

Theories regarding freedom have focused either upon metaphysical or political freedom respectively, the ability of an autonomous self to escape determinism, or the absence of constraint by the state. At first glance, these two concepts may seem entirely distinct.[7] However, Michel Foucault suggests that the two are interlinked. Political constraints limit our ontological freedom reinforcements over a long period of time restrict the ways in which we can imagine behaving even when liberated. We are exposed to mechanisms of surveillance and intervention in schools, at work, in society at large — what he calls a system of discipline which turn us into docile bodies. For Foucault, power networks, which are all around us, train us to orient ourselves to certain behaviors and to think of ourselves in certain ways. These exist on multiple levels: the criminal justice system, sexuality, governmentality, psychology, education.

In light of this proposition, all freedom can only be situated freedom. It is understanding, to the extent we can, where our history has deposited us, the way we are molded to want that which we want, and what else might be available — experimenting with oneself freely, choosing which forces that have influenced us are tolerable and which are intolerable, and being vigilant about recreating or creating new intolerable forces. It is about refashioning one’s self in a way that recognizes that all identity, including one’s own, is contingent.[8]

In the first stage, the ten plagues, God liberates the people from Egypt first from the totems of its system of discipline, and then from the actual constraints of the state. Ziony Zevit writes, “The ten plagues may also be interpreted as a series of attacks against the Egyptian pantheon.[9] Gary Rendsburg additionally shows that the entire plagues narrative – beginning with God’s disclosure of His name to Moses at Horeb and culminating in the Song of the Sea – subverts numerous Egyptian traditions and motifs.[10] In ancient Egypt, people regarded the supreme political leader himself as divine. The plagues completely undermine the deities, the theoretical basis of the power structures and political culture of Egypt, a more fundamental damage than the disruption of its material structures, the mere removal of mortal, replaceable counterparts. Thus, the effect on Egypt may have been temporary, but the release from the ideological fetters of Egypt was critical for our own freedom.

The plagues additionally culminate in the utter humiliation of Pharaoh after the tenth plague. After the plague of darkness, Pharaoh declared “in that day thou seest my face thou shalt die” (Exodus 10:28), a formulation which sets himself as a deity (cf. 33:20). Pharaoh’s subsequent humiliating midnight summoning of Moses and Aaron (12:31) fells the ultimate deity in the sequence, the terrestrial nexus of the divine and human political structures. Joshua Berman shows that the Song at the Sea subverts New Kingdom royal terminology and particularly the Kadesh inscriptions of Rameses II. The Song uses terms of Pharaonic divine prowess such as “outstretched arm” and “mighty hand” to instead describe the God of Israel’s retribution against Pharaoh.[11] These examples demonstrate the theme of political liberty in the Exodus narrative.

Freedom from Familial Oppression

The substance of the ultimate plague, the Death of the Firstborn, represents an entirely different aspect of liberation. While the focus of the book of Genesis is families toledot (generations) these families are riven with difficulty. In it, we witness alienation between brothers, sisters, cousins, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters just about every possible permutation. One prominent Bible scholar notes: “Some might, at first glance, demur from treating Genesis as a resource for thinking about family values. To be sure, not all episodes depict families in the best light.”[12] He concludes that the fact that the Abrahamic family manages to resolve intrafamilial conflict without resort to bloodshed is achievement enough.

The problem of bekhor, firstborn, runs throughout the book of Genesis. How does the father’s partner and right hand in his business ventures make space for other children? The solution of primogeniture in which the firstborn is landed and the others work for him is better than Cain’s, and this common Ancient Near Eastern convention is enshrined into law (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) for lack of a better solution, but it remains inherently unjust. Seven pairs of narratives seem to protest and even reverse it.[13] Later in Tanakh, firstborns are displaced in line for succession to the Judean throne. The numerous divergences in later books of the Torah and Tanakh from the norms of the ancient Near East family or clan structure the latter taken for granted by our ancestral protagonists[14] seems to confirm our impression that at least aspects of these were inherently oppressive. This is not limited to sibling relations — in another context of familial oppression, that of women, the reversals that the Bible brought to the ancient Near East are unambiguous and transformative.[15]

