On Freedom and Authority


After those days … no longer shall a man instruct a fellow … for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest

Jeremiah 31:32-33

It is told of the mashpia (Chassidic teacher and mentor) Rabbi Dovid Horodoker that he wept when Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917. “Why do you shed tears over the fall of a tyrant?” he was asked. “I weep,” replied the chassid, “because a metaphor in Chassidut (Chassidic teaching) is gone.”

The metaphor, or mashal, is an elementary tool of Chassidic teaching. To truly understand something, we must experience it, or something like it, ourselves. This is especially true when one seeks to understand spiritual realities: to make palpable the ethereal to the human mind, one must first find the corresponding model in human experience. Chassidic teaching thus makes extensive use of the metaphor in its endeavor to explain the nature of G-d’s relationship with our reality and the essence and purpose of creation.

One of the most important metaphors employed by Chassidic teaching is the metaphor of “kingship.” Our relationship with G-d is described by the Torah as that of a child to his father, a beloved to her lover, a disciple to his master, a flock to its shepherd, among others. While these metaphors each express another facet of the bond between man and G-d, there is a dimension to the relationship that can only be expressed by the model of a subject’s relationship to his king.[8]

So when the Czar was overthrown, a teacher of Chassidism wept. How would a kingless generation understand the utter surrender of self that the king-subject relationship epitomized? How would they comprehend the awe accorded one whose rule is absolute and incontestable? What model would they have for one who transcends the personal to embody the soul of a nation? Never mind that most kings of history were unworthy metaphors of the divine sovereignty; central to our relationship with G-d is something that only one who has been subject to a king can truly appreciate.

Potential and Hazard

Monarchical rule certainly made submission to authority a tangible reality in the lives of its subjects. But it also suppressed another component of our relationship with G-d: the quest for freedom.

Inherent in the human spirit is the drive to defy rules and rulers, to rebel against the constraints imposed on it by authority figures, society, and the limits of its own nature. This drive is not an aberration, nor does it run contrary to the human soul’s intrinsic loyalty to its Creator and Source; on the contrary, it is part and parcel of the soul’s formation in “the image of G-d.” As G-d is utterly free of all limitation and definition, so, too, does the soul possess the desire—and potential—for an utterly free and unconstrained existence. Indeed, it is only as a free being that man has realized his highest potentials in the sciences, the arts, and the quest to know and serve his G-d.

But precisely because of the greatness of this potential, precisely because it is an expression of the very quintessence of the soul’s oneness with the divine, the drive for freedom is susceptible to the most devastating of corruptions. Set free from the bonds of authority, the worst in man is often the first to assert itself. All too often, freedom translates into selfishness, anarchy and violence; into the exploitation of the few and the weak by the many and the strong; into the abandonment of giving and altruistic relationships (marriage, family, community) for an egomaniacal lust for power, wealth and corporeal pleasure. Instead of freeing himself, the human being enslaves himself to the most base and animalistic elements of his nature.

Which is the greater evil—the constraints of dictatorial authority or the dangers of freedom? Are the rewards of freedom worth its risks? Indeed, is man capable of realizing the potentials of freedom without falling prey to its pitfalls?

Napoleon and the Czar

In the first two decades of the 19th century, this issue was embodied by two massive armies slaughtering each other on the battlefields of Europe. On one side stood Napoleon, heir of the French Revolution, espousing the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and promising emancipation to the oppressed peoples of the continent. Against him stood the monarchs of Europe, claiming a divine right to rule, casting themselves as defenders of the family, institutionalized religion, law and order—indeed, of civilization itself—and warning of the havoc the apostasy of freedom had wreaked in France.[9]

The leaders of European Jewry were likewise divided. There were rabbis and Chassidic masters who eagerly awaited liberation by Napoleon’s armies. No longer would the Jewish people be locked into ghettos and deprived of their means of earning a livelihood; no longer would the state be allied with a religion hostile to the Jewish faith. Liberated from the persecution and poverty that had characterized Jewish life on European soil for a dozen centuries, the Jewish people would be free to deepen and intensify their bond with G-d in ways previously unimaginable. Indeed, there were those who believed that a French victory would ready the world for the coming of Moshiach and the final redemption.[10]

But there were other voices in the Jewish community as well. Voices that prophesied the exchange of material poverty for spiritual woe. Yes, the ghetto walls would fall; yes, the financial centers, professional alliances and universities of Europe would open their doors to the Jew. But at what price! The demise of the shtetl would mean the destruction of the spiritual center of Jewish life, the breakdown of the Jewish family and community, and the compromising of the Jew’s commitment to Torah. Yes, Napoleon would free the Jewish body, but he would all but destroy the Jewish soul.

A major force in the Jewish opposition to Napoleon was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism. Rabbi Schneur Zalman did more than warn against the dangers of emancipation; he battled Napoleon on all fronts, interceding on high to effect his downfall[11] and aiding Russia’s earthly effort to defeat him. There was even a Chassidic spy, Rabbi Moshe Meisels of Vilna, who, at Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s behest, worked as an interpreter for the French High Command and relayed their battle plans to the Czar’s generals. Rabbi Schneur Zalman died while fleeing Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in the winter of 1812. His role in the defeat of Napoleon was recognized by Alexander I, who awarded him and his descendants the title and privileges of a “Citizen Honored for Posterity.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s fears were borne out by the events of the next two centuries. When emancipation did come to European Jewry, it came as a gradual process, and the Jewish community had an array of intellectual and moral responses (most notably, the Chassidic movement). Still, the spiritual toll of freedom was high: traditional Jewish life was all but wiped out in France and Germany by the upheavals spearheaded by the French Revolution, and while it persevered in Eastern Europe until the eve of the Holocaust, many fell prey to the winds of permissive and G-dless “enlightenment” blowing from the west. We can only imagine what the toll might have been had Napoleon conquered the continent in the early years of the nineteenth century.

