Friday, February 26, 2010

Abraham and the Freedom of Speach

I remember that is was a warm sunny late spring day. The kind of day, a harbinger of long lazy summer days yet to some. It was probably a Saturday. My pleasure trip for such a day was to walk to the Wellington Park library where an impressive stone building had been built on the edge of the large tree lined park that encompassed an entire city block. I must have been around thirteen or fourteen. In those days I'd simply troll the aisles until I found something that caught my attention, then I'd devour the entire book or books for the remainder of the day.

The row of books on world religions was well known to me. I think that is why the book, newly entered and placed on the shelf caught my eye. The shiny plastic protective cover made it stand out from the older, worn and used texts that had rested on those selves, who knows, perhaps since the library's establishment. It was a recent edition of the Jewish Publication Society's English translation of the first five books of the Old Testament (as I called it then). The very idea that the Jews had a version of the Bible peaked my curiosity. That should indicate the level of my appreciation for the finer points of the so called Judeo-Christian tradition.

It was the only book I took out that day. I settled myself under the sheltering boughs of some great tree that had been planted at least eighty years earlier, and I marvelled that any living thing could have lived so long and still continued to thrive. I remember all this with such remarkable clarity that it embarrasses me to admit I have trouble remembering what I did or where I went last week. Once open, I became immersed in the book, totally oblivious to my surroundings. The story, the biblical narrative, written in what was for me such a readable language when compared with the arcane stilted English of the Christian King James translation, captivated me.

I distinctly remembering the moment when I read Abraham's debate with G-d! It was more than a dialogue. No matter how self effacing and circumspect Abraham tried to be, I sensed he was struggling with G-d himself to determine what was right and what was wrong. As I write these words I can again feel the goose pimples on my flesh that I felt the very first time I read Abraham's challenge to the creator and continuing source of all existence. What if there was a quorum of righteous men still residing in the city of Sodom, what a unthinkable thing to kill the righteous with the wicked as though there was no distinction between them. Then he said : ”Will the judge of all existence not do justice?” (Genesis 18:25)

Little did I appreciate it at the time, but these words, this personal introduction to a man who supposedly lived and died thousands of years earlier, would become a pivotal point in my life, ultimately leading to my decision to live as an observant Jew. As a result, I find it fascinating when others read into this same short exchange the source of inspiration for some of the values which form the foundation of modern Western Civilization. To this end I share an excerpt from the transcript of an interview I recently read in which Professor Paul Eidelberg explores the connection between this bible story and the concept of Freedom of Speech. Enjoy!

Recall the patriarch Abraham's questioning God's decision to destroy Sodom: "*What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would you still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice? “(Genesis 18:23-25.)

God permits Abraham to question Him. Can you imagine any Muslim questioning Allah?

Abraham's dialogue with God means that God is not only a God of justice, but also of reason.

This tells us what it means to be created in the image of God. It tells us about man's unique power to speak and communicate with others. It needs to be stressed, however, that Abraham's dialogue with God reveals the ultimate object of speech - Truth. Indeed, the Hebrew word for truth is *emet*, one of the names of God.

We also learn from Abraham's questioning of God that the God of the Jews, unlike the god worshipped by Muslims, is a God of freedom, a freedom that dwells with reason and kindness.

Going further, by telling us how Abraham spoke up and questioned the King of king's judgement regarding Sodom, the Torah is teaching us that we have a right to question the laws of any government, hence, that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. However, this right must be understood from a Judaic perspective. The only rational justification for freedom of speech is man's creation in the image of G-d.

Only because man is endowed with reason and free will does he possess a right to freedom of speech, which includes the right to question the policies of government. To be consistent with man's creation in the image of God, government must be based on the primacy of reason or persuasion, as opposed to the primacy of coercion. Only the former would be acceptable to the God of Abraham.

From Genesis we learn that speech is not an end-in-itself or a mere exercise of self-expression. The basic function of speech is to communicate ideas about justice or the common good, or about what is true and what is false. To divorce speech from truth and justice is to reduce this distinctively human faculty to a mere instrument of self-aggrandizement. This is the tendency of normless democracy, which degrades man and makes nonsense of his right to freedom of speech.

It cannot be said too often that if freedom of speech is divorced from truth and justice, democracy is no more justifiable than tyranny. In other words, if there are no universally valid or objective standards as to how man should live, then there are no rational grounds for preferring democracy to tyranny. Immature minds contend, however, that relativism conduces to tolerance. But relativism undermines any objective ground for preferring
tolerance to intolerance.

Similarly, some silly f intellectuals contend that moral relativism is a precondition of academic freedom. But academic freedom can have no justification unless it is commonly understood that it is wrong to cheat or plagiarize or steal or slander one's colleagues. This suggests that moral relativists, who very much dominate academia, take civilization for

The father of civilization is none other than Abraham, whom the Torah refers to as the father of nations. The Torah portrays Abraham as the teacher of ethical monotheism which, together with the Genesis conception of man's creation in the image of God, provides the foundation for the moral unity of human nature and the idea of the human community.

The Bible of Israel thus contains, in my opinion, the most rational justification for freedom of speech, which point to its ethical limits. Apart from such limits, freedom of speech is mere noise or mischievous nonsense.

*Transcript of the Eidelberg Report,
Israel National Radio, Feb. 22, 2010,
written in honour of George Washington's birthday.