The concept of freedom in the Bible is found in the injunction that on the advent of the *Jubilee, "liberty was proclaimed throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof … and ye shall return every man unto his family" (Lev. 25:10). Thus the freedom envisaged encompassed not only the
The concept of that freedom was unique in the insistence on the freedom of the individual in order that he might be free to devote himself utterly and without restraint to the service of God and the fulfillment of His will. The locus classicus of this conception is the rabbinical interpretation given to the verse "For unto Me are the children of Israel servants," which is emphasized by the repetition "they are My servants" (Lev. 25:55), upon which the rabbis comment: "they are My servants, but not the servants of My servants." It is the basis of the reason given by Johanan b. Zakkai for the law that a Hebrew slave who chose to remain in slavery when the time came for his emancipation had to have his ear bored (Ex. 21:6), an interpretation which is called "a species of homer" (probably "an important ethical principle") "Why the ear of all the organs of the body? God said: Because it was the ear which heard Me say upon Mount Sinai 'Unto Me are the children of Israel servants, but not servants to My servants,' yet its owner went and acquired a [human] master for himself, therefore let that ear be bored" (Kid. 22b; in the Mekhilta to Ex. 21:6 Simeon b. Judah ha-Nasi derives the same ethical lesson from the fact that the ear had to be placed against the doorpost).
It was in accordance with this principle of freedom from man in order to be free for the service of God that R. Joshua b. Levi stated, "No man is free but he who labors in the Torah" (Avot 6:2), which may be a protest against those who thought of freedom in purely physical or rational terms. This principle was enshrined to such an extent that the Talmud actually asks how, in view of this interpretation, it is permitted for a Jew even to be the employee of another Jew and replies that the right of the laborer to withdraw his labor at any time preserves his essential liberty (see *Labor). This conception of the right of the Jew to individual freedom was extended to include national freedom from foreign rule. R. Judah interprets the freedom which comes from the study of the Torah as "freedom from exile" (Ex. R. 32:1), and the theme that failure to exercise this freedom brings in its train political servitude was a favorite theme of the rabbis in the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple, when foreign rule became a grim fact. Thus Johanan b. Zakkai homiletically interprets Song of Songs 1:8, "You were unwilling to subject yourselves to heaven; as a result you are subjected to the nations of the world" and his contemporary Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah states, "He who accepts the yoke of Torah will have the yoke of foreign rule removed from him, and he who casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of foreign rule" (Avot 3:5). The striking statement of Samuel in the Talmud (Sanh. 91b et al.) that the only difference between the present world and the Messianic age is subjection to foreign rule is actually accepted as the halakhah by Maimonides in the last chapter of the Mishneh Torah, but he also emphasizes that the "sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat, drink, and be merry. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Torah and its wisdom, with none to oppress or disturb it" (Yad, Melakhim 12:4).
Most extreme in their passion for liberty were the members of the "Fourth Philosophy," the *Zealots or *Sicarii as thecase may be. Josephus states of them that "this school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. They think little of submitting to death, if only they may avoid calling any man master" (Ant. 18:23), a principle which they carried into practice with their mass suicide at *Masada rather than submit to the Romans. It has been suggested that the differences between them and the Pharisees with regard to the love of freedom was that whereas the Pharisees, while extolling the importance of liberty, did not include it among the cardinal principles for which one should suffer martyrdom rather than transgress, those members of the "Fourth Philosophy" did include it. The ideal of freedom was kept alive in the Jewish consciousness throughout the period of exile. The four cups of wine obligatory on the *seder night of Passover, the festival of freedom (Pes. 108b), are the symbol of freedom, and in the daily liturgy in the evening prayer, the Exodus from Egypt is referred to as the emergence of the children of Israel to "everlasting freedom."
