The Festival of Freedom has its downside. It’s a great thing to cherish the hope of freedom, an even greater thing to find the dream come true. But freedom can be taken too far. To claim that I ought to be free to be or do whatever I want is an unwarranted extension of the concept.
“I want to be free to worship God!” is what Moses told Pharaoh. What he didn’t say was what we constantly hear around us, “I want to be free to take drugs, I want to be free to hate whoever I choose, I want to be free to hurt you, rob you, run you over, force you into my opinions”.
If all that I say is that I want these things, I am making a revealing statement about my personal psychology, my emotions, my appetites and priorities. But when l say I have a right to be or to do something, that’s a worse problem.
There are three issues:
• What is the content of the “right”?
• What is the source of the “right”?
• Who, if anyone, recognises and/or protects the “right”?
The three are intertwined. If I decide on my own that I have a “right”, why should anyone else approve? If a particular group or class of which I am a member decides that a certain “right” exists, why should any other group or class, or society as a whole, recognise or protect it?
So we come back to the issue of the source of a supposed “right”. How did I get the “right”? Did God give it to me? Did society? Did any outside power or authority? If I have to say in the final analysis that I or my group or class invented the right, what “right” do I or we have to create “rights”?
• If neither God, nor society, nor the State, is prepared to protect your “rights”, do your “rights” have any legal or moral foundation?
• If you tell me that you are competent to invent rights, and that you can claim a right to do X, then I can claim an exactly opposite right to do Y, and we will end up killing each other in the name of rights.
There is a further problem: the partnership of rights and duties. Lord Jakobovits marked the beginning of his chief rabbinate of Britain by an address to the Institute of Directors in which he emphasised that the Bible does not speak of rights but of duties. Not, “I have a right!” but “I have a duty!”
On this basis the whole discussion may be using the wrong word. Note what the Ten Commandments do: they do not establish Ten Rights, though rights are able to be inferred (when they say, “Do not kill”, they imply that every human has a right to live): what they establish above all is duties.
Paraphrasing an American President, the question we have to ask on Pesach and at all times is not, “What can my community/society/country do for me?” but “What can I do for them?”
There are of course broader theological implications: as religious people our question should be, not so much “What can God do for me?” but “What can I do for God?”