Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Negative and Positive Liberty – A Biblical View

Negative and Positive Liberty – A Biblical View

The concept of liberty is among the founding values of the modern political order. The Jewish People, however, have been celebrating liberty for thousands of years. Are the two conceptions, modern liberalism and Jewish liberty, one and the same? Leaning on Berlin's definitions, we will find that the Jewish tradition hallows negative liberty as a means rather than an end. The purpose of negative freedom is accepting the yoke of Heaven, which is "positive liberty" in Berlin's scheme.

Elul 5778, August 2018

Synopsis: An implicit assumption of modern society is that liberty is always a positive value in and of itself. This axiom does not stand up to scrutiny, and a coherent argument can be advanced that liberty is a multi-faceted state, with each facet having an independent value. A nuanced attitude will help evaluate the idea of liberty as it appears in the Bible. No distinction will be drawn between the various liberties, whether they be civil, political, personal, religious, intellectual or other, the assumption being that a general approach can be adopted to freedom as a whole, with any differences manifesting themselves only in the details and not in the fundamentals.

The author would like to thank Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer and Benayahu Tvila for their comments and insights, which greatly improved the quality of this essay.



Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north, will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Patrick Henry, “Speech to the Virginia Convention, 1775,” in Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, p. 123 (1817).


Liberty – the word itself conjures up a kaleidoscope of the most noble sentiments. Celebrated in prose, consecrated in rhyme and enshrined in sculpture, its consonants have the power to arouse to action even the most world-weary. Freedom is one of the few values which almost all can identify with, their age, status, abilities or position on the political spectrum being immaterial. As an aspiration it transcends time and ages; the slave in Rome and the anarchist in San Francisco both believe that their salvation is predicated on their liberty. Was liberty always such a powerful value? Did it always stir up such passion in man’s breast? These are questions not easily answered. Affairs of the heart do not lend themselves to simple quantification. Indeed, the question needs be asked: Was individual liberty conceived as an ideal before the modern area? Whatever the case, it is fair to say that the modern conception of freedom as a value and aspiration received its fullest expression during the period of the French Revolution of 1789, and since that time its light burns as brightly as ever.

Freedom is one of the few values which almost all can identify with, their age, status, abilities or position on the political spectrum being immaterial. Kingdoms have been overturned, cultures annihilated, entire societies obliterated, all in the cause of liberty.

Kingdoms have been overturned, cultures annihilated, entire societies obliterated, all in the cause of liberty. Let us not concern ourselves with the question whether these outpourings of violence actually increased the measure of man’s freedom. Let us grant the revolutionaries and the dreamers, the radicals and the idealists, that “the suppression of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution,” as Vladimir Lenin claimed (The State and Revolution, Foreign Language Press, Peking, p. 25 [1970]). Let us not think what it is about liberty that can engender such a frightful outpouring of so much destructive energy. Let us set aside our doubts and accept that there is something extraordinary about the state of freedom and the opportunity for self-determination, so that it raises man’s existence to an almost ideal state of perfection. For if we do so, we may well penetrate the mindset of the intellectual, as well as that of the common man, at the end of the eighteenth century.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was contemporaneous with the French Revolution, was a thinker who championed enlightenment and liberty, and the question of freedom in all its manifestations, civil, political, moral, which were raging across the intellectual landscape of Europe at that time, influenced his thinking greatly. It is thus no accident that Kant accorded liberty the standing he did. He argued in his Critique of Practical Reason, that freedom was essential to morality. Kant differentiated between heteronomy and autonomy. Heteronomy he defined as an action which is determined by some external influence impelling the subject to act in a specific way. Such an action is amoral, neither moral nor immoral. Autonomy he defined as an action which is determined by the subject’s own free choice. Kant then claims that moral action is only that which is truly autonomous.



“People are content to let disorder alone, considering it the price they pay for liberty.” “In Paris,” writes John William Ward, “they have an admirable police force, but they pay dear for its advantages. I prefer to see, every three or four years, half a dozen people getting their throats cut in the Ratcliffe Road, than to have to submit to domiciliary visits, to spying, and to all the machinations of Fouché.”

Vide Elie Halevy, Historie du peuple angalais au XIX siécle, Vol.1, p. 40 (1912), quoted in Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 90 (1952).


