Freedom is one of those terms we use liberally and think we all understand yet it’s a concept that lawmakers, philosophers, religious leaders and teenagers spend an immeasurable amount of time trying to define and delineate. It’s this elusive, seemingly unattainable aspiration we pursue incessantly but never feel satisfied with. Whether it’s financial, emotional or physical freedom, we all want more of it. Personally, the minute I can jump on a bus or plane to get away, I’m packed and on my way. Deep breaths filling my unrestricted lungs, my head uncluttered by obligations and responsibilities, my feet and mind unbound and free to roam…nothing feels like freedom. Recently, however, it occurred to me that somehow it was specifically this quest for freedom which was at the root of my confusions and troubles and it got me wondering about what freedom really means.
People often ask me how it is that I can be such a free spirit and also BT - it seems contradictory. Who takes on a life of servitude to an all-powerful G-d when freedom is what they are in search of? Surprisingly though, it is precisely through my connection to Torah and Judaism that I have experienced the greatest amount of freedom.
Freedom generally signifies a lack of constraints. Whether physical, psychological or emotional, freedom is a state we achieve when we are no longer held back by restrictions and boundaries. This can often lead to adopting a hedonistic lifestyle, devoid of rules and limitations where one is free to express and behave as one desires. Because on our most basic level we associate more directly with our physical body, I think our desire for freedom is often translated into physical freedom. We appease this deep and innate need to feel free by pursuing physical freedom, with financial freedom as the primary means.
But we keep chasing.
It sometimes feels like a neverending race with no finish line in sight. It occurred to me, after all these years of chasing after this type of freedom, that maybe I was trying to placate a very deep need with a very superficial source of appeasement – trying to achieve spiritual freedom by removing physical constraints. The essence of a human being’s existence is his ability to choose, to exercise his free will and this is where real freedom can be found. It is the ability to decide and choose one’s fate - but that sense of freedom kept slipping through my fingers. It got me wondering about what constraints were stopping me from achieving that level of freedom?
We are all created with the ability to be free, to exercise our free will. Existentially, freedom is what defines us. It occurred to me that maybe the greatest impediment to exercising our free will, and to ultimately achieving a state of true freedom, is our fear of accepting the consequences of our choices. Being afraid to make a choice paralyses us and leads us to feel imprisoned, restricted and unable to exercise our free will. Consequently, we are left with a body, an animal body with animal urges, and we try to compensate by chasing after physical freedom. We fool ourselves into believing that physical freedom, financial freedom or sexual freedom can make us feel truly free.
Religion is often accused of minimizing freedom. It includes a type of servitude in which people can feel trapped or stifled. But at the root of Judaism is the concept of free will. From the time of creation, the ability to choose one's fate was given to man. So how does a system based on free will lead some people to feel imprisoned? People will claim that they don’t have a choice, that they are trapped in their lifestyles - there are family repercussions, societal ramifications, consequences and hardships they cant handle. People don’t feel free to choose…
As a BT, I strongly appreciate my freedom to choose. I can choose to live my life the way I do, I can choose to go back to my old lifestyle, I can choose a new lifestyle. I can choose to believe and I can choose to act according to my beliefs. In the past I have often heard people who were raised in observant homes complain that they didn’t have the choices I did by being born into this lifestyle. In fact there have been times when even I, after so many years of living this way, felt that way too - I fell into the trap of believing that I too had lost my ability to choose.
Wanting to avoid this feeling of being stifled by my lifestyle, I started to consider all the restrictions I felt were impeding my freedom to choose, whether it was torah obligations or societal pressures. I realized that I was in fact completely free to choose to act as I desired but that I would have to pay for the consequences of my actions. I could stop wearing a skirt, but then I might be objectified, I could break shabbos, but then I’d be losing that special connection to Hashem that develops on that day, I could choose to behave in any way I wanted, but then I’d limit my dating options or the respect I received from others and maybe even from G-d. I realized I was free to act as I pleased as long as I accepted the consequences of my actions.
My freedom of choice is the rock that G-d can’t lift. It’s in my hands, not His. But being that it is completely up to me to choose, the weight of the rock is also mine – and that’s the real obstacle to exercising my free will. It’s not that I cant choose, it’s that I sometimes wish I was able to make choices without any repercussions. But that’s not the way of the world – it's wishful thinking, we can’t escape the reality of cause and effect.
There are many choices that I am free to make, but they carry consequences that I am not necessarily ready to accept. No one imposed any choices on me, but I have sometimes felt trapped because I was afraid to make a choice in view of the consequences it carried - consequences that have and will continue to affect me, my family, my future and my community. What I also realized was that all the big decisions I’ve made in my life, all the difficult choices I’ve been faced with also carried extremely difficult consequences, and it was precisely because of those sacrifices I made that my choices are so precious to me. The freedom to choose, and the sacrifices I’ve made to make those choices are what make my decisions and my lifestyle so important and cheriched.
Janis Joplin sings 'freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose'. I understand that as meaning that we can only achieve freedom when we make a choice fully accepting the consequences of that choice – when we’ve accepted the “losses” and have nothing left to lose. To choose between two inconsequential outcomes, or to make a choice but resent the consequences is not an expression of freedom. Consequences are the currency that we can measure our choices by. Since real freedom can only be achieved through making choices, then real freedom can only be achieved through accepting the consequences of our choices. 'Nothing left to lose' means that I’ve accepted the worse case scenario, the consequences and implications of my choice and I’ve made my choice knowing full well what I am choosing. That’s freedom. There is no resentment or guilt or passive aggressive denial. Freedom means that I know what I am getting myself into and I choose to go into it.
No one is trapped into any kind of lifestyle; we choose the lifestyle we live in – because we don’t want to face the consequences of the alternative choice. The irony is that it is only in making that choice that we can truly be free. Freedom is the only ability we have that animals don’t share with us. We can choose to do something which is harmful, we can choose to do something which is against our best interest, we can choose to remain in an unhappy situation, we can choose to feel imprisoned and accept the circumstance of our lives.. but in order for a choice to be free we have to be fully aware of the consequences of our choice and we have to accept them - we have to have nothing left to lose. In that kind of a choice, we express our freedom.
Whether someone comes from a secular background or an ultra sheltered chassidish background, whether they had a healthy upbringing or a dysfunctional one, every person comes to a point in their life where they need to choose who they want to be. In order to attain real freedom and to truly develop into a healthy adult, a person needs to come to the realization that they are completely free to choose but that whatever choices they make will carry consequences. Making a free choice is not simply doing what one feels like or picking an outcome, a real choice – expressed freely – is one where the consequences have been weighed, and accepted. I think that once a person realizes that every choice is open to them, as long as they accept the sacrifices entailed in making that choice, then they can truly feel free.