Reuven Hammer writes about the rabbinic interpretation of the Ten Commandments in a Jerusalem Post article titled, “On Judaism: True Freedom” (Posts prior to 2010 have been deleted). He talks about a contemporary understanding of freedom as something that is simply free of all constraint.
We moderns tend to see freedom as the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want and to view any limitations on that as tyranny or slavery. The rabbis seem to be saying exactly the opposite. They see true freedom as residing within self-imposed discipline. Consider the Ten Commandments. They indeed limit our “freedom.” If we observe them, we are not free to rob, murder, commit adultery, abuse or abandon our parents and so forth. The teaching of the rabbis is that only when we accept these limitations have we attained freedom from the urges to do the things that enslave us to our baser selves. By exchanging slavery to our instincts for slavery to the will of God, we attain freedom.
Hammer’s exposition recalls the famous quote of Lord Acton: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”