There is an inherent conflict of values between the liberal camp and the traditional-Jewish camp, between the values of freedom, and the values of Judaism and conservatism • The values of Judaism require a certain element of coercion in the public sphere, but there is no place for coercion in the private sphere • The solution begins with the mutual recognition of the two groups in the importance of each other’s values • In depth, the two perceptions complement and inspire one another
The Clash of Values
As part of the debate surrounding the need for a deep overhaul of the legal system, concerns arise from the opponents of the reform, namely, that those who support the reform which will simultaneously strengthen the Jewish identity of the state, strive to dictate religious laws by force and coercion while suppressing liberal values, primarily, freedom of the individual. The concern stems from the perception that there is a fundamental conflict between traditional Jewish values and liberal values that are considered secular. However, the truth is that the value of freedom, which is the foundation of liberalism, is one of the most basic values in Judaism. So the real question is: how can we give room in the State of Israel to the entirety of Jewish values – on the one hand, the traditional values recognized as sacred, such as Talmud Torah, family, Shabbat and kashrut, and on the other hand, the value of freedom and human rights, which are also sacred Jewish values?
The problem is that the majority of the people who emphasize the accepted values as sacred in Judaism tend to give less consideration to the values of freedom, human dignity, and social reform, and even tend to consider them as secular values. On the other hand, those who emphasize the liberal position tend to reduce the place of the values accepted as sacred in Judaism to the sphere of the individual alone, in contrast to the Jewish vision which strives to express them in the public, and national sphere.
Traditional Jewish Values Require Coercion
The problem is deep, because in reality, the values conflict. If we want Shabbat to be present, and afford all the people of Israel a day in which everyone, rich and poor alike, can rest from work, enjoy the fruits of their labor with their family members, and delve into the meaning of life and values – then it is necessary to create comprehensive restrictions on the labor market, businesses, and public transportation. Because only when an entire society ceases to work, is it possible to create a deep, Shabbat culture that encompasses rest, pleasure, equality, and spiritual development reflected in study of Torah.
The same holds true for the mitzvot that express faith in God, such as kashrut. When these mitzvot are performed in the public sphere, they preserve and emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish nation and its heritage and strengthen the Jewish national identity, which is an important value for all those with Jewish identity. The same applies to other mitzvot, as well. However, when these values are relegated only to the individual sphere and groups interested in it, society as a whole loses its Jewish character, is dominated by market forces and universal cultural values, and the great vision of the Jewish people for Tikkun Olam (improvement of the world) vanishes.
The Sacred Value of Freedom Greatly Restricts Coercion
On the other hand, the value of personal freedom is also sacred, since it is one of the main expressions of the image of God in man because only a person who freely chooses to identify with sacred values, can truly devote himself to the improvement of society and the world. Moreover, without freedom, man is unable to reveal the broad talents God has instilled within him, to creatively express his full ambitions, and thus, participate with God in adding goodness and blessing to the world.
Because of the tremendous importance of the value of freedom, we commemorate it during the Pesach holiday, ‘Ze’man Herutainu’ (the season of our freedom), which is the national holiday of freedom of the people of Israel, and the holiday of the personal freedom of man, for in the Exodus from Egypt it was revealed that man is a free person, and not a slave.
Accordingly, there is no place for coercion in the private sphere, and even in the public-national sphere, there is no place for coercion without broad agreement, and maximum consideration for minority groups. Because, ultimately, the objective of Torah and mitzvot is to benefit every individual to the greatest extent, and it is unfitting in the name of the Torah to cause grief to those who do not identify with its mitzvot.
Public Responsibility Requires Advocacy and Protest, Not Coercion
Indeed, it can be argued that religious duty obligates forcing others to observe the mitzvot in farhesia (the public sphere), for example, keeping Shabbat in the public sphere, and preventing recognition of a relationship not according to Jewish law. This is not the place to expand on this, but it seems this religious obligation exists when there is a broad public acceptance of religious lifestyle, and even a person who transgresses religious mitzvot agrees in principle it is appropriate to observe mitzvot, but that his urge to sin, overpowers him. However, in a situation like ours, the value of freedom takes precedence, and the obligation remaining for those who keep Torah is the obligation of protest, i.e., reasoned criticism against positions and phenomena contrary to Jewish law, and education and striving for as broad an agreement as possible for strengthening Torah life. All this, while respecting and appreciating the good deeds, individual and national, of those who do not observe mitzvot according to the command of the Torah, but rather, perform their good deeds out of moral consciousness.
No Formula for the Solution Exists, But There is a Direction
It seems we can agree there is no single formula for solving the numerous dilemmas created as a result of the clash between traditional values and the value of freedom, but the beginning of the solution is recognition that, indeed, these are two important sets of values, both in terms of their sanctity in Jewish tradition, and in terms of their human, moral value stemming from freedom of choice. For this reason, in many cases internal Jewish dialogue, and not only secular liberal, can lead to a religious position that does not necessitate coercion and infringement of freedom. On the other hand, a secular liberal dialogue that understands the need to emphasize the spiritual and religious tradition of the Jewish people, in order to realize the vision of Tikkun Olam in Jewish heritage, can lead to a position that supports giving adequate expression to Jewish identity in the public sphere.
