[NOTE: This is a slightly edited repeat of a previous post.]
Monday evening was the beginning of the Jewish holiday Passover.
In recent years whenever I’ve attended a Seder, I’ve been impressed by the fact that Passover is a religious holiday dedicated to an idea that’s not really primarily religious: freedom. Yes, it’s about a particular historical (or perhaps legendary) event: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But the Seder ceremony makes clear that, important though that specific event may be, freedom itself is also being celebrated.
Offhand, I can’t think of another religious holiday that takes the trouble to celebrate freedom. Nations certainly do: there’s our own Fourth of July, France’s Bastille Day, and various other independence days around the world. But these are secular holidays rather than religious ones.
For those who’ve never been to a Seder ceremony, I suggest attending one (and these days it’s easier, since they are usually a lot shorter and more varied than in the past). A Seder is an amazing experience, a sort of dramatic acting out complete with symbols and lots of audience participation. Part of its power is that events aren’t placed totally in the past tense and regarded as ancient and distant occurrences; rather, the participants are specifically instructed to act as though it is they themselves who were slaves in Egypt, and they themselves who were given the gift of freedom, saying:
“This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people…”
Passover acknowledges that freedom (and liberty, not exactly the same thing but related) is an exceedingly important human desire and need. That same idea is present in the Declaration of Independence (which, interestingly enough, also cites the Creator):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
It is ironic, of course, that when that Declaration was written, slavery was allowed in the United States. That was rectified, but only after great struggle, which goes to show how wide the gap often is between rhetoric and reality, and how difficult freedom is to achieve. And it comes as no surprise, either, that the Passover story appealed to slaves in America when they heard about it; witness the lyrics of “Let My People Go.”
Yes, the path to freedom is far from easy, and there are always those who would like to take it away. Sometimes an election merely means “one person, one vote, one time,” if human and civil rights are not protected by a constitution that guarantees them, and by a populace dedicated to defending them at almost all costs. Wars of liberation only give an opportunity for liberty, they do not guarantee it, and what we’ve observed in recent years has been the difficult and sometimes failed task of attempting to secure it in a place with no such tradition, and with neighbors dedicated to its obliteration.
We’ve also seen threats to liberty in our own country, despite its long tradition of liberty and the importance Americans used to place on it. I fear those days may be over.
Sometimes those who are against liberty are religious, like the mullahs. Sometimes they are secular, like the Communists. Sometimes they are cynical and power-mad; sometimes they are idealists who don’t realize that human beings were not made to conform to their rigid notions of the perfect world, and that attempts to force them to do so seem to inevitably end in horrific tyranny, and that this is no coincidence.
As one of my favorite authors Kundera wrote, in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
…human beings have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man nor man against other men, where the world and all its people are molded from a single stock and the fire lighting up the heavens is the fire burning in the hearts of men, where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect.”
Note the seamless progression from lyricism to violence: no matter if it begins in idealistic dreams of an idyll, the relinquishment of freedom to further that dream will end with humans being crushed like insects.
History has borne that out, I’m afraid. That’s one of the reasons the people of Eastern Europe have been more inclined to ally themselves recently with the US than those of Western Europe have—the former have only recently come out from under the Soviet yoke of being regarded as those small black and meaningless dots in the huge Communist “idyll.”
Dostoevsky did a great deal of thinking about freedom as well. In his cryptic and mysterious Grand Inquisitor, a lengthy chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, he imagined a Second Coming. But this is a Second Coming in which the Grand Inquisitor rejects what Dostoevsky sees as Jesus’s message of freedom:
Oh, never, never can [people] feed themselves without us [the Inquisitors and controllers]! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?
Freedom vs. bread is a false dichotomy. Dostoevsky was writing before the Soviets came to power, but now we have learned that lack of freedom, and a “planned” economy, is certainly no guarantee of bread (just ask the Ukrainians).
Is freedom a “basic need,” then? Ask, also, the Vietnamese “boat people.” And then ask them what they think of John Kerry’s assertion, during his 1971 Senate testimony, that they didn’t care what sort of government they had as long as their other “basic needs” were met:
We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart…
So that when we in fact state, let us say, that we will have a ceasefire or have a coalition government, most of the 2 million men you often hear quoted under arms, most of whom are regional popular reconnaissance forces, which is to say militia, and a very poor militia at that, will simply lay down their arms, if they haven’t done so already, and not fight. And I think you will find they will respond to whatever government evolves which answers their needs, and those needs quite simply are to be fed, to bury their dead in plots where their ancestors lived, to be allowed to extend their culture, to try and exist as human beings. And I think that is what will happen…
I think that politically, historically, the one thing that people try to do, that society is structured on as a whole, is an attempt to satisfy their felt needs, and you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name it is democratic; in others it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship. As long as those needs are satisfied, that structure will exist.
I beg to differ. I think there’s another very basic need, one that perhaps can only really be appreciated when it is lost: liberty.