John William Ward wrote these lines in 1811 (Letters to Ivy from the first Earl of Dudley, p. 146 [1905]). Hardly eighteen years later, in 1829, Sir Robert Peel had established the Metropolitan Police Force for London, the first modern police force in the world. By 1857 all cities in England were required by law to form their own police forces. The radical liberty promoted by the likes of Ward was found wanting. People were not content to let disorder alone, for society could not function when people were getting their throats cut on Ratcliffe Road. Even John Stuart Mill, who so passionately defended man’s freedom in his essay On Liberty, was well aware that some restrictions must be placed upon human actions. That there are limits to freedom is an axiom, and one that only an anarchist or a nihilist might dispute.

Even John Stuart Mill, who so passionately defended man’s freedom in his essay On Liberty, was well aware that some restrictions must be placed upon human actions.

When Kant maintained that man is ideally autonomous, he did not seek to promote the idea that the individual should be devoid of obligations. In fact, that was the exact opposite of what he set out to do. One of Kant’s major efforts was the development of a system of morality that would obligate all of mankind, and his advocacy of freedom is a reflection of his belief that morality can only proceed from a free man. The same can be said even of Mill. Yes, he argues in On Liberty for the complete freedom of the individual so long as he does not harm others, but in his book Utilitarianism he claims that man’s actions should be directed to those actions which cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people, even if the agent himself suffers as a result. For Mill, too, freedom is only the superstructure upon which is erected his system of morality.

Most philosophers and thinkers did not see freedom and liberty as a form of utopia, where citizens of a particular Garden of Eden are relieved of all duties and compulsions. Rather, freedom was the state or condition by which man can progress to best express his humanity. This is not to say that liberty is possessed only of a utilitarian value; modern thought certainly views freedom as a fundamental right independent of its usefulness. The following sentences by Mill are characteristic of this philosophy:

In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, p. 9 [1869]).

But Liberty is not the only end. It is only one of several conditions or circumstances which combine together to create the perfect society.



Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible.

Isaiah Berlin, “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” in Liberty, p. 93 (2002).


Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was a Jewish-Russian-British historian of ideas. He achieved great acclaim as a lecturer and essayist, and at the peak of his powers he was considered the most brilliant man in Britain. One of his most celebrated essays, possibly, the most celebrated, is titled: Two Concepts of Liberty (1959). In this essay Berlin articulated and clarified two classes of liberty, one negative and the other positive. Just as the idea of a subconscious had existed for thousands of years, before Freud stepped up to give it its clearest elucidation, so too the ideas Berlin explored had been extant for centuries prior to his time, yet it was Berlin who was to give them a lucid exposition.

According to Berlin, negative liberty is the state where man is wholly free to act as he wishes – the word negative denoting the lack of any external force being applied to the individual and being synonymous in its way with the Kantian autonomy as described earlier. By contrast, positive liberty is the state by which man has the opportunity to be his true and innermost self – the word positive denoting the active effort required to actually become the person he is capable of being. Though these two states might overlap, for obviously one cannot, at times, achieve anything (positive liberty) without having the freedom to do so (negative liberty), yet at the same time they contain within them the prospect of being in the utmost opposition.

Positive liberty is the state where man has the opportunity to be his true and innermost self – the word positive denoting the active effort required to actually become the person he is capable of being.

An example will make this conflict clear. There are coffee shops in Amsterdam where the sale of cannabis for individual use is legal. Someone who chooses to while away his best years in such an establishment, letting the days and nights float by in a languid haze, can be said to be experiencing negative liberty, at least as regards this action. However, many will see this particular activity as being bereft of positive liberty. His comrade who chooses to tour Singapore might be sentenced to a savage caning for possession of a small amount of cannabis. As he is being hauled to the stocks, he will certainly not experience negative liberty, that is assuming he is actually aware of what is happening. Yet, some might argue that he is experiencing positive liberty, in the sense that the caning will hopefully set him on the path to true self-fulfillment. Negative liberty is always autonomous, but positive liberty can be both autonomous and heteronomous.

