Becoming Free in Judaism

From the beginning of biblical time, man has struggled to break his binding ties in order to become free, independent, and fully human.

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Excerpted from You Shall Be As Gods with permission of the publisher (Henry Holt and Company).

Man is seen as being created in God's likeness, with a capacity for an evolution of which the limits are not set. "God," a Hasidic master remarked, "does not say that 'it was good' after creating man; this indicates that while the cattle and everything else were finished after being created, man was not finished." It is man himself, guided by God's word as voiced by the Torah and the Prophets, who can develop his inherent nature in the process of history.

What is the nature of this human evolution?

Incestuous Bondage

Its essence lies in man's emergence from the incestuous ties to blood and soil into independence and freedom. Man, the prisoner of nature, becomes free by becoming fully human. In the biblical and later Jewish view, freedom and independence are the goals of human development, and the aim of human action is the constant process of liberating oneself from the shackles that bind man to the past, to nature, to the clan, to idols.

free will quizAdam and Eve at the beginning of their evolution are bound to blood and soil; they are still "blind." But "their eyes are opened"after they acquire the knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge the original harmony with nature is broken. Man begins the process of individuation and cuts his ties with nature. In fact, he and nature become enemies, not to be reconciled until man has become fully human. With this first step of severing the ties between man and nature, history--and alienation--begins.As we have seen, this is not the story of the "fall" of man but of his awakening, and thus of the beginning of his rise.

But even before the story of the expulsion from Paradise (which is a symbol of the mother's womb), the biblical text‑-using non-symbolic language‑‑proclaims the necessity of cutting the bond to father and mother: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). The meaning of this verse is quite clear: The condition for man's union with woman is that he shall cut the primary ties to his parents, that he shall become an independent man. Love between man and woman is possible only when the incestuous tie has been severed. (Rashi also interprets this verse as implying the prohibition of incest.)

Social Bondage

The next step in the process of liberation from incestuous ties is found in the beginning of the national history of the Hebrews. Abraham is told by God to cut the ties with his father's house, to leave it, and to go into a country which God will show him. The Hebrew tribes, after long wanderings, settle in Egypt. A new dimension is added‑-the social one of slavery‑-to the ties of blood and soil. Man must cut not only the tie to father and mother; he must also cut the social ties which make him a slave, dependent on a master.

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Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a psychologist and philosopher of the humanist school. He wrote on Jewish and secular topics.