Benjamin Schvarcz

Benjamin Schvarcz is a former student of ultra-Orthodox institutions in France and in Israel. Currently serving as a Tikvah Fellow in New York, his research aims to elucidate a talmudic conception of liberty and bring to light the dialogue between the values of classical liberalism and of the Jewish heritage. Benjamin completed an MA in political science at the Hebrew University where he worked as a teaching assistant. He also holds a BA in political science and public communication from Bar-Ilan University. His research interests are focused on rhetoric, political theory and the Talmud. He served as a parliamentary assistant and spokesman for MK Michael Eitan (Likud). Benjamin is a 2014-2016 young scholar at the Israeli Democracy Institute's project on Human Rights and Judaism. He is married and the father of three children.

Toward a Talmudic Conception of Liberty

This paper conducts a political reading of the Talmud, analyzing talmudic literature in light of political questions and so reconstructing a talmudic—and hence a Jewish—language of politics. It is my observation that the contrast between slavery and liberty was used throughout the history of political thought as a legal, philosophical, and rhetorical tool to both define the idea of liberty and to defend its actuality. This paper inquires whether the Talmud uses this dichotomy as well and, if so, whether towards similar ends. Another way of putting the question is how can we, as political readers of the Talmud, use this contrast between slavery and liberty in order to formulate the talmudic conception of liberty.
In this paper, I deal with the sugya (pericope) in Babylonian Talmud Gittin 11b-13a, whose central questions is: "Is manumission beneficial for a slave?" In other words, this sugya examines whether liberty is by definition superior to slavery. A close reading of the debate in the sugya will allow us to see how the dichotomy between slavery and liberty contributes to the formation of a talmudic conception of liberty.
Although the famous distinction between negative and positive liberty was explicitly defined as such only in modern times, I argue that its roots are not distinctly modern. This research will present the unique precedent of this distinction in the different approaches to liberty in this sugya and will suggest that the sugya can enrich our current concept(s). Whereas the political thinkers of the last hundred years sought either to put the two concepts of liberty—negative and positive—in conflict with each other, or to unify liberty into one concept, our sugya presents a more complex understanding of liberty. On the one hand it acknowledges the distinction between the two concepts of liberty, and on the other hand combines them into one broader understanding of liberty as a legal and ethical state of being.