Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Mature Freedom

The modern era, with its attendant rise of personal freedom and decline of communal authority, is often seen as the enemy of religious tradition. In pre-modern religious communities, the vast majority of people observed religious practices because they had no choice. They could be fined, imprisoned or exiled from town with no place to go. They had no options and no ability to choose their own lives. While it was not as idyllic as some like to think, it was still a much more religious environment than the modern world.

In the modern era, religious freedom means people can no longer be legally coerced to observe religion. They have choices. They can decide their own course of life. Sometimes socially they feel like they have no choice, but that is usually due to artificial barriers that can be pierced with enough courage.

The result of this has been a large secular wave, with the majority of Jews in the world believing and observing little of Judaism. Some judge the modern era to be a failure because of this. While the many anti-semitic discriminations of the pre-modern era were clearly bad, at least then just about all Jews were religious.

R. Nachum Rabinovich (Darkah Shel Torah, pp. 3-9, 100-102) sees the increased freedom of the modern era very differently. To him, it is an important step in the evolution of religion. Based on a Maimonidean perspective (as the whole book is), R. Rabinovich emphasizes that the true Divine aspect in humans is the freedom of choice. When we choose to obey God, that is when we are fulfilling our personal abilities and becoming the true people that should be.

At first, the Jews accepted the Torah out of fear of God's punishments. A thousand years later, during the Babylonian exile, Jews moved forward and accepted the Torah out of desire for Divine reward (Shabbos 88a). This was an important step forward. Later, during the Second Temple, there was further development among the elite to observe Judaism out of a desire to do what is right. However, while Antigonus Ish Sokho (Avos 1:3) taught this approach, the people were not yet ready and his students terribly misunderstood his intent. Nevertheless, throughout the generations, there have been those who have been able to follow this advanced religious worldview.

In the modern era, we have reached a new stage in the development of humanity and Judaism. While we encounter growing pains, we are quickly reaching the final stage of maturity for the nation when people will independently, without any coercion, choose to observe Judaism.

People who lack confidence in the Torah, who do not truly believe that it is the answer to the inner needs and desires of all people, will look back nostalgically to the pre-modern era. But those who recognize that a time will come soon when the darkness will be dispelled by the light of the Torah, when God will be universally accepted and all Jews will freely choose to observe Judaism, embrace the increased personal freedom of the modern era.

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