We often talk about freedom as if there were only one flavor. I want to suggest that freedom comes in different varieties. The fact that we have two Hebrew words for freedom––חופש (chofesh) and חירות (cheirut)––give us an indication that there are nuanced differences between the freedoms that exist.
So what’s the difference between the two kinds of freedom? I’ll start out by describing חופש (chofesh). חופש is the freedom to do whatever you want. When I went to Jewish summer camp, my favorite part of the day was חופש, which is free time or freedom. After a very regimented schedule, campers could wander around and do whatever they pleased. Leave a bunch of kids to do whatever they want in camp, and obviously, kids get into trouble because it’s hard to deal with complete freedom.
חופש is the freedom that is granted to slaves when they are set free. In the wake of bondage, there is an excitement to exercise our individual right to choose. Yet there is a problem in a society where everyone is free to do as they choose. It’s a collective chaos. You might describe this kind of freedom as an anarchy, or to use another hebrew word, a בלגן (balagan), a mess. In the days of the Judges, when the Israelites first begin to take hold of Canaan, the closing verse of the book of Judges describes the state of things:
בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם אֵ֥ין מֶ֖לֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֛ישׁ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased. (Judges 21:25)
Israel, in other words, lived in anarchy, a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority. With this chofesh freedom, they go worship idols and other gods, and they fight one another. Israel is plagued with chaos. Chofesh is a slave’s idea of freedom, not a collective society’s. This begs the question: What do you need for collective freedom? The answer is laws, and for the Israelites, they need Torah. Cheirut is the special kind of freedom in which laws help us live orderly, democratic, and empowered lives. During Passover, we rejoice that it is זמן חירותינו, the time of our freedom. Note that it is not the time of our חופשינו, our chofesh, but rather our cheirut.
When my brother Andrew got married, my gift for him was a set of cufflinks from Israel. The cufflinks were made from coins minted in the year 67 CE by the Jews as they were rebelling against the Romans. The Hebrew on these coins reads לחירות ציון (L’Cheirut Tzion), to the free society of Zion. That’s a bold statement when living in the Roman Empire. But notice, the word cherut, freedom, is different than the word chofesh, which also means freedom. The freedom that the rebells sought after was the free and autonomous society of the Jewish people living in Israel.
The word חירות, interestingly, does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. We do, however, get a hint of it’s meaning from a well known passage in Exodus. The two tablets that Moses brings down the mountain are described as:
וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤באֱלֹהִים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת׃
God’s writing charut (engraved) on the tablets. (Exodus 32:16)
The rabbi’s note the parallel between the word חרות (charut) and חירות (cheirut) by saying:
אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּאחֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
Don’t read it as charut (engraved), instead, read it as cheirut (freedom). For whoever doesn’t follow the laws of Torah, is not really a free person.
Laws create this kind of free society that enable us to live with the joys of live, to make conscious and good choices, to protect each other and hold one another accountable. That’s a society that’s free, versus an individual who is free from laws in an anarchy.
I wonder, when Americans talk about freedoms, what kind of freedom are we referring to? By the way, when Americans are asked what makes America great, one of the most popular responses according to Gallop is freedom. It’s an inherent value, but perhaps it’s also a potential problem if we mean chofesh, the ability to do whatever we want.
I would remind us that our first amendment rights are still regulated freedoms. Free speech is curtailed to prevent an individual causing a panic or danger to other Americans. Free speech doesn’t grant an individual to incite violence. We have freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the freedom to peacefully assemble and petition the government. And yet all of these freedoms are regulated in such a way that they provide societal harmony. They are in essence, חירות cheirut, the freedoms that are regulated by law.
When we see these rights as chofesh, complete individual freedom, then we begin to have problems. This is especially true when Americans interpret the second amendment of the Constitution as an individual freedom to own a gun. This kind of idealized freedom is not cherut, where laws enable us to live with rights that protect us. It’s chofesh, the freedom that slaves dream of, it’s a giant mess, it’s everyman for themselves. Freedom of gun ownership is enslavement to guns.
I don’t believe gun ownership is inherent in the Constitution of the United States. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” To me, this appears as a societal right to form an armed military or police force, and not an individual right. But in practice, the interpretation of freedom for an individual to own a gun has become the common practice, and it is valued by millions of Americans. Unregulated choice to make decisions will ultimately lead to people making poor decisions.
And when it comes to guns, Americans have somehow gone down the path of deregulation and upholding individual freedom at the cost of the 33,000 gun related deaths each year. These deaths have very little to nothing to do with video games and mental health. It has everything to do with the amount of guns in our country, and freedoms which we have granted to own guns without significant regulation. Too much individual freedom leads to too much societal enslavement. Too much individual freedom leads to far too many mass shootings, gun deaths, suicides, accidents with children, and anxious students at schools who don’t feel safe. The individual freedoms of gun ownership brought us Colombine, Newtown, Pulse Night Club, Las Vegas, The Tree of Life Synagogue, Aurora, Parkland, San Bernardino, Dayton, El Paso, and Gilroy, Ca. What we need more than individual freedoms is law! We need to restrict gun sales, ban assault rifles, close gun-show loopholes, tighten background checks, and I would go as far to say that we should require a license for anyone who wants to own a gun in our country… and even then, I think we would have more individual gun ownership freedoms than any other civilized country…. perhaps even still too much freedom.
I value the lives of my children over anyone’s individual freedom of gun ownership. I value the lives of the tens of thousands who could be saved annually, over someone’s unnecessary desire to own an assault rifle. I value a specific kind of freedom which is cheriut, a free society regulated with laws, because whoever isn’t living under laws, is not really a free person.
Questions for thought:
When are we going to realize that an individual freedom to own a gun, is the enslavement of American society?
When are we going to enact laws that protect our citizens from gun violence, that protect our schools from school shootings, that protect our community from antisemites who want to do us harm?
When is gun legislation going to be a bipartisan issue?
When will we transform our chofesh, our individual freedoms, into cherut, our free society with laws?
When will I be able to stop speaking about gun violence, because I really don’t want to have to keep speaking about it?