The Custom of the City

Napoleon did fall and monarchical authority was restored in Europe. But not for long. History was set on a course that could be slowed and tempered but not stopped—a course in which freedom was replacing authority, in which the will of man was becoming less and less subject to rulers, laws and social norms.

History is not blind. Divine providence provides each generation with the challenges it is equipped to meet and the potentials it is enabled to realize. If we today live in a free world, it is because we have been deemed capable of dealing with this volatile force and harnessing it toward positive and G-dly ends.

“When you come to a city,” says the Midrash, “do as their custom.”[12]This is more than a matter of etiquette designed to avoid awkward moments in restaurants for travelers; it is a rule to be applied to our journey through history. You are not here to fight the world, the Midrash is saying, but to mold it, develop it and sublimate it. Each era and society has its “customs,” its unique zeitgeist and cultural milieu that is to be exploited to serve your Creator and your mission in life. If you live under the hegemony of a czar, canalize the submission to authority to which this indoctrinates you to feed your commitment to the supernal King of all kings. If you live in a world profaned by an “everything goes” freedom, recast it as a G-dly freedom—as the facilitator of the uninhibited expression of the “image of G-d” that is your truest self.

Indeed, our generation has proven itself equal to the challenge of freedom. In the 1960’s and ’70s, the youth of the Western World rebelled against the conformity, materialism and sterile religions of their parents and teachers. They redefined freedom as the freedom to seek a higher purpose to life, the freedom to transcend an ego-encumbered self to discover a truer, more altruistic self within. Much of it was misguided and destructive—as rootless and unfocused revolutions are wont to be. But it also brought about a great liberation of the soul in the form of the teshuvah (“return”) movement. Countless thousands shed the shackles of habit and ignorance to embrace a Torah-true life—a life that answers the soul’s deepest yearnings and realizes its quintessential purpose.

Significantly, France—the very France that two hundred years ago epitomized the corruptibility of freedom—has been the scene of one of the greatest successes of the teshuvah movement, with thousands of French Jews rediscovering and recommitting themselves to Torah. Today, the land of Voltaire is undergoing a spiritual renaissance, and libertine Paris is dotted with yeshivot and reborn communities. Even the anthem of the French revolution, the Marseillaise, has been “appropriated” as a Chassidic melody. Freedom is being reclaimed and directed toward its true, G-dly end.

Freedom Redefined

The last frontier is before us—the frontier of self. Who are we, really? What happens when we are freed of all external constraints and authority structures? Is our commitment to G-d something to be enforced upon a resisting self, or is it the ultimate fulfillment of the self’s incessant quest for freedom?

Our sages tell us that there will come a day when “a fig tree shall cry out: ‘Do not pick my fruit! Today is Shabbat!’” A day when G-d’s blueprint for creation will be the natural state of every created thing. A day when reality will be a flawless mirror of its divine source.

We are now on the threshold of that day. Living in a world that grows perceptibly freer by the day, we face our final challenge: to bring to light a freedom that is not a challenge to the sovereignty of G-d but its ultimate complement. A freedom in which the ego of man is but a reflection of the divine “I.”

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Kislev 23, 5752 (November 30, 1991) and on other occasions[13]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[8]. Thus, there are numerous Chassidic discourses that devote many pages to analyzing the dynamics of kingship—what makes a king, how he is crowned, how he rules, how he is perceived by his subjects, etc.—and then apply these details to corresponding features of our relationship with G-d.

[9]. At the time that the French Revolution was plunging that country into G-dlessness, anarchy and blood, another revolution, the American, was espousing and institutionalizing the tenets of freedom on the other side of the Atlantic. But the freedom of the American Founding Fathers was not the freedom from divine authority and moral constraints of Marat and Danton; they envisioned “one nation under G-d” and made “In G-d we trust” their motto. When they wrote “freedom of religion” into the Bill of Rights, they were speaking of the freedom of every man to worship G-d according to his conscience, not of a license for G-dlessness: to them, man’s subordination to G-d was a fact of reality, not some “religious” principle (the current trend to interpret the First Amendment as a mandate for the banishment of G-d from the classroom and the prohibition of public support for anything of a non-materialistic nature is an unfortunate distortion of its authors’ intent).

The American Revolution was thus a far closer approximation of the Torah’s ideal of freedom. G-d has indeed blessed their effort: the republic they founded has endured, and is today the most powerful of nations and in a position to positively influence all inhabitants of earth.

[10]. These included the Chassidic masters Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin; Rabbi Israel, the Maggid of Kozhnitz; Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev; and Rabbi Mendel of Rimanov.

[11]. Chassidim tell of a contest that took place on the morning of Rosh HaShanah between Rabbi Schneur Zalman and the Maggid of Kozhnitz to decide the outcome of Napoleon’s war against Russia. The sounding of theshofar on Rosh HaShanah effects G-d’s coronation as king of the universe and the divine involvement in human affairs for the coming year; each of the Rebbes therefore endeavored to be the first to sound the shofar in the fateful year of 5573 (1812-1813) and thereby influence the supernal decree. The Maggid of Kozhnitz arose well before dawn, immersed in themikveh, began his prayers at the earliest permissible hour, prayed speedily, and sounded the shofar; but Rabbi Schneur Zalman departed from common practice and sounded the shofar at the crack of dawn, before the morning prayers. “The Litvak (‘Lithuanian,’ as Rabbi Schneur Zalman was affectionately called by his colleagues) has bested us,” said Rabbi Israel of Kozhnitz to his disciples.

[12]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 47:5. See also Talmud, Bava Metzia 86b.

[13]. Sefer HaSichot 5752, pp. 174-186.


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