What is the role of government vis-a-vis these two freedoms? In other words, what are the circumstances a government should aim to create, in order to best facilitate the advancement of both the individual and society.  To the modern man it is clear that a moral government will do all it can to ensure a state of negative liberty; it will enable the individual to do as he wishes, so long as he does not impinge on the rights of others. But what about positive liberty? Can a government be trusted to institute laws and ordinances which will govern how man is to achieve his inner essence? Can a government, or for that matter, any individual, decide how someone else can ideally express their most intimate aspirations? How does one ensure that there is no abuse of power in the pursuit of positive freedom?

Berlin argued that it was specifically those governments with utopian ideals, administrations holding an absolute belief in their truth of their doctrines, who were responsible for the carnage that epitomized European history as it searched for freedom and redemption. Positive liberty could well lead to self-fulfillment, but in government hands it frequently led to savage subjugation, as in the case of Communist Russia and the People’s Republic of China.

The dangers of positive freedom having been made clear, Berlin passes in silence over the downsides and pitfalls of negative freedom. Here we continue from where Berlin has left off.



It was God’s word alone which burst open Israel’s dungeon; and they who had been sunk in slavery and bereft of all power and personal freedom went out free, borne aloft by God’s word. And so, throughout the progress of time, they belong to God collectively, as a nation, as do all men on earth individually.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, para. 198 (1962).


Jewish sovereignty is bracketed at its beginning and end by celebrations of freedom – Passover and Hanukkah, physical freedom and intellectual freedom, freedom from the Egyptians and from the Greeks, respectively. The Bible repeatedly exhorts the Jewish people to remember the exodus from Egypt, and liberty forms a cornerstone of Jewish identity. Many festivals and several commandments were instituted in order that the Jews should commemorate their freedom. Three times a day a Jew prays that God should “Blow the great horn for our redemption.”

Freedom in the Jewish tradition is not just an abstract idea; it also has clear ramifications in the Jewish legal tradition. One of the most important and radical applications of this idea is found in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 333:3):

A laborer who began to work and then changed his mind, even if he already received payment and he lacks the money necessary to refund his employer, can change his mind and the money remains a debt. For the verse states (Lev. 25:55): “For unto me are the Israelites servants,” and not servants to servants.

In other words, a Jewish worker is legally entitled to terminate his employment whenever he so desires, without being required to give notice. His employer, on the other hand, does not have this right. Furthermore, whereas if someone commits to sell an item to his fellowman he must follow through on his commitment, and is subject to sanction if he does not do (see B. Talmud Bava Metzia 44a), a laborer who terminates his job unilaterally is not subject to any sanction. His right to freedom defers his obligation to keep his word. This law proves that Jewish law places quite an extraordinary value on the state of freedom.

Keeping the above in mind the following remarkable verses uttered by the prophet Jeremiah (34:13-20) acquire greater meaning:

Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers on the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying. At the end of seven years let go every man his brother a Hebrew which has been sold unto you; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you, but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear… But you turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom he had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids. Therefore thus said the Lord; You have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, said the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth… I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life, and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.

Despite the sources adduced in support of freedom, the perceptive reader will surely have noted that the Jewish attitude to freedom is not one-dimensional. For while berating Israel on the one hand for not releasing their servants after seven years, Jeremiah implies that retaining them as servants for the initial seven years was legitimate. Indeed there are many passages in the Bible that mention slavery as a matter of course. The Bible makes reference to buying servants (Ex. 21:2-11), and it makes provisions regarding their treatment (Lev. 25:39-43). We are told that Jacob, one of the three patriarchs: “increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses” (Gen. 30:43). And so the question must be asked, if freedom is indeed held in such high regard by the Bible, how does it justify slavery?

negative liberty is a means, and positive liberty is the end. Negative liberty is only of value insofar as it helps man realize positive liberty.

