Liberty Redefined

By: Daniel Ganopolsky  |  February 23, 2023

By Daniel Ganopolsky, Opinions Editor

In August 1776, Benjamin Franklin chose a portrait of the Exodus, in which the Jewish people confronted a tyrant in order to gain their freedom, to be the national insignia of the United States. Although it was never ratified, the principles reflected in this imagery are what the Founders envisioned America ought to be. Unfortunately, today’s, (big L) Liberal America has forgotten these values and opted for a new, redefined Lockean understanding of liberty. Nonetheless, we can learn from what our founders wished for us to recognize, embody, and embrace our tradition while rejecting modernity. 

The Exodus from Egypt and subsequent inception of the Jewish nation have long signified the fundamental principle of liberty. Unlike other philosophies, the idea of liberty embodied in the emancipation of the Jewish people was not a portrayal of an unconditional and unrestricted sense of freedom, or even a dismantling of the fetters of slavery. Rather, it represented an opportunity to institute an appropriate form of self-governance and communal responsibility. This idea of communal responsibility and a unified ideology, as demonstrated through the Exodus, was the future that Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin, envisioned for America. In contrast, today’s America has become fractured by our individuality, moving away from self-governance and the initial ideology imparted to our founders through the story of the Exodus. 

After the Israelites’ Divine deliverance from slavery, God revealed a set of moral precepts to the Israelites at Mount Sinai so that they may govern, cultivate virtue, and build a healthy and long-lived society. Without hesitation, the newborn nation instantly responded with “na’aseh v’nishmah” — “we will do and we will understand (lit. hear).” They recognized the importance of these values and became unified in a national declaration of total subjugation to God’s will. Through their declaration, the Jewish people implemented a system of accountability and self-government. This system fostered the awareness that actions have consequences, and that individual growth, by extension, affects the growth of the community. Communal responsibility, demonstrated through the halachic system– such as an individual’s obligation to forewarn their neighbors– illustrates the unique and necessary relationship between citizens and their governing body.  

Our Founding Fathers, like the Jewish nation, recognized the need for people to orient themselves with the state’s values and vice versa. According to the founders, self-government broadly meant a government under the control and direction of its citizens, rather than an outside authority — a democratic republic. As Aristotle posited in Nicomachean Ethics, the man who is truly concerned about politics seems to devote special attention to virtue, since it is his aim to make the citizens good and law-abiding. America’s pioneers, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all valued self-government under the auspices of a virtuous society. To them, liberty did not mean doing as one wished, rather, it was choosing the right and honest course. Liberty meant forgoing some personal advantage for the betterment of one’s neighbor and society. Early in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville describes “a beautiful definition of liberty.” Tocqueville cited a distinction between liberty as a license – “doing as one lists” – and liberty as the consequence of self-discipline and, in particular, free choice to do what is “just and good.” Moreover, Abraham Lincoln, in his “Address on the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, credits the establishment and preservation of the American government with “the capability of people to govern themselves.” The American goal was to support the fostering of virtuous individuals who would form a civic life oriented towards the common good.

In modern America, the meaning of liberty has been fundamentally reconceived. Today, liberty means to be completely free, overcoming any barriers that inhibit human expression of individuality and desire. Liberation through restriction is quite literally the opposite of today’s post-modern spirit, which offers boundless pluralism and moral relativism, hawkish individuality, unlimited possibilities, and endless freedom. Many members of society aim to abolish any arbitrary social norms and religious and/or governmental institutions governing behavior, and establish wholly self-made individuals. Today’s anti-culture is creating a polarized society full of tension between citizens and neighbors, trying to deconstruct each other’s customs, cultures, and beliefs. The constantly evolving America no longer has a unifying ideology to admire and respect. To change this, Americans need to bring issues of our country’s identity and purpose to the forefront of political debate and daily life because, as Tocqueville argues, self-rule is the result of practice and habituation.  

The Sinai experience created a unified Jewish culture that preserved the Jewish nation and the Jewish spirit against the threats of destruction, disappearance, and demoralization. The pasuk in Shemot 19:2 describes what happened right before Moshe received the Torah. The verse states “Vayichan sham yisroel neged hahar” (Israel encamped there in front of the mountain), Rashi comments and says, quoting the Gemara, “K’ish echad b’lev echad” – because they had one goal so it was as if they had one heart. Similarly, the United States needs to re-establish a set of ideas and principles that garner communal support and action to promote empathy, self-restraint, and responsibility, which will ultimately lead to a more cohesive and sustainable society. Despite all the challenges that plague present-day America, the fight for liberty is instilled in the very fabric of its existence. Franklin hoped that the national insignia of the Exodus would be a constant source of inspiration and encouragement for the American people. The battle for liberty requires strength and resilience and is constantly redefined as society evolves. To be “the land of the free and home of the brave” demands an unparalleled level of integrity and righteousness; as Benjamin Franklin concluded, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”