Being a minority, of a minority, of a minority (former Chassid, in the Army), I think I have a special appreciation of freedom. Not that long ago, I was full-blown Chassidish without a care in the world, shtreimel-bekishe, beard-payes, and proud of it. When I finally left that world I chose to join the US Army, were I learned to appreciate freedom all over again. I was made to memorize the words “I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life”, while having my own freedoms severely curtailed.
When I was a kid ‘freedom’ meant something else entirely, I was ‘free’ to listen to Moderchai Ben David, I was ‘free’ to go to day camp instead of staying in school through the summer, I was ‘free’ to spend Shabbos with my (slightly-less-than-Chassidish) cousins… But no matter the decision I made, my parents would be there to steer me in the right direction. “You’ll grow out of the whole music-listening thing, studying Gemarah all day is far more important”, “day camp is for little kids, once you start Yeshivah - you won’t even want to go to camp…”, “the Mechitzah isn’t as tall as ours’ at our cousins’ because we’re better Jews”.
For years I felt I’d been given extraordinary amounts of lee-way, relatively speaking I was hardly micro-managed, I went off to Israel to Yeshivah and was pretty-much on my own, I was consulted whether I wanted to learn full or part time after marriage, I was my own man. But as soon as I dared to flex my freedom to ask questions, I was told to “shut-up, and sit down”, “have some more faith”, “just study some more”…
Fast forward to today, and my idea of freedom is very different. Being free to screw up, and actually learn from my mistakes is a good thing, not having an entire community tell me exactly who, what, where, when, I was going to do everything in life involves some decision-making on my part, but it’s freeing!
When I lost faith in all things supernatural, it was at once quite liberating - no more worrying about Gehenom - but at the same time it signaled the beginning of personal responsibility. No more “Im yirtzeh Hashem, I’ll be fine”, now it’s up to me to make it happen… As one of my (false) idols Penn Jillette says: “freedom means the right to be stupid”. When I mess up now, instead of blaming it on divine will, I’m forced to re-examine what I did, and determine what went wrong. God is a crutch used by many people as a cover for laziness, “it’s not my fault that I can’t pay my bills, it’s bashert”.
Americans love to fetishize freedom, not to mention the military. I’ve become sensitive to the ‘F’ word as much as to religious terminology, coming from the world that I do, I feel uncomfortable with any sort of ritualistic worship. Whether it’s blind patriotism, or unconditional love for the military, we should always be skeptical, it’s our God given freedom!
I’ll be out of the Army in a few months, and for that, and so much more I celebrate freedom.