Texts and beliefs By Matt Plen 16th May 2016

At the centre of modern progressive politics has been a debate over the meaning of freedom.  Classical liberals believed all human beings have a fundamental right to live free from outside interference.  They emphasised freedom from – the absence of coercion – and often prioritised the free market and rolling back the power of the State.  Against this, social democrats and contemporary, egalitarian liberals claimed this was not enough.  Freedom from meant nothing without freedom to – and you can’t have freedom to without a basic level of resources.  Freedom of expression means nothing, for example, if you’re denied access to education and don’t know how to write.  Or think of a homeless person who gives up their liberty by committing a crime in the hope of being locked up somewhere warm for the night.  Freedom to, in this sense, means not only the absence of coercion but the fair distribution of goods and opportunities.

In this week’s parashah we read that the Jubilee was a year of freedom in which land was redistributed and all Hebrew slaves were set free.  But in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 we learn a different procedure: Hebrew slaves are to be released after six years of servitude unless, of their own volition, they decide to submit themselves to the permanent ownership of their master.  A quirk of these texts is that they use different words for freedom.  The freed individual slave is described in Exodus and Deuteronomy as ‘hofshi’, while this week’s reading from Leviticus instructs us to ‘proclaim freedom –“dror” – throughout the land’.  What’s the difference between these two terms?

As pointed out by various commentators, hofshi is used by the Torah in the context of liberty for the individual slave, while dror means universal freedom for all.  Similarly, hofshi connotes a conditional release – Hebrew slaves have the option of remaining chained to their masters – while dror reflects an unqualified freedom with no exceptions.  Other scholars have pointed out that whereas hofshi means a rather narrow release from serfdom and labour, dror implies a much more sweeping freedom from any kind of subservience or domination by a master.  More broadly, hofshi can be understood as a negative release from coercion, whereas dror signifies the positive gift of freedom.  But what is the positive content of this freedom?

In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 9b) Rabbi Yehudah interprets dror to mean the freedom of a person to dwell wherever he likes and to carry on trade in the whole country.  This explanation is etymologically grounded – dror comes from the same root as ‘dwell’ – dar in Hebrew or medayer in Aramaic.  This interpretation connects the release of slaves to the redemption of the land.  It has been argued that just as freedom from subservience to a human master enables us to serve God, so too the redistribution of land reflects the abolition of limited human ownership in favour of God’s absolute sovereignty.  But perhaps the Torah is making a simpler, political point.  Being free to live and trade where you like means having land, a house, and goods to sell.  True liberty requires both freedom from – the release from slavery – and the equitable re-distribution of resources: a deeper conception of freedom to.

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism and a member of Assif at New North London Synagogue.  

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