By borrowing Berlin’s ideas above, the answer to this question can be found in the following verse (Lev. 25:42): “For they are My servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen.” Indeed, God grants Jews freedom and “they shall not be sold as bondsmen.” But this is a very specific freedom: the positive freedom to ascend beyond humanity’s physical confines, the freedom to transcend his mortal shackles, the freedom to be “My servants.” A laborer has the right to terminate his contract unilaterally, but that is only because he is already contracted out to God. For the God of the Bible, negative liberty is a means, and positive liberty is the end. Negative liberty is only of value insofar as it helps man realize positive liberty. The thief who is sold into slavery in order to repay his debts might have his negative liberty denied, but his positive liberty is enhanced thereby, as he will now have wherewithal to repay that which he stole, and further, he will have reason to contemplate how to improve his behavior. Under certain circumstance, the Jewish legal tradition even approves of coercing a Jew to perform his religious obligations (B. Talmud Rosh Hashanah 6a). This is done to ensure he fulfills his destiny, the deepest purpose for which he was created.

Judaism’s yearning for the Messianic age is not a longing for negative liberty, a time when all Jews will be free, but rather a longing for positive liberty – that all Jews be engaged in a meaningful life. As usual, Maimonides expressed this idea best, and these are his words (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 12:4):

The scholars and prophets did not await the Messianic age so that they could lord over mankind and not so that they could oppress the gentiles … but only so that they be free to study the Torah and wisdom.

In this vision, the objections Berlin raised to the institution of positive liberty are no longer relevant. Since God is the omniscient creator of mankind, He possesses the moral and intellectual authority to know what is best for man. Since God is also a merciful God, no abuse of power can emanate from Him, and thus man can safely follow His commandments.

Judaism’s measured attitude to freedom applies not only to physical freedom, but also to intellectual freedom. The Mishnah states (Hagigah 2:1):

Whoever examines four issues, it would have been better for him had he not arrived to this world: What is above, what is below, what is before and what is after.

The sages considered that contemplating these four questions would detract from a person’s spiritual growth, and they therefore forbade these lines of thought. This is another example of how Judaism supports positive liberty even at the expense of negative liberty.

These texts demonstrate a major difference between Jewish and Western thought. Whereas Western society in its entirety, believes that negative liberty is a goal in and of itself, Judaism considers negative liberty to be only the means to an end. And where Western society harbors a deep and justified suspicion of positive liberty, Judaism accords a heartfelt and equally justified welcome to positive liberty as being the ultimate expression of their identity as Jews.

A powerful illustration of this approach is Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s support of Czar Alexander I and his opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte during the latter’s invasion of Russia in 1812. He provides the reason for his support of the Czar in a letter written in the month of September of that year (Beis Rebbi, Berdychiv, p. 93 [1902]). The following is a translation:

If Bonaparte is victorious, the Jews will become wealthy and their situation will improve, but they will depart and become distant from their Father in Heaven. If our ruler Alexander is victorious though the Jews’ poverty will increase and their situation will deteriorate, but their hearts will be bound and connected to their Father in Heaven.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman rejected the possibility of an effusion of negative liberty in the form of Jewish emancipation, since he believed this would result in a concomitant decrease of positive liberty – a relaxation of the Jewish bond with God. The fact that this occurred during the reign of Czar Alexander I, who had displayed a relatively liberal attitude towards his Jewish subjects, mitigates this extraordinary attitude only a little. Ultimately, the approach adopted by the founder of the Chabad movement, one of the most prominent rabbis in Russia more than two-hundred years ago, plainly demonstrates that negative liberty is to be sacrificed if positive liberty will suffer. This clearly demonstrates the differing approaches to liberty in Jewish and Western thought.



But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty; and they say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII Chapter 1, 6, Whiston Ed.


In the previous section we have shown that Judaism promotes positive liberty, and supports negative liberty only insofar as it is required to enable the fullest possible expression of positive liberty. A Judaism that promotes negative liberty at the expense of positive liberty is a Judaism that does not survive, or survives only as a vestigial movement. Two examples will be cited in support of this claim.

Judas the Galilean was the founder of the movement which gave rise to a violent rebellion against the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73). The rebels consisted of a loose coalition of two main groups, the Zealots (Biryonim in Hebrew), and the Sicarii. They advocated complete freedom from Roman rule, and risked their lives repeatedly in order to drive the Roman forces out of Israel. In order to increase their ranks they actively coerced other Jews to enlist in their forces, either by straightforward use of violence or by burning their storehouses so that those who disagreed with the rebels’ strategy would have no choice but to join them.

