Monday, October 8, 2018

Parashat Bereshit: Freedom

Thoughts on Bereshit 2016
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R. Yehoshua ben Levi said…No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study. (Avot 6:2)

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. (Thomas Jefferson)
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President Barack Obama recently commented on the pace of the current progress in technology, noting, “In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.”[1] Indeed, a blue paper released by Morgan Stanley predicted that everyone in the United States will have a self-driving car by 2026.[2] This impending reality has caused many to seriously consider the various benefits and losses that it may bring to our society.

Among the many encouraging predictions for self-driving cars is their ability to open the roads to an elderly population currently incapable of self-mobilizing, to eliminate the dangers of drunk-driving, to limit environmental pollution, and increase our time for productive activity by cutting down on traffic.

At the same time, however, many fear the loss of certain freedoms classically afforded by our “lives on the road.” Consider, for example, the close association of the age when a teenager transitions into a stage of independence with the attainment of his or her driver’s license. Cars represent our ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and however we want.

Indeed, the rehearsal transcripts from Henry Ford II’s propaganda film Freedom of the American Road said it best: “Our ability to travel around this country in our own cars, anywhere we want, is a special kind of freedom, a unique freedom people have here in America, not quite like travel anywhere else in the world.” Ford further remarked, at the onset of the film, “We Americans always have liked plenty of elbowroom – freedom to come and go as we please in this big country of ours.”[3]  Several sociology pundits therefore fear that the rise of self-driving cars will bring an acute loss of the various freedoms represented by our “control of the steering wheel.”

Reminded of the several negative aspects of self-driven car transportation – the traffic jams, the fatal accidents and the pollution – author Robert Moor recently noted the irony that just as cars “came into their own as icons of freedom, driving began to feel less freeing.” He further elaborated, “The country’s new, deadening infrastructure of suburbs and highways made it very difficult to live comfortably without a car, and also considerably less fun to live with one.”[4]
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Reflecting upon Moor’s astute analysis, I was reminded of a recent conversation that I had with a student, on the topic of Gan Eden. We were discussing the serpent’s famous explanation of the “benefits” of eating from etz ha-da’at: “For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil” (Bereshit 3:5), and I cited the explanation of the late Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod z”l, that “knowers of good and evil” means beings who make autonomous judgments of good and evil based on their own criteria of right and wrong. Hava’s ability to see that the tree “was good” (Bereshit 3:6) marked the first time that anyone other than God made a value judgment. Wyschogrod explained that eating from the tree did not cause them to become “knowers,” but rather represented their becoming autonomous “knowers.”[5]

I detected a similar thought in HaRambam’s Hilkhot Teshvuah (5:1), where he wrote that man’s freedom of choice is rooted in God’s statement following Adam’s eating from etz ha-da’at: “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil…” HaRambam’s reading of that source seems to suggest that man’s autonomy lay at the core of eating from that tree.

The student was markedly annoyed by this explanation. He argued that it skews a proper understanding of life by idealizing one of obligation and compulsion and shunning the pursuit of freedom. He asked how it could be that our intuitive concept of freedom as an ideal could run counter to the ultimate will of the Torah.

I suggested that the story of Gan Eden and the sin of eating from the etz ha-da’at is specifically aimed at challenging our conceptions of an ideal freedom. Consider the immediate effects of eating from the tree: “And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Bereshit 3:7). Indeed, the subsequent dialogue between God and Adam (v. 8-11) further highlights the immediate association between their eating from the tree and cognizance of their nakedness. Explaining this “revelation,” HaRambam (Moreh Nevukhim I:2) distinguished between “rational knowledge” (muskalot) and “accepted conventions” (mefursamot). While one may describe a public show of nakedness as “bad,” he cannot describe the notion of the earth being flat as “bad,” but rather as “false.” By eating from the tree Adam and Hava effectively discarded their ability to decide in a purely rational way – in the realm of “true” and “false,” and were now dependent upon the thoughts and beliefs of others – in the realm of “good” and “bad.”

This analysis, in turn, returns us to a fundamental issue underlying the story of Gan Eden: the freedom of man. The current debate regarding the future of self-driving cars is instructive. Much as Robert Moor revealed an ironic loss of specific freedoms inherent in the attainment of others, so too does the Torah set forth in the story of Gan Eden. While Adam and Hava may have discovered an ability to autonomously decide by eating from etz ha-daat, they concurrently lost their freedom to decide rationally, and were forced to reckon with the thoughts and beliefs of others. Alternatively, using the words and terminology of famed social psychologist Erich Fromm, Adam and Hava’s attained a “freedom from the sweet bondage of paradise” but were left empty of a “freedom to self-governance and individual realization.”[6]

God may have in fact hinted at this paradoxical reality during His initial instructions to Adam:

And God commanded Adam saying, “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” (2:16-17)

The statement’s language seems odd. God first granted Adam the freedom to eat from every fruit of the garden, but at once forbade him indulgence from the etz ha-da’at. His wording suggested that the prohibition of eating from etz ha-da’at existed not as an exception to Adam’s liberty, but as an addition to it. God was thus hinting that true freedom consists of rational thinking – “eating from all the fruit of the garden,” which can only exist when accompanied by the restriction of “From the tree of knowledge…you shall not eat.”

The Hakhamim further sharpened their conception of the “freedom” inherent in Torah, when they furthermore detailed the “death” that befalls those who abandon it, in an intriguing Midrash:

And what did God have in mind? This is what He had in mind: every nation and kingdom that would come and accept the Torah would exist eternally. As it is written, “The tablets were the work of God and the writing is the writing of God, carved (harut) on the tablets.” Don’t read it as harut (“carved”), but rather as herut (“freedom”). There is no truly free person but he who is not ruled by the Angel of Death.[7]

Bearing in mind the stated punishment for eating from etz ha-da’atFor on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die (2:17) – the Rabbis’ intent becomes clear. Although the prohibition of eating from the tree and the various missvot ha-Torah may seem thoroughly restrictive, they are in fact the building blocks and structure of true freedom.
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R. Yehoshua ben Levi said…No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study. While study of the Torah and adherence to its words seemingly engenders anything but “freedom,” R. Yehoshua ben Levi hinted at the irony inherent in that concept, and encouraged us to rethink the matter.

[1] “Barack Obama: Self-driving, yes, but also safe,” Op-Ed for the Pittsburg-Post Gazette, Sept. 19, 2016, available at:
[2] See, e.g., “Everyone Will Have a Self-Driving Car By 2026, Analyst Says,” The Huffington Post, Feb. 27, 2014, available at:
[3] See Cottel Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago, 2008), pg. 101. And watch the film at:
[4] “What Happens to American Myth When You Take the Driver Out of It?” New York Magazine, Oct. 17, 2016, available at:
[5] “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in The Human Condition in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1986), pg. 103-26. Reprinted in Abraham’s Promise (Cambridge, 2004), pg. 53-74.
[6] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York, NY, 1969), pg. 33-34.
[7] Eliyahu Zuta, ch. 4.