Slavery in Freedom

One of the fathers of modern Zionism, the Hebrew essayist and thinker, Asher Ginsberg (1856-1927), who wrote under the pen name Ahad Ha-Am, has an essay called “Slavery in Freedom.” In it he described assimilated West European Jews who gave up their inner Jewish values and identity to conform to the non-Jewish secular values of the countries in which they lived. Though living in external freedom, in comparison to their persecuted East European co-religionists, they were internally enslaved.

Ahad Ha-Am could not foresee another type of slavery in freedom in the Western world in our time brought about by the information technology revolution.  It is tied to modern capitalism and its goal of maximizing profit in the shortest amount of time.  It champions multi-tasking and a machine-like efficiency in human beings.  As I discussed in a previous blog, it has created an expectancy of “the quick fix” in every area of life.

The reduction of human beings to efficient machines, to robots, has gone so far that as David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale (and a victim of the unibomber) writes in an article entitled “The Closing of the Scientific Mind” (Commentary, January, 2014): “Some young people want to be robots (I’m serious); they eagerly await electronic chips to be implanted in their brains so they will be smarter and better informed than anyone else…”  To relieve the stress or boredom of robotization, there are those who turn to entertainment that is also robotized.  As Gelernter writes about the young people who may also be his students: “…they want to see the world through computer glasses that superimpose messages on poor naked nature.”

 What are the seeds of this development?  As I discuss in my book, In Search of Higher Wisdom, the Western world has inherited its obsession for productivity, efficiency, profit and a frenetic concern for time from the ancient Romans.  As my  teacher, the late Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, pointed out, when the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict observance of the Sabbath and their abstaining from work, their only reaction was contempt.  Juvenal, Seneca and other Roman writers and thinkers believed the Sabbath was a sign of Jewish laziness.  An insightful Aristotle understood that: “We need relaxation because we cannot work continuously.”  For the Greeks and the Romans relaxation is not an end; it is for the sake of more work and productivity.  Even our compulsive work-driven civilization has accepted Aristotle’s view of the need for a day off and the vacation.  The Romans and the secular West view the individual as homo faber, human being at work, and homo ludens, human being at play.  Missing is the human being praying, meditating, reflecting, studying,  thinking, observing the beauty of nature, enjoying the company of family and friends,  eating and playing leisurely and communing with eternity. These are the activities of the Sabbath which the Jews bequeathed to the Western world and which the Romans mocked.

 The great psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, in his book Escape From Freedom, explained that halakha, Jewish religious law, forbids even the plucking of a flower on the Sabbath.  On this day we are required to observe and admire nature, in a Buddhist sense, not manipulate it.  The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, speaks of the great spiritual benefit of a day of mindfulness (see The Miracle of Mindfulness).  Our world is facing a crucial choice. One road leads to the preservation of human spirituality and an ascension in consciousness, the other leads to the robotization of human beings and a steep decline in spiritual awareness.  Gelernter sums it up by citing Deuteronomy 30:19: “I summon today as your witness the heavens and the earth; I have laid life and death before you, the blessing and the curse, choose life and live!-you and your children.”


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About Rabbi Joseph Schultz, PhD

Dr. Joseph Schultz served as Rabbi for congregations in Brookline, MA, Norwich, CT and Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schultz founded the Jewish Studies Program at Boston University where he was Assistant Professor of Religion and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he was Oppenstein Brothers Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. He helped establish the Center for Religious Studies in 1996, a consortium of six colleges, theological schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offering an interdisciplinary graduate program for the PhD in Religious Studies. Dr. Schultz was its first director.

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