Torah Sociology: Rav Soloveitchik on slavery and freedom

Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of the Jewish-Torah concept of slavery and freedom in Egypt serves to deepen our understanding of nationalism.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

It's nationalism, not racism

Eighty percent of the socio-political commentary over the internet is shallow, intra-tribal name calling. There is virtually no effort to discuss issues on a philosophical or academic-scientific level. There is almost no effort to understand the opponent’s position, and to systematically consider, and argue with, the pros and cons of the other’s beliefs. A daily diet of reading internet blogs can literally make one’s head and heart quite sick.

The best example of this malaise is the use of the term ‘racism’ by liberal commentators over the last year. They use the pejorative term ‘racism’, but they are really referring to the political concept of nationalism. Neither left nor right commentators make the effort to analyze the term nationalism, nor try to argue the benefits and the dangers of nationalism-including Jewish nationalism.

This article will use Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of the Jewish-Torah concept of slavery and freedom in Egypt in order to deepen our understanding of nationalism. The Rav argues that  the Jews became free, when leaving Egypt, only when they took upon themselves to perform G-d’s Pesach mitzvoth, and thus saw themselves as being an obligated member of the Jewish people’s covenantal relationship with G-d.

Jewish nationalism is a communal bond based on a covenantal relationship with G-d. The article will conclude by arguing that religion and nationalism, properly understood, are a legitimate political response to modern man’s ongoing crisis of alienation and existential loneliness.

The Rav’s analysis of the ‘slave personality’

Most Jews in Egypt, the Rav argues, developed a slave personality during their nearly 100 years (out of 280) of intense Egyptian servitude. What is a slave personality?  The Rav answers this question by psychologically interpreting the halakhic limitations incurred by the slave status.

1) The slave lives with fear and anxiety: The slave lives according to the whims of his master. This causes him to live in a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty. He cannot express his human creativity and dignity through a (G-d bestowed) exercise of free will and choice. He is not capable of overcoming his anxiety in order to objectively ascertain an event or situation. Thus the halakha does not allow a slave to give testimony in court.

2) The slave lives for the moment. The slave lives only in the present moment. He has no control over his time. G-d endowed man with time-awareness, the ability to sense past, present and future, and to use this awareness to develop his selfhood. However a slave cannot develop his self through time awareness because his master controls his time. Thus the rabbis exempted the slave from time bound commandments.

3) The slave cannot establish his self through communal bonds. A slave is not allowed to marry. The boundaries of his life are determined by his total obligation to his master. He is not free to enter into communal bonds based on mutual obligation, such as the bonds of marriage, or being part of a community. Concerned with his master’s wishes and whims he cannot think about others, or be concerned with them. He cannot transcend himself, and think of an existence beyond his own personal, immediate, natural one.

‘Slaves’ to G-d, and not to Pharaoh

In the month of Nisan, G-d freed the Jewish people by giving them mitzvoth (establishing the new moon and calendar year, the taking and slaughtering of the Pascal lamb, the making of matzot, and the seder night). The Jews became free ‘paradoxically’ by accepting the yoke of the mitzvoth. The Jews became free by overcoming their anxious, time present, self centered slave existence, and entering into a covenantal, peoplehood relationship with G-d

The Rav writes ,”When we say that G-d has taken us out of the house of bondage and granted us freedom, we add that freedom consists of serving G-d, abiding by His will, and conforming to his mitzvoth…G-d endowed man with….freedom, yet He willed man to lose that precious freedom and submit to Him, to the moral law that G-d commanded man.”

The Rav thus teaches that man can attain true freedom-fulfill the potential of his divine soul-only by entering into an obligatory relationship with G-d and his Torah. The covenantal personality, invoking G-d, is the Torah’s answer to the slave personality forged by Pharaoh.

The Rav’s analysis of the predicament of modern man

The Rav has described in great detail the slave personality because he sees important parallels between the slave personality and the existential predicament of modern man. Modern man believes that he is most free when he can ‘most go into himself’, most fully understand and ’be in touch’ with his inner emotional-psychological complexes, and when he ‘works these complexes through’ and creatively and artistically express them in the arts.

This requires that modern man must possess the psycho-social statuses that facilitate self awareness and self development. This means the modern man does not want to be encumbered by the ongoing, obligatory relationships to spouse, family, community or state that would hinder or hamper his self expression. Family and communal, mutual relationships can serve as significant means of self expression and fulfillment, but are considered by modern man to be a ‘means’, and not an ‘obligatory end’ of self fulfillment.

The Rav argues that this modern understanding of human freedom is in actuality a ‘dead end’ for the following three reasons.. 1) One’s inner self can never be the ultimate source of real wisdom or self knowing. 2) An exaggerated concentration on the self means that one is very likely to end up ‘falling prey’ to self centered and self aggrandizing drives for power, control and an a-ethical artistic creativity. 3) His self centeredness means that modern man loses the desire and the ability to enter into the ongoing, permanent obligations of real family and community life, which require permanent self sacrifice to sustain them.

Modern man thus ends up existentially ‘alone’ with himself-a state that recalls the anxiety, neurotic, present-moment existence of the slave personality.

The Rav writes, “Contemporary man is not free because he is insecure, he is tied to the moment…the only way for man to free himself from his phobias (and power and sensual drives)…is to surrender to G-d, (a surrender) that frees man from his serfdom to his fellow man (and inner self)”. Without an obligatory, covenantal relationship with G-d, man will remain a slave to the the psycho-emotional whirlwind of his inner self.

The meaning of the Rav’s analysis for our current, socio-cultural infighting

Properly understand, the current ‘debate’ (more accurately, mudslinging and name calling) between Israel’s conservative Right and liberal Left is actually a debate between a secular , humanistic definition of human freedom, and a conservative-religious definition of human freedom. Unfortunately the current social network-media debate is on such a shallow level that you need the Torah-philosophical analysis of  Rav Soloveitchik to understand the seriousness of the issues at stake. In brief, the Rav has taught that man is most free when he gives priority and preference to his Torah obligations to family structure, community and People. Such covenantal obligations are the surest way that man can free himself from his ‘slave’, neurotic, self centered personality.

Modern, politically correct liberal thought, however, refuses to grant ethical legitimacy for peoplehood (nationalism) and G-dhood (Torah-religion). Political correctness claims that man will find redemption through a secular, rational, technological universal brotherhood. Nationalism is thus termed by liberal thinkers to be (primarily) racism and fascism. Religion (particularly in family-gender matters) is thus termed by liberal thinkers to be (primarily) primitive-bygone-oppression. These differing understandings of freedom are the true, underlying theological-philosophical issues currently at stake in our shallow, blogging exchanges.


Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis of the ‘all too modern’ slave personality, and his definition of Torah freedom, grants the modern Jew the freedom to choose. Does he want to obligated (enslaved) to a self centered, dead end, road of self fulfillment, or does he want to find his True self fulfillment (freedom) in a covenantal relationship with G-d and his Torah? We are grateful to Rav Soloveitchik for clarifying for us these true, eternal choices of our lives.