Is Independence Good?
We will be celebrating the State of Israel’s 69th Independence Day very soon (May 2nd), an occasion for gratitude to G-d and also to the people who sacrificed so much to create a homeland and a Jewish state for the first time in over 2000 years. However, this upcoming event raised a question in my mind, “Is independence a Jewish value?” It struck me that there are (at least) a number of ideas in Judaism that value independence and dignity. Maimonides lists eight levels of charity; the lowest is giving someone less than what he needs, after he begs, with an unpleasant demeanor. The second highest level of charity, is giving anonymously, as much as is needed. The highest level of charity is giving someone either a job or a loan so that they can support themselves with dignity. The greatest gift that one can give to another person is that person’s independence.
The Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers tells us to “teach many students.” A more literal translation of the Mishnah however, reads, “Cause many students to stand up.” Some commentaries understand this to mean that the ideal teacher should seek to make himself obsolete and to give his students the ability to stand on their own feet.
According to Jewish law if a person is not yet dependent on charity, and making a normal Shabbat meal will push him into dependence, it is better that he have a simple weekday meal on the Shabbat than become dependent on charity.
So it appears clear that independence, dignity and self-reliance are values that are part of Judaism. According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the purpose of free-will is in order for the human to become similar to G-d through his own independent decisions. G-d’s goodness is completely independent and self-determined, so too human goodness is only meaningful if it is result of self-determination and independent free-will decisions. The Maharal points out that one of the great tragedies of the Exile and Diaspora is the fact that the Jews have been under foreign rule and have lacked self-determination, something which, he writes, is the natural state of any nation. In addition, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes that the “honor of G-d” in this world is linked to the “honor of the Jewish people.” He maintains that since the Jews are identified as G-d’s people, the honor of G-d is inextricably linked to the status of the Jewish people.
I believe that when Jews live as second class citizens, as dhimma¸ or confined to a ghetto, or even if they live in prosperity and freedom, but are not the masters of their own destiny, but subjects of others, then there is a diminution of the honor of G-d in the world. Thus, independence, self-determination, dignity and honor are values that we should not only pursue individually and nationally but that we should cherish and celebrate.