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Balancing the Scales of Freedom

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the week after 9/11, between Rosh HaShonah and Yom Kippur

It was Judgment Day — exactly one week after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed and so many illusions along with them.

“Judgment Day” is the expression found in the traditional liturgy for Rosh HaShonah, the first day of the Jewish new year. And as I stood in the midst of the congregation intoning the High Holiday prayers, the vision of exploding passenger planes and twin towers crumbling to dust hovered before my eyes.

On Rosh HaShonah we will be inscribed … who will live and who will die … who by water and who by fire … who by storm and who by plague … Who will have peace and who will suffer … who will be cast down and who will be exalted.

The judgment upon Jews became kinder after the United States opened her doors to us a century ago. Where no one else would have us, America took us in, allowing us to live both as Americans and as Jews without persecution.

Yet for all that, American Jews often feel torn by opposing cultural forces, especially approaching our Day of Judgment in a society where there is no greater sin than “judgmentalism.”

Without judgment, however, society cannot endure. As good citizens we must judge others – not based on race or religion but upon actions and behavior. And we must judge ourselves as well, by constantly reexamining our motives and our prejudices and our values and our goals. To condemn even this kind of judgment as a threat to freedom is to retreat from our responsibility to discern right from wrong; it is to embrace the illusion of absolute theoretical freedom – moral anarchy – which is in reality no freedom at all.

September 11 brought us face to face with moral anarchy in the form of incomprehensible evil. Perhaps the first step toward confronting it is to remind ourselves that freedom is not a right – it is a privilege, and privileges carry with them obligations that are often inconvenient and occasionally painful. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that the tree of liberty must sometimes be refreshed with the blood of patriots, he warned that the threat against freedom can only be met by not taking freedom for granted.

Freedom is not democratic, as less than a score of suicidal zealots understood when they commandeered four transcontinental airliners. The duties of freedom are non-negotiable, as New York firefighters and policemen understood when they rushed into crumbling skyscrapers. And the rules of freedom cannot always be legislated: sometimes we have to choose between necessary evils, as the passengers aboard United Airlines flight 93 understood when they drove their plane into a Pennsylvania field.

These are the kinds of judgments we must make, every day and every year, to preserve our society, all the more so in a nation built out of so many cultures and beliefs as ours. Every freedom of the individual cannot be permitted if it threatens the collective, nor can every interest of the collective be observed if it oppresses the individual. But when we share the collective will to make our society stable and secure, then the individual will set aside his personal freedoms for the national good and the nation will bend over backward to protect individual freedom.

This is the mark of a great civilization, and it rests upon an informed and devoted citizenry prepared to debate, sometimes passionately but always civilly, the moral direction of our collective journey.

This Rosh HaShonah I stood shoulder to shoulder with friends and neighbors singing ancient liturgical poems in praise of our Creator, just as so many Americans stood together the week before singing “G-d Bless America.” There were no agendas, no politics, no grudges, no rivalries. All of a sudden we were one nation, indivisible, a people with one noble history and many noble ideals whose differences vanished in the shadow of our many common values and common goals.

As the Jews have had ample opportunity to learn, now America has learned that nothing brings us together like a common enemy. What we have yet to learn is how to continue to stand together even in times of peace.

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