What Would Moses Say? Of Nietzsche, Hitler and the Freedom to Hurt Others (Shavuot 5780)

By Andrés Spokoiny

Nietzsche is probably one of the most misunderstood and manipulated philosophers in history. The most pernicious manipulation of him was done, of course, by the Nazis, who turned his inversion of the traditional concept of “natural law” into a justification for genocide.

Nietzsche questioned the idea that there is a body of unchanging moral principles that guide all human conduct. He argued there were no overarching moral principles, and that morality wrongly deprived the powerful of their “natural right” to rule over the weak and ignore their wellbeing. 

You can see why the Nazis liked that idea and took it to an extreme the philosopher never could have imagined. Hitler infamously wrote that “conscience is a Jewish invention,” and years later said, “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience, morality … We will train young people before whom the whole world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence, imperious, relentless, cruel.”

The Nazis interpreted freedom as the liberty of the Aryan race to expand its power unchecked. In their view, justice was served when the strong realized their destiny of dominating the weak. They needed freedom from morality and desired a system of law protecting their privileges as a master race.

For the Nazis, Judaism had to be eliminated because it was a permanent reminder that freedom, justice, and law are all counter to Nazi philosophy.

And in his depraved way, Hitler was right, because for Jews, law and morality are inextricably linked. Freedom is meaningless if not framed in a system of values and laws that defends the weak, protect the basic rights of all people, and tempers the excesses of the powerful. Morality is the bedrock of law, and morality is, by definition, a limitation of power.

That’s why the holidays of Passover and Shavuot are connected by the Omer; freedom and law are two sides of the same coin. They both emanate from Judaism’s foundational idea that all people are created in the image of God and are therefore imbued with an inalienable dignity and a series of natural rights (sorry, Jefferson, we said it first!). That sanctifies the freedom of Man because, as God is free, so are those created in God’s image. But it also consecrates the limitation one’s freedom, because God does likewise. Life is possible only because God limits Itself – following the idea of tzimtzum, the restriction of God’s power to allow the world to exist. We can’t decide not to care about the other, because the “other” is our equal.

These conflicting notions of “freedom” and “law” are timely this Shavuot, as America wrestles with the question of reopening the economy after two months of lockdowns.

Naturally, there are valid arguments on both sides of that debate, and policy makers need to consider the costs and benefits. But there’s something deeply disturbing about the tone and message of the demonstrations taking place in several American states these days. The main argument of many of those protesters seems to be this: I have the freedom to get a haircut, eat at a restaurant, and golf, and if it costs lives, I have the right not to care. I have the right to assuage the fragility of my masculinity by not wearing a mask, and if old people die, it’s just “the price of freedom.” As a protester’s sign in California put it, “I’m not sacrificing my freedom for your safety.”

To be sure, this perversion of the notion of freedom is not new. For decades, America enshrined in law “the freedom to own slaves”; today mass shootings are seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the freedom to own a submachine gun and, lately, the right to “stand my ground” trumps the right to safety and due process. As recent court cases show, the role of law is slowly mutating into a construct that, instead of protecting the weak, protects this warped idea of unrestricted freedom.

In other words, the Jewish idea of freedom and law is replaced by a darker, callous view of freedom: the freedom to not care about others, the freedom to exercise my full power in an unrestricted way, the right to pursue my own satisfaction without regard to its consequences for others.

That California protester won’t sacrifice a tiny portion of his freedom to save the life of his elder neighbor. After all, what’s the life of a few octogenarians when I need to go bowling? Judaism, on the contrary, demands that we restrict our freedom. We don’t consider that a sacrifice, but an investment in a better and freer society down the line. Because when we live by systems of morality and mutual responsibility, we achieve more freedom, prosperity, and happiness in the long run.

Imagine a society in which everybody claims absolute freedoms; the freedom to crowd the bars at the expense of other people’s lives, the freedom to shoot anybody that I think is suspicious, to drive on the highway at whatever speed I want… It’s not so hard to imagine because, in a way, we are living in such a society. Doesn’t Hitler’s call to be “imperious, relentless, cruel” resonate in today’s political discourse? Aren’t these qualities lionized? Don’t we teach our children the ruthless pursuit of personal interest? Don’t we give eight-figure bonuses to executives who maximize profits at the expense of their employees, customers, and the earth? 

So yes, Shavuot is timely this year. It reminds us that there’s no freedom without justice, and that law is nothing but the sanctification of our concern for the other. Shavuot teaches that a society in which individuals are unhinged to pursue their interests at the expense of others, quickly becomes a dystopian nightmare.

The ancient Hebrews needed to relearn this after their long slavery. Their society needed to depart from what they had left behind in Egypt and be based on right not might, to have every individual count – the protester that wants her hair cut, but also the grandmother who still wants to live.

There are positive role models to follow. In, fact, we see many beautiful examples of “tzimtzum”: health care workers and first responders that restrict their safety to save the lives of others, poor people that rush to donate money for those needier, and postal workers that take risks to keep us connected to the world. In fact, billions of young people worldwide obeyed government guidelines and policies restricting their freedom of movement, even when enforcement was minimal and they were not “at risk” themselves. In our own network, we see countless examples of personal tzimtzum; like funders deciding to restrict their own philanthropic freedom in order to work in cooperation with others and better serve the common good. And, of course philanthropy, in and of itself, is a rejection of the freedom at all costs approach – we have the freedom to hoard all our money and yet we choose to share it with others.

Some took big personal risks to fulfill their duties: At least four foundation professionals, personal friends, contracted Covid-19 and kept working through the ordeal. Another professional, who had been a paramedic in the past, asked for leave to volunteer as an EMT in his hometown. These people showcase a “Jewish” view of freedom, one in which selflessness and compassion make a better world for everybody.  

I don’t know if tattoo parlors in Wyoming need to open or remain close; I guess there could be powerful arguments for and against. What I do know is that, in the spirit of Shavuot, we can frame that debate in the understanding that freedom and responsibility perform a beautiful dance together, rather than a battle in which the outcome is mutually assured destruction.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.