Makkat Bekhorot (the Plague of the Firstborn), the coup de grace of the ten plagues, thus similarly flattens the families of Egypt. Philo of Alexandria, an early Bible commentator living in Egypt, notes that in the Egyptian family structure, the firstborn were Egypt’s “genuine offspring… namely desire, and pleasures, and pain, and fear, and iniquity, and mirth, and intemperance, and all the other qualities which are similar and akin to these” (De somniis 2:40:266).[16]

By means of their witness to the destruction of the family system of their masters, the Jews are led to the understanding that the strictures of family, a primordial human convention – the manner in which human beings spontaneously organize to manage competing interests – are contingent and negotiable. With this, Foucauldian freedom is complete — all power networks are fatally disrupted.


Freedom from Natural Limitations

Generally speaking, the sorts of constraints that are considered infringements upon liberty are coercion, which impose one agent’s will upon another’s. However, Lawrence Crocker argues that this definition does not stand up to scrutiny, and he suggests that any physical limitation, any inability, can be understood as a deprivation of liberty.[17] Accordingly, the events at the Red Sea represent an even further stage of liberation, one that destabilizes physical matter itself to permit the exercise of autonomy. God invites the Jewish people to act as though a formidable barrier is simply absent: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward” (Exodus 14:15).

In the aftermath of liberation, the people are deposited not in a new culture or power network but in a vacuum, a barren desert, and, for a brief instant, enjoy the most complete autonomy possible, having experienced the release from sociocultural, anthropological, and even physical constraints. In the wilderness, the people were enabled to choose God à la Jeremiah 2:2 – “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” at least until the forty-ninth day, when He imposed the Law upon them.

Existential Freedom

Strikingly, even before the first power network is fully demolished, there is an expression of ontological freedom — the pesah offering, in which the people concretized their liberation with a tangible act.

Jean-Paul Sartre held that all humans are completely, radically free. He reasons that the only absolute truth that we as human beings experience is cogito ergo sum — our own existence. Other truths are experienced only through our own. Since in our consciousness, existence precedes essence — unlike tools, whose essence (purpose) precedes their existence, we are the authors of our own selfhood – we are “condemned to be free.”[18] The circumstances within which we are born are termed “facticity” or “coefficients of adversity,” but our existence is all that truly “is,” in our own experience. Thus ultimately it is “bad faith” to claim that we cannot make a particular choice or deny responsibility for our choices because of our nature, or some outside force, to objectify our selves — there is no essence of the human subject, only freedom.


Sartre, active in the underground in Paris during World War II, wrote, characteristically provocatively: “Never have we been as free as during the German occupation… Since the Nazi venom snuck even into our thoughts, every correct thought was a conquest; since an all-powerful police tried to keep us silent, every word became previous like a declaration of principle; since we were watched, every gesture had the weight of a commitment… The very cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremity of the human condition by forcing us to ask the questions which we can ignore in peacetime.”[19]

The Paschal lamb in the Egyptian context manifested this same sort of liberty, in several ways. It consisted of slaughtering their mastersdeities in their presence (cf. Exodus 8:22); also, Nahum Sarna notes that the spring lamb sacrifice is a practice of nomads, which they were about to become, and not slaves; the restrictions against breaking a bone or taking from it out of the house endow it with a sense of dignity and satiety not native to subsistence workers.[20] It is a meal of radical difference.

At midnight, Sartrean ontological freedom is joined by Foucauldian political freedom.

Pesah and Liberty: The Seder as Feast of Freedom

The Passover festival, and particularly the Seder, seems to recreate the attainment of these four types of freedom that appear in the Exodus narrative. The structure of the meal itself subverts power structures, the stuff of political domination. It breaks the rules of meals — on all other nights we don’t dip even once” — but also their social conventions: the hungry and homeless are welcomed to a symposium, a banquet of aristocrats. Even the pauper drinks four cups of wine (m. Pesahim 10:1), and even the aristocrat eats the poor man’s bread, vitiating the demarcations of class structure. Everyone reclines. The meal shatters the strictures of social control, instantiating political freedom on even a Foucaldian level.

