Originally published in Western Wall, March 1954.
There is an intimate relationship in Jewish tradition between Passover, the festival of freedom and Shabuoth, the festival commemorating the giving of the Law. This relationship is a favourite theme of Jewish religious thinkers who, not content with demonstrating that freedom and law are compatible, go further and assert that they are complementary – that there can be no law without freedom and no freedom without law.
No law without freedom – this must be obvious to thinking people. In the religious sphere in particular it is the free response of the human personality in its quest for the divine which matters. Without such response the carrying out of the rules and regulations in which Judaism abounds degenerates into mere mechanical routine. The Besht, the founder of the Hasidic movement, compared subservience to the Torah laws without inner religious enthusiasm to the housewife who pays scrupulous attention to the details of a cookery recipe hut forgets to light the fire.
In other words, the laws are the means by which the religious urge finds its expression; that urge itself cannot be regulated, it can only be developed and cultivated. The attempt to regulate religious emotion reminds one of the naive instructions found in some large Yiddish Prayer Books – “dor darf man veinen”; “dor darf man zein full mit simhah” – “at this prayer one must weep”; “here one must be filled with joy”. No, you cannot switch on religions feeling at will. Only deep study of the classics of our faith coupled with a sincere effort to translate their teachings into life can produce the religious character.
But having agreed that there can be no law without freedom we cannot forget that Judaism insists that there can be no freedom without law. “No man is free but he who labours in the Torah” is the well-known dictum of Rabbi Joshua, the son of Levi. A hard saying on the face of it; one which young people in particular find it difficult to understand. So many do’s and don’ts, so many rules and regulations in the traditional Jewish way of life – can one who submits to this discipline be said to be free? Is it not fantastic to claim that only he is free?
The truth of the matter is that the laws were not intended to thwart or interfere with natural human growth but to enrich and ennoble the human personality so that it can grow to its full stature and acquire the freedom to develop all its potentialities. They have had this effect throughout the long history of the Jewish people. Take the dietary laws as an obvious example. See how they have helped to promote the concept of holiness and redeemed the Jew from the grosser vices. How they have provided him with a discipline and taught him self-control. Without discipline of this kind we tend to become flabby and soft. It is not for nothing that moralists have urged a man to do each day some things he dislikes doing, for no other reason than to keep himself morally in good trim.
In modern times there has been a marked reaction against the importance of law in Judaism. This is not a new phenomenon; it is at least as old as Paul, who taught that the letter killeth but the spirit maketh alive. Judaism agrees, as we have seen, with the implications of this statement, if they do no more than stress the need for inwardness in religion. But it emphatically disagrees with the anachronistic implication that the law has no validity. Judaism would say that the law without the spirit is of little value but that it is futile to attempt to develop that spirit without the help of the law. Reverting to the illustration from cookery – you cannot cook without fire, but it is just as futile to light the fire without bothering to mix the ingredients in their proper measure.
Indian thinkers in particular have pondered deeply on the need for discipline. Their solution of Nirvana, from the Jewish point of view, errs on the side of asceticism. Jews, the first command of whose Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply”, cannot accept denial of life as a valid philosophy. But there is much that we can learn from these men. I know of no better illustration of how submission to the laws of the Torah can help a man or women to be truly free than the following, taken from the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. “I have on my desk”, says Tagore, “a violin string. I can move it on any direction I desire. If I twist it it responds. It is free. But it is not free to sing. Then I take it and I bind it in my violin. It is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to sing.”