Friday, April 18, 2008

The price of freedom

Never in the ebb and flow of its long, rich and complicated history has the Jewish people experienced greater national, political and personal freedoms than it enjoys now. There are no ghetto walls. We are Jews by choice and we identify with the Jewish past, share in the Jewish present and look toward a common future.

The more we know about Jewish civilization, the greater our literacy, the less the open door of 21st-century modernity beckons us to abandon the values of our forefathers and foremothers.

With numerous and diverse avenues of Jewish expression to be explored, this may be the most exciting period in modern Jewish history.

Half of all US and UK Jews marry out. That is a fact. But many of these couples and their children can still be part of our community if they, and we, make wise decisions.

Yet, paradoxically, while Jews worldwide have never had more personal liberty, the well-being and security of the Third Jewish Commonwealth has never been under greater threat.

THESE ARE the thoughts that concern us as we approach the evening of April 19 - corresponding to the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan - to celebrate Pessah, "the season of our freedom."

By tradition the festival commemorates God's deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. Thus the Exodus became the founding narrative of Jewish peoplehood and the centerpiece of Israel's sacred history. In ancient times this deliverance was marked by the eating of the Paschal lamb sacrificed in Jerusalem's Holy Temple.

Today, our attachment to this ancient spring festival remains imprinted on our collective psyche. Across the world, Jewish people will participate in ceremonial Seder meals centered around the Haggada's Four Questions. While the more pious among us will scrupulously observe the minutiae of the festival's rules, it behooves all Jews to focus on the meaning - and cost - of freedom, liberty and self-determination.

In the renascent Jewish homeland, which marks its 60th independence day next month, Israelis are grappling with how to cherish tradition while respecting the individual's right to freely disregard (sometimes foolishly) what should be treasured.

Consider the latest quarrel in Jerusalem over the sale of hametz during Pessah. A very few stores sell bread, which the law allows so as long as they don't ostentatiously display it in public. This strikes us as a reasonable compromise. So why interfere with it?

When issues of personal freedom, religion and collective values are at stake, coercion is not only counterproductive, it is often also unnecessary. Seventy percent of Israelis won't go near bread during the festival; 60% would like to see stores closed on Shabbat. That's because the values and mores of Jewish civilization appeal to traditional and secular Jews even when the motivation is not necessarily halachic.

And yet this age of great personal freedom will not have achieved its full potential until non-Orthodox and secular Jews - to paraphrase popular theologian Dennis Prager - start taking Judaism as seriously as do the Orthodox.

MOREOVER, given the threats the Jewish global collective faces, stemming mainly from the menace of Islamist extremism, Jews had better stop dissipating their energies and resources in internal bickering.

Iran is hurrying to build nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. It may take another year or two, but the mullahs don't see the international community standing in their way. This week's meeting of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, in Shanghai on the Iranian issue reiterated that message. (The failed agenda was to coax Iran - which has rejected every economic, diplomatic and security offer thus far, including civilian nuclear cooperation - into reopening negotiations.)

As Iranian leaders employ disinformation, obduracy and guile to keep the world powers spinning their wheels, we hear Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisting that Iran's efforts will, at the end of the day, fail.

The mullahs take their extremist Islam very seriously. It is the bedrock of their perverted vision of world domination. In this "season of our freedom" we need to recommit to our own Jewish and humane values. And if we cherish our freedom, we need to recognize that it comes at a price.

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