The Seder goes further, taking on familial oppression. One night a year, the focus is on the child, who initiates the dialogue; the usual paradigm is overturned. Women, generally outside of time-bound religious obligations, are deemed obligated in Matzah and “important” women recline (b. Pesahim 108a), joining in the formal sort of symposium that was the exclusive province of men in the Greco-Roman world.[21]

The further stage, release from the constraints of nature, is represented as the “natural order” of the meal is itself disrupted. Participants do unusual acts so that the children will ask (b. Pesahim 114b). The answer given apparently isn’t important; the purpose is that the children see that things can be different, that the rules of the most formal banquet of the Jewish year does not restrict them. The night itself is likewise excepted from the rules of nature. It is deemed a night of guarding such that demonic dangers hold no sway (b. Pesahim 109b); the numerous miracles that Hazal associated with the night throughout Jewish history are cataloged in the Kaliric piyyut-poem ve-amartem zevah pesah.

There cannot be a direct parallel to the fourth, Sartrean variety of existential freedom, since Jews are no longer enslaved to men – but there is a conceptual analogue. R. Yehudah ben Yakar and Abudraham raise an objection to what seems an improbable assertion in the Haggadah: “and if the Holy One Blessed be He would not have taken us from Egypt, we, our children and children’s children would have been meshubadim to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In his Haggadah Ma’aseh Hashem, R. Eliezer Ashkenazi suggests that meshubadim can mean indebted, rather than enslaved; without Divine liberation, the people would have remained intellectually, culturally, structurally indebted. The Jews were liberated from all those bonds prior to, and as a condition of, physical release.

If the Jews at the first Seder enacted ontological freedom from within the heteronomous strictures of Egyptian slavery, Jews at the Seder throughout history enact ontological freedom from within the heteronomous strictures of the Divine covenant. Specifically the child one who is not yet a metzuveh (commanded), not restrained by the law – is stimulated to pose questions and thereby reaches an understanding of Jewish obligations vis-à-vis God from a position of epistemic autonomy. Mah Nishtanah is first recited by the precritical toddler, who has just learned to speak, who is ignorant of social graces, who is not yet bound by power networks that shape adult thoughts. The children in the spotlight are not one but four varieties, the gamut of personalities or Piaget stages in children, including the rasha (wicked son); the possibility of rejection must be present in order for choice to be real, for autonomy to be complete.

The Haggadah text facilitates the same experience on an adult level as well. It deploys proof-texts, literary devices like close reading and intertextual analysis, and concludes with lefikakh anahnu hayavim, therefore we are obliged” — rendering the Haggadah text a syllogism. The logic does not include arguments from authority; the obvious human authority figure, Moses himself, is conspicuously absent. The text itself is constructed as an exercise in epistemic autonomy.

The epitome of the experience is be-khol dor va-dor hayav adam lir’ot et atzmo once yearly one is expected to see his or her autonomous, real self. In so doing, the participant is rendered just as if he or she were included in the Egypt experience.

The Seder is thus less about recalling freedom and more about doing freedom. The purpose of the Seder night is to recapture the greatest degree of human liberty and autonomy, and then reach toward Divine service as a natural corollary of human reason and self-actualization. The liturgy is thus appropriate; herut is a desideratum, and the events of Passover inaugurate a herut olam, a liberty which survives revelation and legislation.

Freedom from Reason

Moreover, the Seder reflects a fifth form of liberty, in which Jews begin to encompass revelation within our faculties of reason. The rationalization of Pesah, Matzah, and Marror which anticipates the ta’amei ha-mitzvot (reasons for the commandments) project of the Rishonim, endeavors to demonstrate that Torah is not a coercive, arbitrary system that interferes with our interests, but rather engages humans as free people. At the same time, Hazal structured the performances around cups of wine. These allow experience and anarchy, a “Dionysian” approach, to take priority over reason and discipline the “Apollonian” one, in Friedrich Nietzche’s terms[22] facilitating the emergence of freedom from even the shackles of reason.[23] The Seder table emerges as a smorgasbord of freedom freedom from authority, freedom to reason, and freedom from reason. For a brief moment in time, one night per year, these negative and positive sorts of freedoms are celebrated, even cultivated.

