Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ma Nishtanah?

Once upon a time, in a previous life, I wrote and directed a folk-music-drenched adaptation of the medieval "mystery plays," a cycle of playlets dramatizing stories from the Bible, plays that were originally created and performed by members of various guilds and merchant groups as a holiday extravaganza for cities and villages around England. I edited with a heavy hand, to say the least, and added a lot of material of my own, to give the whole thing a more modern twist. An old theatre professor of mine--pompous, self-important, ill-kempt, and pipe-smoking to a ludicrously stereotypical degree, came to watch a rehearsal and chuckled at the scene of the Israelites escaping from bondage. I had added a musical number taking the slaves from Egypt through the desert and to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Everyone was dancing around and singing, "Freedom! Freedom!" Which is what made my very Irish Catholic old prof laugh. "Only Jews," he chuckled. "Only Jews could write a scene where people sing and dance about Freedom while being bound down in Law."

He meant it as an insult, but all I could say was, "Yes? And? So?"

I started thinking about that moment in time while reading this over at City Journal, on the relationship--correlation, even--between Freedom and Happiness. But the Freedom the author speaks of is not License. It is not Abandon. It is the kind of Freedom our Esteemed Founders talked about:

The earliest American definition of liberty—stated frequently by the Founding Fathers—is about constraints on personal actions: if I don’t hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the outh of labor the bread it has earned.”

Let's put aside the sad impossibility of ever having a government--local, state, or national--that truly behaved this way. I want to focus here on Us, not Them.

"If I don't hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will." That's liberty as I have always understood and defined it. But how do you guarantee the first part of that conditional statement? "If I don't hurt anybody else." That's a big if, brother.

What the author is working towards (what I quoted is from the very top of the essay) is the idea that personal freedom is impossible without personal restraint--moral restraint. My old theatre professor thought it was amusing that Jews saw Law as Freedom, but it is freedom. Without it, all you have is abandon--license. And we all know what total license leads to: chaos, destruction, and, ultimately, the imposition of Power to make it all stop. In other words, you can have the cop in your head, or you can have the cop on the street. Despite what the hippies believed and longed for, there is no such thing as non-cop. A world of non-cop leads to a world of dictator, sooner or later. The strong will dominate the weak and make that dominance into law, for all generations to come. To truly have that hippie paradise of pastoral frolics, girls in peasant dresses, and kibbutz-like sharing, you need people with a strong moral core and a sense of personal restraint. All of them. Because all it takes is one immoral greedhead to wreck the commune and turn everyone against everyone else.

Coincidentally--or not--it is Passover this week. It is the week during which Jews--even Jews who do nothing particularly Jewish the rest of the year--gather together with family and friends to lift the matzoh and say, "I was a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord saved me with an outstretched arm." The Torah does not tell us much about how to celebrate Passover. All it tells us is that we must tell our children the story of the Exodus (not just celebrate, but tell our children) and that we must tell the story as though it had happened to us, ourselves.

For anyone who likes the Grownup Versions of these stories, what happens to the Israelites in the desert (the wide open spaces) after they leave Egypt (in Hebrew, literally, the "narrow place") is instructive. They quickly fall to pieces, arguing with each other, moaning about how much better things had been back where they came from, and blaming Moses for everything up to and including the weather. The minute Moses leaves them alone, they fall to idol worship and various depravities only blurrily depicted by Cecil B DeMille. They're hopeless. In fact, they're so hopeless that God offers to wipe them out and start all over again with Moses' own children, and build up again from there. Fortunately, Moses talks the big guy out of this idea, if for no other reason than the lousy PR it will create when word gets out.

But can you blame them? What moral compass can you expect them to have after hundreds of years of slavery? They have not been able to be moral agents, or to raise their children as moral agents. They are cattle, donkeys, beasts of burden. And now they're free, thrown out into the daylight with nothing internal or external to guide them (well, there's a pillar of fire, but that just tells them which way to keep walking).

Only when they reach Sinai are they given a true, internal road map. And God is quite explicit about its purpose. "Behold," he tells the Israelites (well, those among them able to listen to The Voice without completely freaking out), "I have given you this day the blessing and the curse, life and death--therefore choose life, that you and your people may live."

Notice that He never says, "Do all this stuff and you'll go to heaven." Never. And neither does anyone else. This is a social contract. Sure, it has a lot about worshipping one God, resisting idols, and so forth, but the rest of it is really a blueprint for living together in peace and security--a handful of very basic rules of personal, moral restraint. Don't murder, don't lie, don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't covet. Honor your parents. And so forth. It's a handful. And none of us--none of us--can live by them 100%. Think about that. As good as we are--and most of us are very good, decent, moral people--as good as we are, we can't quite hit this target.

But if you can come close enough, most of the time--and you can have some faith that your neighbors are making an equally good effort--then you can really live a life of freedom. Some safe social space has been carved out for you--space in which you can live and breathe and relax--where you don't always have to watch your back, or your possessions, or your spouse. Without that breathing room, there can be no freedom. And there are only two ways to get that breathing room: trust and faith in one another...or the cop.

I like the fact that our tradition makes Passover a Big Social Event. We don't just tell our children; we invite a crowd. At the first-night Seder we were invited to this year, there were thirty people at the table. So we don't just tell the kids. We tell each other. And it's a good thing, don't you think? Because God knows, we need reminding.

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