Two weeks ago, someone shared with me that, for him, discipline is freedom. He closely watches his diet, works out regularly, studies diligently for grad school…in short, his regimen helps him be the person he wants to be.
A week later, someone else shared with me that freedom means not having any rules. She listens to her body and brain and does what she wants in the moment. To her, freedom is letting go of all the burdensome rules that are imposed on us and that we impose on ourselves.
Rules vs. No Rules
I’m still thinking about these two different perspectives on freedom and where I fall on this rules vs. no rules spectrum.
I know one doesn’t just magically become self-actualized, physically fit, spiritually aware, etc. To be the person you want to be, you have to work hard at it. It’s so obvious and trite that it belongs on a poster with an eagle soaring over a river.
Yet the thought of living a life of rule-following feels constraining, exhausting, and not fun. As adolescent as it sounds, I still associate the word discipline with after-school detention.
The struggle is real
It might seem funny that I’m a rabbi and that I struggle with rules. After all, Judaism is full of rules. The rabbis even make an explicit connection between Jewish law, which was engraved (in Hebrew: charut) on the tablets, and the Hebrew word for freedom (cheirut). “For no person is free unless they are involved in the study of the law.” (Ethics of our Ancestors 6:2)
But Judaism recognizes the limits of rules. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Rules are generalizations. In actual living, we come upon countless problems for which no general solutions are available. There are many ways of applying a general rule to a concrete situation. There are evil applications of noble rules. Thus the choice of the right way of applying a general rule to a particular situation is “left to the heart,” to the individual, to one’s conscience.” (God in Search of Man, p. 327)
Are we ever free from rules?
We’re currently in the period of the Jewish calendar known as the omer, where we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. I think the wisdom of connecting these two holidays, one celebrating freedom and the other celebrating the Torah, is to remind us that we can be free from slavery but will never be free from rules. As writer David Foster Wallace said:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
People who claim to live a life of no rules are either unaware of or in denial about the rules they are following.
The rules we follow reflect our priorities and our values. Paradoxically, choosing to follow certain rules can free us from the need to follow other rules. The Ishbitzer Rebbe, commenting on the verse that the Israelites left Egypt with their “heads held high,” explains:
“They were free, without any fear or worry from any person.”
We choose what to worship. There’s a freedom in choosing which rules to follow, and which ones not to.
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