This Jewish faction placed freedom above all other considerations. Negative liberty was no longer a means but an end. Their all-consuming goal was to be free, and if in pursuit of that goal they could no longer practice their faith (they would be dead), then so be it. The uprising sacrificed the opportunity for spiritual growth – for positive freedom – on the altar of negative freedom. The Zealots’ principles was contrary to the ruling of the rabbinical establishment, who stated that Jews should practice their religion under Roman rule and not revolt and risk their lives. The rebels were not only fighting the Romans, but they were also engaged in an internal Jewish polemic. Was a Jew to aspire to negative freedom, the freedom from all oppression, even if to that end he would lose his life and hence could no longer practice his Judaism, or was a Jew to aspire to positive freedom, to serve God, even if that meant that he was to do so under repressive circumstances? A weighty question indeed, and one whose repercussions are felt to this day.

The rebels met with some major successes, capturing Roman forts and killing large numbers of enemy soldiers at the Battle of Bet Horon. However, within a few years the rebellion was totally crushed, the Second Temple destroyed and untold numbers of Jews slaughtered and sold into slavery. The Zealots retreated to Massada where they committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. Josephus states there were seven survivors, two women and five children.

In this battle between negative liberty and positive liberty, negative liberty was crushed, and positive liberty has survived for thousands of years in the form of rabbinic Judaism. The consequences of the First Jewish-Roman War therefore serve as a warning of what can occur when negative liberty is given precedence over positive liberty.

The destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth is an example of the tension between negative and positive liberty in the physical sphere. A similar example can be adduced in the intellectual sphere.

On 17th July 1810, a Jew by the name of Israel Jacobson of Seesen, Germany, dedicated in his home town a house of worship which he named “Temple of Jacob.” In his speech Jacobson articulated a vision, where, in the future, Jews and Christians would meet each other on one and the same road (W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, p. 29f. [1963]). Historians ascribe this date as the date of the founding of Reform Judaism. In the words of the prominent historian Salo Baron (“Ghetto and Emancipation,” in The Menorah Treasury, p. 61 [1964]):

Jewish Reform may be seen as a gigantic effort, partly unconscious, by many of the best minds of Western Jewry to reduce differences between Jew and Gentile to a slight matter of creed, at the same time adopting the Gentile’s definition of what was properly a matter of creed… Assimilation via Reform was the Jewish destiny, as the nineteenth century European, Jew and non-Jew, saw it.

In order to blur the differences between Judaism and Christianity, Reform Judaism was required to create its own distinct theology. This theology drank from two sources, one Christian the other secular. The Reform attitude towards the Biblical commandments was given succinct expression in the Pittsburgh Platform of November 1885. This stated as follows:

  1. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
  2. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

The division of the Biblical laws into moral and ceremonial, and the acceptance of the former and rejection of the latter, echo almost exactly classic Catholic doctrine as expressed by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (The First Part of the Second Part, Question 99 f.). However, whereas Christianity accepts Divine authority as binding for all moral law, the Reform movement went even further and rejected authority of any sort. In this they followed Kant who claimed that Judaism could never be moral, because the basis for the Jews’ actions derived from Sinai rather than from personal autonomy. Reform Judaism came to right this perceived anachronism, and declared that there was no external law that was binding on the Reform Jew, rather all his actions were to depend entirely on his personal choice. (See, Michael L. Morgan, “Beyond Autonomy and Authority: The New Dilemma of Liberal Judaism,” in Duties of the Soul, p. 54f. [1999])

The division of the Biblical laws into moral and ceremonial and the acceptance of the former and rejection of the latter, echo almost exactly classic Catholic doctrine

In other words, Reform Judaism advocated an absolutely autonomous, intellectual negative liberty at the expense of any heteronmous positive liberty whatever. I am arguing that above and beyond any other factor, it is this rejection of Divine authority that has been the cause of the precipitous decline of liberal Judaism we are witnessing today. This decline has been comprehensively documented in The Pew Report: A Portrait of Jewish Americans 2013. Heated discussion has ensued on the causes for this decline and what can be done to reverse this trend. One thing however is clear: if this movement out of Judaism is to continue, the demise of liberal Judaism cannot be too far away.

