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January 12, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

This coming week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments.  After describing them, Scharfstein writes “People are free when they live in a society not subject to foreign dictates.  The Israelites were not given the Torah and commandments until they … were freed from Egyptian influence.”  In other words, the absence of Egyptian influence made the Jews a free society.

This suggestion gets to the heart of how one defines freedom.  Imagine two societies: on the one hand, a totalitarian pariah state (such as North Korea), on the other, a small democracy that works closely with a superpower. 

In North Korea, the government regulates society quite minutely, and thus deprives its citizens of freedom by most Americans’ definition. Therefore,North Koreans have very little freedom from their government.  

On the other hand, North Koreans need not worry about foreign influence; the government of North Korea does pretty much what it pleases, and I suspect that both the citizens of North Korea and its dictator really do not care who wins an election in the U.S. – or for that matter, in any other nation.  North Korea’s poverty immunize it from economic threats, and its nuclear weapons and internal unity immunize it from military threats.  North Korea is certainly free of foreign domination- so it is arguably free by Scharfstein’s definition. The same goes for Iran or for many of its neighbors. 

On the other hand, imagine a small democracy.*  Its citizens are as free as those of any other nation, if “freedom” is definied as having a relatively nonintrusive government.  (And since most such governments guarantee freedom of religion, it may be even more free by secular standards than the society created by the Torah).   On the other hand, our hypothetical democracy’s foreign policy is limited by its obsessive concern about what the superpower will think, and its citizens watch every election in the superpower with great concern and chin-wagging.  Are its citizens really free of foreign domination?  Not really, compared to either North Korea or the society contemplated by the Torah.  But by modern secular standards it is free. 

All of which is to say that the definition of “freedom” is more complex than Scharstein thinks.


*I use a hypothetical nation instead of Israel because I am not sure that Israelis are as obsessed with American whims as American supporters of Israel are.  


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