Rabbinic Reflections: Let freedom ring

My son stayed up until 11:30 p.m. on July 4th to see the televised Philadelphia fireworks. 6ABC did that good a job with the hype hours before. He just knew he would see the letters U-S-A sparkling in the sky. Personally, I expected a Liberty Bell shape to burst over the Museum of Art.

The Liberty Bell is a local and national symbol. It is an iconic reminder of the call to freedom. Engraved upon it are the words from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof." This rendering of the verse is powerful for its repetition of “All.” “All the Land” and “All the Inhabitants” evoke the sense that this liberty is far ranging. It reaches everywhere and everyone. It is little wonder then that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew on this verse asking freedom to ring from various mountain ranges and mountainous places all across the United States during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Hebrew of the verse does not actually indicate “throughout all the land,” rather it reads more literally as “in The Land,” referring to the Land of Israel. The verse comes in a passage about releasing slaves and indentured servants every 50 years, each jubilee year. The intent seems to be more along the lines of reminding us that “The Land” belongs to God, this land, too. Since our land is not truly ours but is rather God’s, we are told to remember the same is true of people. Human nature, as designed by God, includes free will. We were born to be free.

Liberty, in this sense, is more than being free from slavery or servitude; liberty is also freedom to determine our potential and how to achieve it. This dual nature of liberty is best described by the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” He calls the first kind of freedom, freedom from restraints, negative liberty. He calls the second kind, freedom to be, positive liberty. Leviticus and the Liberty Bell want us to hear both kinds, with emphasis on positive liberty.

This summer has seen civil liberties take center stage in the media and our collective conscience. Typically in the United States, we speak of “rights” when trying to define our liberties. The switch from a civil liberty to a civil right is meant to help us hone in on the positive notion of liberty. We ought to already be free from the dominion of others, at least since the Emancipation Proclamation. What are we free to do becomes the question.

In this vein, the Supreme Court ruling affirming the legality of same-sex marriages is about the freedom to marry a loved one, regardless of sex just as we once established that freedom regardless of race. While marriage may have varying definitions in religious circles, as a civil right, the civil rite is now a civil liberty. Many religious leaders will conduct religious ceremonies for same-sex couples because they see marriage as a sacred commitment between two loving individuals. For these clergy, same-sex marriage is a positive expression of human fulfillment.

I would suggest, too, that the call to remove the Confederate flag from southern state government locations comes from acknowledging this same kind of positive freedom. The nine victims in the Charleston, S.C. Emanuel AME Church shooting were studying their scripture; they were seeking to raise up their souls. Killing them in racist hatred indelibly marred the Confederate flag as keeping African-Americans from having any liberty, rather than any attempt to express Southern heritage.

The 12th century Spanish Bible commentator Ibn Ezra notes that the Hebrew word for “liberty” in our verse is related to the songbird in Proverbs 26:2 that sings merrily when independent but refusing to eat in captivity and dies. Liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants rings out as a call to positive freedom. We must remember we are all on loan from God, we are all meant to flourish. Let freedom ring.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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