Enrichment and Reconciliation between Obligation and Freedom
On the surface, conflicts arise between these two sets of values, but on a higher and deeper level, they enrich and complement one another. The fact is, all of society already shares numerous values, both religious and secular, such as human dignity, preservation of life, helping the poor and the sick, justice, Shabbat and Jewish holidays, circumcision, the Hebrew calendar, the Hebrew language, and self-sacrifice for the nation, and humanity. Everyone sees these values as the heritage of Judaism – some as a divine instruction revealed through the Jewish nation, and others, as an inspiration revealed in human, moral choice.
The more people who understand the shared values and the mutual enrichment that can exist between them, the more public representatives will be able to find agreements and arrangements that will give maximum room to both types of values, in a way that will improve each other, and avoid excessive grief from one of the groups. In this way, the words of our Sages will be fulfilled by us (Avot 5:17): “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure,” in the sense that the values of both sides will be fulfilled, and enrich one and other for generations.
More on the Value of Freedom
Incidentally, one can also learn about the value of freedom from this week’s Torah portion Behar, which deals with the mitzvah to free a Hebrew slave. In other words, even in a period when slavery was passed down from generation to generation, and upon which economic life was based, the Torah stipulated that it is a mitzvah for every slave to be freed at the end of six years, or at the very latest, in the Yovel (Jubilee) year, and that slavery is not inherited by children. Similarly, the Torah forbids abusive work practices of a slave, rather, commands giving him living conditions similar to that of his master. From the totality of these mitzvot, it emerges that slavery is a be-di’avad (ex post facto) situation, i.e., only in times when it is impossible financially to exist without it, the Torah gave the option for slavery under limited conditions, in accord with morality. Consequently, when it is possible to live without slavery, it is a mitzvah to cancel it (see, “Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it ve’Yovel” 10:11-11).
A Canaanite Save
Even in relation to a Gentile slave (called an ‘eved Kenaani’, or Canaanite slave), whose status was apparently similar to the status of other slaves in the world – i.e., his slavery was indefinite, and even his descendants after him are slaves – the Torah commanded to preserve the image of God within him. For when a Jew bought a male or female slave, they had to agree to accept upon themselves the mitzvot of the Torah in front of a Beit Din (court of Jewish law), including circumcision for males, and immersion in a mikvah for both, and thus, they became Jews (SA, YD, 267: 5). If at the time of their purchase they debated whether they agreed to convert and accept the mitzvot, the master was permitted to keep them with him only for up to twelve months, in hope they would agree to convert and accept the mitzvot. If they did not agree, it is the duty of the master to sell them to a non-Jew.
We see then that all of a Jew’s slaves were converted, and when they were freed (over the course of the generations they were all freed), they immediately became complete Jews.
The Right of Slaves to Observe Mitzvot and Immigrate to Israel
Since the slaves and maidservants were converted, the master was obligated to allow them to observe mitzvot; therefore, it was forbidden to sell them to a Gentile, because they would not be able to observe the mitzvot properly. And if he sold them to a Gentile, our Sages fined him that he would have to redeem them at a price of up to ten times their value, and after that, be obliged to release them (SA, YD 267:80).
Likewise, it is forbidden for a master who lives in the Land of Israel to compel his servants to go with him abroad, because by doing so, he disqualifies them from the mitzvot of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (settling the Land of Israel), and anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as though he is engaged in idol worship (Ketubot 110b). And if they did not agree to go with him, he is obligated to sell them to a master who lives in Eretz Yisrael, or to release them (Gittin 43b; 44a; SA, 167: 82).
Furthermore, a slave or maidservant who was bought abroad can demand from their master to immigrate to Israel in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz, and then, either the master immigrates with them, or he sells them to a master who lives in Israel, or he frees them (Ketubot 110b). And if the master did not agree and the slave ran away and immigrated to the Eretz Yisrael, the Torah commanded that he not be returned to his master who lives abroad, as written: ” You shall not turn over to the master a slave who seeks refuge with you from that master. Such individuals shall live with you in any place they may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever they please; you must not ill-treat them” (Deuteronomy 23: 16-17). Rather, the master must release him with a get shichrur (bill of release), and if he did not agree to release him, the Beit Din invalidates his ownership of him, and the slave is free to go (Gittin 45a; SA, 267: 84-85).
It is worth noting that in ancient times, it was customary to mark the slaves and maidservants by removing two front teeth from their mouths, or cutting off their ear or one of their fingers. However, the Torah commanded that the master must not inflict a serious injury on his slaves, and if he inflicts an injury on one of his slave’s limbs that cannot be healed, the slave is thus freed (SA 267: 27-35; 40).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.