It is tempting to consider not only the decline of liberal Judaism, but also the decline of liberal religion in general, which in the present era would include the decline of mainline Christianity, through the prism of negative liberty and the tendency to refrain from all expectations (let alone demands) from its adherents. A polite nod to the prevailing zeitgeist is all that modern religion requires, and it rejects outright any limitations on the individual’s freedoms. Neither space, nor time, render us the luxury of pursuing here this line of thought.



He said, “If I catch you singing around here again, I am going to take you and tie you to the tree and whip you all night long.”

Gene Martin, The Singing Slave.


In light of the above, one more phenomenon deserves consideration, but first a little historical perspective. In November 1528, a man called Esteban was the first African slave to step foot on what was to become the United States of America. The last recorded instance of slaves being shipped to North America occurred 331 years later in 1859, when the schooner Clotilde arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, carrying a cargo numbering approximately 130 victims. During this intervening period almost half a million slaves were imported into North America.

The first American abolition society, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in April 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An abolitionist was one who agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States. One of the key reasons given by abolitionists for their stance was the belief that all men are equal, and that no man therefore has any rights over any other (for a full catalogue of the various pro- and anti-slavery arguments see, David F. Ericson, The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America, Chapter 2 [2000]). The abolitionists were to become a dominant voice in the political discourse of America, and they influenced greatly the events which were to follow. There were others who believed that slavery was immoral, including most members of the Republican Party, but they cannot be named abolitionists, since they called only for a gradual ending of slavery.

On March 2, 1807, Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa. In the 1860 presidential election, Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, supported banning slavery in all the U.S. territories, something the Southern states viewed as a violation of their constitutional rights and a plan to eventually abolish slavery. After Lincoln was elected president seven slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. Confederate forces seized numerous federal forts within their territory. Efforts at compromise failed, and hostilities began on April 12, 1861. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation applied to all the slaves held in those Confederate states that were in battle with the Union, and it changed their legal ‎status from “slave” to ‎‎”free.” The war continued to blaze for a total of four years and on June 23, 1865, the last Confederate general surrendered. The American Civil War was the deadliest war in American history, resulting in a huge number of civilian and military deaths; estimates vary between 670,000 to one-million deaths, this last number being greater than the casualties of all the other American wars combined.

Perhaps if the black man had been granted also a measure of positive freedom, in terms of education and work ethic for example, even if that positive freedom was at the expense of some measure of his negative freedom, then the black man would eventually have become an equal member of North American society.

Despite the immense sacrifice and suffering expended in the cause of the emancipation of slaves, today, one hundred and fifty years later, it is clear that the abolitionist movement failed to realize its objectives. Even in the twenty-first century the fate of the black man in America in terms of quality of life is inferior to that of his white neighbor. According to the United States Department of Justice, approximately thirteen percent of the American population is black, but they make up sixty percent of jail inmates. Ultimately, black inequality endures, they suffer a lower life expectancy, are more likely to drop out of high-school, be killed by law enforcement officers, and other examples abound.

What is the reason for this failure? Perhaps the fault may be found in the attitude to freedom in the nineteenth century. At that time, there was not an adequate appreciation of the sophisticated conception that freedom essentially consists of two classes, a negative and a positive one. So long as the black man had his full measure of negative freedom, the white abolitionist was satisfied that he had fulfilled his moral duty. Perhaps if the black man had been granted also a measure of positive freedom, in terms of education and work ethic for example, even coming at the expense of some measure of his negative freedom, he would eventually have become an equal member of North American society. But when the white man abdicated his responsibility to study and comprehend what constitutes true liberty, the black man was left to pay the price of white man’s ignorance.



Slaves to time forever toil,

But God’s slaves are eternally free,

So as all men their destiny seek,

My soul has chosen Thee.

