Photo Credit: Pixabay

On the occasion of the 50th birthday of
Eldad Elijahoe ben Michael HaLevi Eitje

The British Russian philosopher and proud Jew, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) in Two concepts of Liberty (1958), one of his most powerful books, makes a distinction between Negative and Positive Freedom.


While Berlin’s argument is sometimes difficult to follow, the main foundation of his argument is as follows:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers, or constraints. An example would be escaping physical slavery.

Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental spiritual purposes. One experiences a kind of transcendental and moral liberty which surpasses all forms of negative freedom.

Negative freedom is thus illusionary freedom. One believes that he is free when he does what he wants to do, when in fact he has fallen victim to his desires and addictions.

Let us imagine that you are addicted to cigarettes, and while driving a car, you’re desperate to get to the tobacconist before it closes. Rather than driving, you feel you are being driven, as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right. Moreover, you’re perfectly aware that your turning right at the crossroads means you’ll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much. Your desire to smoke is not only threatening your health, but is also stopping you from doing what you think you ought to be doing.

This is the kind of desire which most people identify as freedom, when in fact it is the reverse. It is not liberty, but mental captivity. One is not in control, but is in fact being controlled. Isaiah Berlin calls this “freedom of”. It is negative freedom.

What is positive freedom? That is when one does not do what he wants to do but what he “ought” to do. He is not moved by his instincts, but by his moral obligations and transcendental values. Only that is truthful liberty. It is “freedom to”.

Cherut and Chofshiut

It is interesting to note that the Jewish Tradition has two different words for negative freedom and positive freedom: “Chofshiut” and “Cherut”: Chofshiut means to be free from physical bondage, such as when a slave becomes free from his master. While he is physical free, he is not morally free. His desires and addictions may still overpower him.

The use of his computer, cellphone, car, his need for an ice-cream or his morning coffee, his need for his cigarette and fondness for shopping, sex, etc, may all hold him hostage if he is overwhelmed by these urges.

Ones self-indoctrination convinces him that he is a free man, when in fact he is imprisoned and enslaved. Only when he is on top of these urges and is capable of restraining himself, instead living by higher spiritual values, can he claim that he is really free. He realizes that his cup of coffee is really trivial compared to the great values that determine his life’s goals.

Most people spend all their lives in this kind of illusionary freedom, while in fact they are imprisoned. They believe that they have made a conscious decision while in fact they are being driven and cannot stop themselves.

A person in this situation may be a “Adam Chofshi”, a man who is free from physical imprisonment. But he is not an “Ben Chorin”, a son who is mentally and morally liberated.

The Moral Code

In a remarkable observation, the Jewish Tradition connects this distinction with the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us that they were “engraved” on the Tablets which Moshe received on the top of mount Sinai: “The Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved [charut] on the tablets” (Shemot 32:16).

On this passage, Pirke Avot (the saying of the Fathers, 6:2) states that the word Charut (engraved) is connected with word Cherut: Liberty:

Read not charut, “engraved” but cherut, “freedom,” for the only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah.

According to Jewish Tradition, moral freedom is only achieved when a person lives by the teachings of the Torah.

This is identical to Goethe’s observation that in the acceptance of moral limitations, a human being proves himself to be true to himself. And only the Law can give him freedom.[1]

This insight turns the tables on all those who claim that they are liberal Jews because they have abandoned the ways of the Torah, while those who live by the Law are orthodox and restricted.

In this highly provocative observation Judaism claims the reverse: Those who do not live by the Torah are restricted, because they have not found real freedom, just illusionary freedom. They may enjoy the absence of physical coercion (chofesh), but they do not experience spiritual freedom (cherut) because they are not committed to moral freedom as expressed by the Ten Commandments.

Without some sense of the transcendent and the awareness of moral greatness, the human being is losing the script of the human story.

The famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) once wrote: “Among Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.” [2]

It is not good enough to be a “nice person” or “a good Jew at heart”. (Most of the time these are meaningless idioms.)

One needs to surpass civilization and become an exceptional person bound by an outstanding moral religious code. Only then is one free in the fullest sense of the word.

Rephrasing HaTikva

The authors of HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, wrote that the people in the State of Israel the People of Israel are an “Am Chofshi be Artzenu ”, “a free nation in our land” in the sense that in establishing the State of Israel, the Jews have found their physical freedom after the many years of exile in foreign countries.

This is true enough. But the time has come to change this text. While our freedom is seriously threatened at this very hour, it is imperative to change the text to “lehiot Bne Chorin”, “to be morally free people”.

To be an “Am Chofshi” is not good enough.[3] For Jews to survive, they must surpass mere physical freedom.

The nature of the people of Israel is to live by a sacred mission. The existence of the people of Israel is dependent on its refusal to surrender to normalcy.

It is not security or comfort which gives the Jewish people its power, but its exalted commitment to moral-religious values as engraved in the spiritual stones of the Ten Commandments.

The State of Israel should give birth to moral liberty, not just physical freedom. Physical freedom can be lost when others take it away, but moral freedom can never be stolen, since it is found in the heart and deeds of those who commit to higher aspirations as found in the Jewish Tradition.

Jews are not asked to be “chofshim” but “Bnei Chorin”.

Let us not betray our freedom and mission.


[1] Was wir bringen, 1802.

[2] Culture and Value, 1980.

[3] Some Jews call themselves “Chofshim” or “Chilunim”. No doubt, they want to be “Bnei Chorin”.

{Rdeposted from the Rabbi Cardozo’s site}


Previous articleBiden Failing in Swing States despite Anti-Israel Policy, NY Times/Siena Poll Shows
Next articleIsraeli Protesters Set on Fire Aid Trucks Sent to the Enemy in Gaza
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew.