Lecture #15b: Letter 89 - Part I - Slavery (part b)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #15b: Letter 89 – Part I – Slavery (part b)



There is no doubt that Rav Kook viewed liberty as a value of the first order. However, as we have seen, he did not understand liberty in its negative sense – meaning the absence of subjugation – as in the liberal view. According to Rav Kook, true liberty is the manifestation of one’s essence.


Even at this early stage, we discover an important connection between the principle of liberty and the principle of equality. When we speak of “negative” liberty, there is no room for distinction between one person and another, since the liberal view defines liberty only as the right of every individual to choose; it adopts no position as to the desired nature of the choice, other than that it should be freely made.


From the point of view of “positive” liberty, in contrast, we must ask whether the awarding of freedom will in fact bring about positive results. Here the connection between liberty and equality is no longer automatic. Someone may not be suited or ready for freedom because he will use it badly; in that case, it is proper to deny it to him.


However, the positive interpretation of liberty also includes negative dictatorial potential. In every generation, there have been individuals who denied the liberty of others because they thought that those people could not or would not make good use of it. Dictators, kings, or other political or religious leaders often managed to persuade their people that they were truly incapable of doing anything good with freedom. This manipulative side of the concept of positive liberty has been responsible, to a large extent, for modern culture’s support of the minimalist, negative interpretation of the concept of freedom, which is the basis for the existence of liberal societies.


We have already commented in a previous lecture that Rav Kook does not suffice with a definition of release from external chains; he understands proper, true freedom as a spiritual movement of the revelation or manifestation of a person’s essence and its expression. In this positive sense, liberty is actually the main meaning of life itself. A person who lives according to the standards, desires, beliefs, or plans of someone else is not actually living a real life – for such is not a life that is destined for him and him alone.


Rav Kook expressed this view in many different places. Here is one of them:


The freedom of spiritual expression: Spiritual expression is free; it takes no external influence into account, [but rather] expresses itself in accordance with its own inner spirit. And as its self-confidence grows, so it ascends to the pinnacles of truth. Deceit, and the wickedness that adheres to it, come about only from external influence, which attacks it like a sore and directs it by force contrary to its spirit. For because it followed an [external] command, that command represents idolatry. (Orot Ha-Kodesh I, p. 179)


Rav Kook is explaining the opinion of R. Yitzchak, who understands the inclusion of the prohibition against idolatry among the Seven Noahide Laws as being based on the word “va-yetzav” (“and He commanded”) (see Sanhedrin 56b). His explanation is simple and sharp: the very obedience to a command applied to a person from the outside is itself the root of idolatry. The source of deceit and wickedness lies in a person being distanced from the essential sources of himself and of his creation. The root of faith is belief in essence, and the corollary is also true: the root of wickedness and idolatry is having the soul subjected to external influence. Clearly, then, slavery as a cultural and psychological phenomenon is the negation of the most fundamental point of life –  the negation of the meaning of a person’s existence in the world as a special, unique creation.


However, as Rav Kook teaches in a well-known exposition preceding his commentary on the Pesach Haggada,[1] it is possible for conditions of actual slavery not to negate the spiritual freedom to act in accordance with one’s essence, and vice versa. There are people who are free in terms of their status, but they are psychologically enslaved. A country may be altogether liberal, with no subjugation whatsoever, but its citizens may live their lives far removed from themselves, subjected to cultural and media manipulations, entrapped in intellectual fads, full of ego, and incapable of being themselves and truly expressing themselves.[2]


The difference between a slave and a free person is not just a matter of status – i.e., that one happens to be subjugated to another person while the other is not. We can find an intellectual slave whose spirit is full of freedom, and on the other hand a free person whose spirit is that of a slave. Definitive freedom is that lofty spirit by means of which a person – and the nation as a whole – is elevated to be faithful to his inner essence, to the spiritual quality of the image of God which is inside him. Through this quality, he is able to experience his life as purposeful life, worthy of its value. This is not the case in a person who has the spirit of a slave: the substance of his life and his experience [of it] will never be illuminated with the quality of his spiritual essence; rather, it will reflect what is good and fine for whoever controls him, in whatever form – whether formally or morally, as the controller sees fit.


Slavery, then, is not just a negative social phenomenon, but also a negative quality within the psyche of a slave (or someone who lives his life enslaved to the ideas or fancies of others). Worse still, it is a mode of life that is disconnected from a person’s essence, which is the core significance of his creation. The Torah’s negative attitude towards slavery pertains, then, according to Rav Kook, to the most fundamental meaning of life.


The question of the license for enslaving the Canaanites now becomes even more troubling. How can the Torah permit something that is so profoundly negative in terms of the essence of man and his life?


Shadows of Freedom


In order to answer this question, we must examine the other side of the coin of freedom and essence. Freedom is justified because it gives a person the space in which to actualize and express his essence. But what about someone who is incapable of this – someone whose point of life is far removed from his essence, whose material existence is focused on fulfilling his desires, and who is driven by jealousy and inflated ego? Here, freedom may be harmful. First, it may lead to negative external results in the form of harm to himself and to others. Second, and more importantly, it cannot uplift someone whose psyche is low and far removed from his essence to a higher level; it leaves him in the same position.


Lest this be misunderstood, we must reiterate that every person, including the cursed Canaan, has an important and valued point of essence. Every person, and every nation, has a special power and quality that must be exercised. However, for long periods in history, the Canaanites were incapable of this, and therefore freedom would harm them rather than benefit them.


To take an example closer to our experience: do we give complete freedom to children? No one would argue with the premise that a child has his own important essence. Why, then, do we not give him unlimited freedom? Why do we teach him to accept authority? Why do we expect obedience from him? Why do we repeat, “Hear, my son, the teaching of your father…,” and “Every person shall fear his mother and his father”? Does this negation of freedom not negate his essence? Are we not destroying his personality?


In truth, there are many people today who do feel this way – from radicals who speak of education that is completely open to the greatest prophets of modern and post-modern education, who place the child’s autonomy at the center of the system. Unquestionably, in the view of Rav Kook, education that aims to deny a child freedom of thought or to halt the flow of his free will is negative. However, our question here concerns not the objectives of education, but rather the path to those ends. Children are at a stage where they have not developed their emotions and character. They are motivated by immediate wants or jealousies, they are focused on the here and now, and they lack the ability to direct or control their will and feelings. At this stage, freedom is a heavy burden, and it may halt the development of their personalities. We try to bring them to a situation in which freedom becomes an opportunity for growth, for broadening their personality, rather than a source of confusion and helplessness. Acceptance of authority and respect for parents are the slavery from within which children must emerge into freedom.


And here we get to the positive substance of slavery.


(To be continued)


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] “Our Freedom and the Removal of Chametz”, Olat Ra’aya 2, pp. 244-245

[2] This idea was also propounded by the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm in his critique of modern society, as set forth in his works Escape from Freedom, The Art of Loving, and others.