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Freedom of Thought
Because there never was a single body of official doctrine, Jewish tradition not only permitted, but even encouraged freedom of thought. Speculation about the fundamentals of faith was held to be a desirable and meritorious activity. *Baḥya ibn Paquda, the 11th century moralist and philosopher, states explicitly that, "On the question whether we are under an obligation to investigate the doctrine of God's unity or not, I assert that anyone capable of investigating this and similar philosophical themes by rational methods is bound to do so according to his powers and capacities… Anyone who neglects to institute such an inquiry is blameworthy and is accounted as belonging to the class of those who fall short in wisdom and conduct" (Ḥovot ha-Levavot, "Sha'ar ha-Yiḥud," ch. 3). Maimonides
Alongside this tradition of freedom of thought there was also a restrictive drive which sought to limit what Jews might think and even what they might read. A Mishnah teaches that certain categories of Jews forfeit their share in the world to come, either because they hold erroneous beliefs or because they read forbidden books (Sanh. 10:1). This repressive aspect of the tradition receives its most extreme form in the codified rule that certain kinds of heretics may, or even must be put to death (Av. Zar. 26b; Sh. Ar., YD 158; 2). There is, however, little evidence that such a rule was ever put into practice. David *Hoffmann argued that this rule was codified at a time of extreme Christian religious zealotry, and was intended to show that Jews were also devoted to their faith. He denied that this rule was ever intended to be enforced, adding that in modern times such a rule is a profanation of God's name. Restrictions were also enacted against the study of certain subjects. The Mishnah records the decree that "no man should teach his son Greek" which is interpreted to mean the study of Greek philosophy (Sot. 9:14; 49b). The study of mystic traditions as well was restricted. The Talmud relates that only one of the four sages who "entered the Garden" (i.e., engaged in esoteric speculation) departed unhurt (Ḥag. 14b). In codifying these laws Moses Isserles stated, "It is only permitted to 'enter the Garden' after one has satiated himself with meat and wine," i.e., the study of mysticism is only allowed for he who is thoroughly grounded in the study of halakhah and the details of the commandments (Sh. Ar., YD 246:4). In the Middle Ages bans were also imposed on the premature study of philosophy and sciences. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret proclaimed in his ban of 1305 that physics and metaphysics could be studied from the age of 25, but laid no restriction on the study of astronomy and medicine (other communities in southern France banned the study of philosophy until the age of 30; see *Maimonidean Controversy).
Freedom of thought was also threatened by those who banned or burned books which they found offensive. An almost continuous line leads from the talmudic prohibitions against certain works to the 20th-century zealot who burned a nonorthodox prayer book in New York in 1944. Over the centuries there were bans on and burnings of the works of some *Karaites, Maimonides' Guide, the Me'or Einayim of Azariah de *Rossi, and even of some books of M.Ḥ. *Luzzatto. The rise of *Ḥasidism and of the *Haskalah generated such intense efforts to suppress their literatures that one writer asserts that "there was no period in Jewish history in which so large a number of books … were banned or burned."
Such practical restrictions on freedom of thought came to an end in the 19th century. They can still be found only among some minor sects of the extreme orthodox right wing, but have no effect on the life and thought of the vast majority of Jews. In a peculiar way these restrictive elements in the Jewish tradition evoked a basic commitment to freedom of thought. Those who imposed bans on books could only enforce them locally, since there was no central authority. Such bans usually evoked counter-bans so that a book proscribed in one community found vigorous defenders in another. However great the stature of those who sought to prevent a book from being read, there were always men of equal stature who came to its defense and made it available. In this way, even when subjected to severe strains, freedom of thought was preserved and protected.
In the Bible: L.I. Rabinowitz, in: Sinai, 55 (1964), 329–32; S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964), 334–45. In Jewish Philosophy: M. Carmilly-Weinberger, Sefer ve-Sayif (1966); R. Gordis, The Root and the Branch (1962), 31–53; D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (1965); E. Shmueli, Bein Emunah li-Khefirah (1962), 161–78.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.