In due course, the Seder becomes a crucial prelude to the consensual acceptance of covenantal obligation, to the giving of the Law. Shavu’ot is cast as the culmination of a process, the blossom from buds of an initial experience of Torah which engages human autonomy without a hint of coercion. If seven weeks later the corpus must be accepted as “na’aseh ve-nishma,” in a heteronomous manner as legal systems must be, the principle has been established the aspiration is that we fully cognize God’s law.

[1] I am grateful to Dr. David Shatz for his comments and insights. I am indebted to Dr. Aaron Segal for his review and feedback on an earlier draft.

[2] Shalom Rosenberg, “Al Simlei ha-Pesah: Pesah, Matza u-Maror.” Herut is an Aramaism absent in Tanakh but related to the biblical hor. See Tamar Katzir, “me-Avdut le-Herut.” See a discussion of the implications of these different terms for modern Israeli jurisprudence by Aviad Hacohen, “Herut Min ha-Torah – Minayin? Al Herut, Hofesh u-Deror be-Olamah Shel Torat Yisrael.”

[3] See discussion in Eliezer Segal, “‘The Few Contained the Many’: Rabbinic Perspectives on the Miraculous and the Impossible,” JJS 54 (2003): 273-82.

[4] On liberty in medieval Jewish philosophy, see Oliver Leaman, “Is there a Concept of Political Liberty in Medieval Jewish Philosophy?” in Daniel H. Frank, ed., On Liberty: Jewish Philosophical Perspectives (Routledge, 1999), 153-166.

[5] Joshua I. Weinstein, “Yishuv Medinah and a Rabbinic Alternative to Greek Political Philosophy,” Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 23 (2015): 161–195.

[6] See Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Sacks Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2009), p. xxxv.

[7] See, e.g., Peter Van Inwagen, “The Mystery of Metaphysical Freedom,” in Peter Van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman, eds., Metaphysics: The Big Questions (Blackwell, 1998), 365-374.

[8] Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Paul Rabinow, ed., Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, trans. Robert Hurley (New Press, 1997), 117.

[9] Ziony Zevit, “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Bible Review 6.3 (1990): 16-23.

[10] Gary A. Rendsburg, “Moses the Magician,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, and William H. C. Propp, eds., Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (Quantitative Methods in the Humanities and Social Sciences; Springer, 2015), 243-258.

[11] Joshua Berman, “The Kadesh inscriptions of Ramesses II and the Exodus sea account (Exodus 13: 17–15: 19),” in James K. Hoffmeier, Alan R. Millard and Gary A. Rendsburg, eds., Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt (Eisenbraun, 2016), 93-112.

[12] David L. Petersen, Genesis and family values,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124:1 (2005): 5-23.

[13] Eduard Borysov, The Pattern of Primogeniture Reversal as an Evidence for the Unified Nature of Genesis,” Theological Reflections: Euro-Asian Journal of Theology 24 (2020): 13-28.

[14] E.g., the behavior of Sarah toward Hagar and Ishmael, possession of teraphim, (more expansive) levirate marriage practices, and more. See Barry L. Eichler, “Nuzi and the Bible: A Retrospective,” in Hermann Behrens, Darlene Loding, and Martha T. Roth, eds., Dumu-e2-dub-ba-a: Studies in Honor of Åke W. Sjöberg (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 107-119; John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Zondervan, 1994).

[16] Louis H. Feldman, “The plague of the first-born Egyptians in rabbinic tradition, Philo, pseudo-Philo, and Josephus,” Revue Biblique 109.3 (2002): 403-421.

[17] Lawrence Crocker, Positive Liberty: An Essay in Normative Political Philosophy (Martinus Nijhoff, 1980).

[18] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Washington Square Press, 1992), 186.

[19] Jean-Paul Sartre, “La république du silence,” Situations, III (Gallimard, 1947), 11-12.

[20] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (Schocken, 1996), 87-88.

[21] Sean Corner, “Did ‘Respectable’ Women Attend Symposia?” Greece and Rome 59.1 (2012): 34–45.

[22] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Clifton Fadiman (Dover Publications, 1995), 1.

[23]  I am indebted to Dr. Aaron Segal for this insight.

Aton Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and is an assistant editor of the recent RCA Siddur Avodat HaLev.