Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ahare-Mot 5763/April 26, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Ahare-Mot 5763/April 26, 2003

Festivals and Freedoms
Dr. Meir Seidler
Helena and Paul Schulmann Center of Basic Jewish Studies

The holiday schedule in our parasha is of prime importance in establishing the spiritual identity of the Jewish people. Leon Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish writer at the beginning of the twentieth century, noted that after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, Judaism re-grouped around a "temporal temple", a Temple of Time. No longer finding a safe haven in space, Judaism adopted a haven in time which was impossible to destroy.

Anyone raised on the Jewish festivals recognizes their centrality to the entire experience of religion: the special atmosphere of each and every holiday, the preparations, the sense of expectation, etc. Many thinkers based their entire philosophy of Judaism on them. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (1808-1888) often seeks the basic messages of our religion in the festivals; so too the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) used the cycle of holidays to establish his triangle of ideas in his The Star of Redemption-creation, revelation, redemption.

Rabbi Joseph Zvi Carlebach (1883-1942) was the last of the Orthodox rabbis in Germany, who served as Chief Rabbi in Hamburg until he was murdered by the Nazis together with his wife and three of his daughters.[1] His writings are practically unknown because they were originally published as pieces in the popular press in the 30s and were never collected as a book.[2] In many of these articles, he treats themes from the holidays.

I would like to offer the English reader (he wrote in German) a summary of his ideas about the period between Passover and Shavuot, the period of the Omer. At this time, the wheat, which is the food of human beings,[3] ripens. For Rabbi Carlebach, this is symbolic of the development the Israelite human being undergoes, or is meant to undergo, between the two holidays. Meant to undergo, because the holidays do not "perform their magic" automatically. This is how he put it in an article about the month of Elul as preparation for the High Holidays:

The rule that "according to the pain, the reward" is well understood for all human endeavor, save for one: religion. Here, and only here, many expect that profound religious feeling and experience will drop into their lap because they were good enough to show up in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.[4]

The worship of G-d, called in Hebrew avodat Hashem, requires avodah-literally, work. So too, becoming a free individual, the theme of the process between Pesah and Shavuot, requires that we probe into the meaning of this freedom. Carlebach does this by looking at the nature of these two holidays. They present a paradox-freedom is both the starting point with the Exodus on Passover and the finishing point on Shavuot. Finishing point, because our sublime goal on Shavuot is to receive the Torah. The words of the commandments were inscribed on the tablets (Ex.32:16), about which the Rabbis say, "Do not read harut (inscribed) but rather herut, freedom." [5] In the seven-week period of the Omer, we stride toward the freedom written into the law.

Here Carlebach takes on the view that the law is not freedom but enslavement. The sources for this antinomian view, he explains, are to be found in Christianity, and this view spread in Western Europe especially during the Enlightenment. At that time it also became the credo of the Reform movement in Judaism:

For two thousand years we have known that community which opposes "empty formalism" and "the barren law". It is now 150 years that this group found adherents in our community as well. This is Jewish sophistry at its best. It presents current-day Man, a wretched creature of the current fads, as the measure of all things. This view of the law does not recognize absolutes, demands on Man that have the power to raise him up above the happenstance of circumstance and make him a personality. It panders to weakness in the name of a 'more vital' spirituality. In its opinion, the youth hankers after true spirituality and is turned off by fossilized customs. What is this comparable to? To someone who wants to do body-building without any effort-on the lounge-chair, if possible.[6]

According to R. Carlebach, only the rigorous demands of Halakha inscribed on the tablets of stone are able to fashion the human soul. For this task, one needs not only quality activities, but also quantity:

To counter the infinite seductions of the temporal, we need ongoing counter-measures that can oppose the lure of the physical world which threaten to swamp the individual with endless attractions.[7]

The gate to human freedom was opened with the Exodus on Passover and remains open to every Jew. But this is only the opportunity to begin his struggle. Passover and the Exodus represent freedom from slavery, a necessary but insufficient condition; the next step is to adopt the Torah way of life, which frees the individual spirit from the shackles of the physical and temporal drives, thus allowing him to achieve his best.[8]

That is why the freedom of Passover is a "hurried" freedom (hippazon), for it is only freedom from, not yet freedom to. The ultimate freedom comes on the holiday of Mattan Torah, when the laws that liberate the Jew were given to Israel: "Do not read halikhot", said the Rabbis, "read halakhot":[9] The "walks of life" (halikhot) or paths to be taken are to be found in the law. With this R. Carlebach overthrows Kantian reasoning, which scoffs at the heteronomous law, that not given by human initiative. On the contrary, only a G-d given law can render human potential actual, to make man reach his highest capabilities, and thereby set him free.


[1] B.S. Jacobsohn, "Joseph Carlebach", in: Leo Jung, Guardians of our Heritage, (1724-1953), New York 1958, pp. 649-659.
[2] His articles were none the weaker for it; see his „Der gute volkstümliche Shiur", in: Der Israelit 74, Gola und Gëula 5, 1934, p. 4.
[3] See TB Brakhot 40a, Sanhedrin 70b.
[4] "Rüsttage", in: Israelitisches Familienblatt 36(33), 1834.
[5] Eruvin 52a; Avot 6, 2.
[6] „Freiheit", in: Deutsche israelitische Zeitung. Die Laubhütte 51(6), 1934, p. 1.
[7] Ibid.
[8] „Des Pessach Freiheitsruf an die Jugend", in: Der Israelit 69(14), 1928, p. 2.
[9] Megillah 28b.