Rabbi Judah Halevi


Upon further reflection it is clear that positive freedom is not actually freedom. The Oxford Dictionary defines “freedom” as: “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants, the quality of being independent of fate or necessity, the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved, the state of being unrestricted and able to move easily.” The meaning of freedom is essentially the state of being able to act as one wishes, without any restrictions. Positive freedom as defined by Berlin is not freedom at all. It can be termed obligation, opportunity, responsibility, self-expression, fulfillment, the search for meaning and more; but freedom it most emphatically is not. The only freedom is negative freedom, and any other freedom is really some other value masquerading as freedom. Freedom is one of those terms, democracy being another example, which seem to be alarmingly predisposed to distortion, witness Congo Free State, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Paradoxically, the Jewish conception of liberty allows for positive liberty to indeed be characterized as liberty. This can be found in the statement of the Mishnah (Avot 6:2): “For only a Torah student is a free man.” The commentators discuss why only a Torah student is considered free. The accepted explanation is that the common man is slave to his passions, desires and drives, but a Torah student who, by dint of many years of extended effort, has trained himself to overcome his inclinations, so that he rules his drives rather that they rule him, such a person can indeed be characterized as free. This is what Halevi means when he writes that God’s slaves are eternally free.

a Torah student can experience freedom in a way that those following the path of positive freedom never will.

A fresh comparison to Kant and Berlin is now in order. Kant believed that morality is a system of values which is self-imposed and thus autonomous. Any value system which was imposed on man by external factors was termed heteronomous, which he considered amoral. Berlin adopted a similar approach but applied it to the question of civil government. He believe that a government should aim to create an autonomous society, which is one based on negative liberty, and he was deeply suspicious of a heteronomous society, which is one founded on positive liberty. I am arguing that both Kant and Berlin proceeded from the assumption that autonomy or negative freedom is a fundamental human right, as articulated, for example, by Mill.

Judaism on the other hand sees negative liberty only as a means, and actively embraces heteronomous, positive liberty. Not only does Judaism welcome the external, Divine mandate as the ultimate moral authority, but even in practical terms Judaism saw nothing wrong (under certain circumstances) with the imposition of Jewish values on the individual. Slavery as a means of paying one’s debts and forcing Jews to perform Divine commandments, when possible, are standard aspects of Jewish law. Judaism believes that negative and positive liberty combine to produce the individual who is truly free, a person who is free to pursue his deepest aspirations so that his drives and base inclinations cannot impede or hinder him.

This novel conception of freedom is not to be encountered in Western civilization, for the implementation of positive freedom in secular society does not include a concerted battle to overcome one’s inclinations. For example, a musician who spends twelve hours a day developing and nurturing his talents can be said to be rigorously pursuing his positive freedom, but he is not free. His drives rule him as strong as ever, only they are sublimated to his goal of being a great musician. But part of being a Torah student includes a person tackling his drives head on, and someone who devotes his life to the ideals laid down by the rabbis over millennia will indeed at some point be free. Not free of the drives themselves, for that is impossible, but free in the sense that they no longer wield power over him.

A comparison to Buddhism will shed light on this distinction. Buddhism believes that this worldly existence is fundamentally painful, but by following the Noble Eightfold Path a person can free himself of suffering. A musician who practices his music twelve hours a day will not have the time to feel pain, but he cannot be considered free. As soon as he relaxes his punishing schedule, pain, which has been waiting patiently in the wings, will make a flamboyant appearance. On the other hand, by following the Noble Eightfold Path man can achieve complete freedom from pain, if we believe Buddhists’ claims.

In the same way, a Torah student can experience freedom in a way that those following the path of positive freedom never will.


Conclusion: Freedom as a concept can be divided into two categories, negative and positive. While the dangers of positive freedom have been recognized, the dangers of negative freedom have not been stressed in the Western intellectual tradition. Judaism values negative freedom highly, but only because it views negative freedom as the means by which to achieve positive freedom. The Bible defines positive freedom as the state in which a person is freest to express his submission to God, and it is to that end which God established the Jewish people.

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One thought on “Negative and Positive Liberty – A Biblical View

  • I suggest taking a look at Self Determination theory – being self- determined and autonomous is endorsing an action on the highest level of reflection, meaning one acts in a way connected to one’s inner being and values. When we talk about learning new ideas and values especially from the Torah we need a process that helps us identify with the values, internalize them and integrate them into our value system. It is highly unlikely that a person being punished or caned will experience positive liberty, in the sense that the caning will hopefully set him on the path to true self-fulfillment. The lesson learned is that his mistake was to be caught and now he feels sorry for himself. As SDT research has proved extrinsic motivation and internalization move in opposite directions

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