“The first of the bill of rights for a frumme yid (religious Jew) is not freedom of speech! There is NO freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution [the Ten Commandments]!” This was the fiery climax of Rabbi Shimshon Sherer’s talk at the Agudah convention last November. His comments were directed at Rabbi Nosson Slifken specifically (see here especially) , and modern expressions of Orthodoxy (including this very blog) generally. Rabbi Sherer continued to exclude not only freedom of speech from proper religious life, but also freedom of thought, reminding his audience that “total subservience to Daas Torah” is a Divinely ordained requirement.
As an attempt to describe and crystallize the difference between Modern and Haredi Orthodoxy, Rabbi Sherer’s effort is actually quite good . He has hit an important nail on the head. Though it was not his intention, he gives us “Moderns” an important lens through which to understand and ourselves and to appreciate the unique contribution we are called upon to make to Orthodox life – and well beyond.
As a quick aside - it’s important that we respect the freely-made decision of some Jews to surrender their personal freedom in favor of Daas Torah. Those who choose to do so reap significant harvests in terms of religious clarity and communal cohesiveness. They are following their religious consciences, and are genuinely striving to serve God in the surest possible way. Their Jewish decisions are sacred to them, no less than ours are to us. And in our day and age, when “opting out” is an available albeit difficult option, they really are decisions.
But as for us, we constitute a dramatically different spiritual community. We cherish, and believe implicitly in the fundamental goodness of freedom, most specifically the freedoms of inquiry, thought, and speech. Even more, we believe as an article of our faith, that we cannot possibly serve God properly if we fail to regularly and thoughtfully exercise these freedoms. Every fiber of our Modern Orthodox beings tells us that God demands that we think and imagine freely, and that we speak and write what we believe, for no other way of being could bring us to righteousness and truth. More than anything else, it is this belief in freedom that has drawn us together as the Modern Orthodox community.
Our practice of thinking and speaking freely over the past decades has yielded meaningful and deeply transformative results. How different and how religiously enriched we are for having freely explored the implications of the notion of Tzelem Elokim. How different and elevated (and halachikly grounded) are the ways we practice tzedaka and g’milut chasadim. How regularly do we sanctify the name of God through interacting with non-Jewish colleague and peers in ways that are genuinely characterized by mutual respect, and endowed with mutual appreciation. And what other part of the Orthodox community regards the sanctity of Medinat Yisrael as also being connected to the manner in which she treats minority populations in her midst?
Similarly, our soul’s deep calling to freely explore the wisdom of psychology and literature, history and archeology, has opened our eyes to readings of Biblical narratives and Midrashim, of Talmudic sugyot and aggadot that are not only novel, but which speak to the big questions and the profound concerns of modern living, and not only to the specific problems of Jewish existence. It was freedom that produced Rav Soloveitchik and Nechama Leibowitz, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Aviva Zornberg. And it has been the freedom to consider and explore the moral foundations of contemporary social movements, most notably feminism, that has brought Torah and mitzvot to girls and women in ways that they never historically experienced them before, a development that has strengthened us all. And as freely-thinking, halachikly-committed Orthodox Jews we will undoubtedly pursue the logical conclusions of the notion that gender is not relevant to a person’s innate spiritual dignity. It is obvious to us that freedom of thought is indispensible to realizing true Avodat Hashem.
What Rabbi Sherer’s comments should make us consider, is our responsibility to be clearer and more deliberate in articulating who we are and what we believe. Our passion for freedom is an object of suspicion in some Orthodox quarters because it is perceived as a force that will undermine Halachik observance and undercut the Torah’s authority. As members of the larger Orthodox community, we owe it to the Rabbi Sherer’s of the world to be as clear as we can, through our words and our deeds, that this is not the case. We of course need to be ever so clear about it within our own hearts as well. The way we speak about and observe Halacha must never suggest that we are interested in unburdening ourselves of anything, or searching for a way out of something. The truth that we need to always project, is that we are striving to serve God, and to do so in the ways that are truest to our deepest religious instincts and spiritual impulses, among them, the instinct that without freedom we will fall short of our Jewish, Orthodox, calling.