Having recently taught an intensive two-day seminar on the idea of freedom in modern Western thought to a group of male Israeli Ḥaredim—most of whom had had little or no secular education—Peter Berkowitz reflects on the experience:
The students were particularly intrigued by the limits on the exercise of individual rights that John Locke grounded in God’s sovereignty, the priority that the U.S. Constitution gives to the protection of religious freedom, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s insistence that religion makes a surpassing contribution to political stability in America by remaining separate from politics.
Passions flared when we turned to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Students readily appreciated the importance of a public sphere—newspapers, broadcast media, and parliament—in which the condition of their freedom of speech was the freedom of speech of all others. After all, the ultra-Orthodox, too, have interests to advance through the political process. At the same time, they immediately grasped the danger to their way of life posed by the vigorous promotion within the private sphere, embracing their families and communities, of Mill’s core conviction—indeed the conviction at the core of all moral and political education worthy of the name—that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Exposing their sons and daughters to Mill’s case for the sovereign individual, they justly feared, might weaken their children’s attachment to the stringent ultra-Orthodox interpretation of God’s commandments. . . .
Ultimately, both the ultra-Orthodox and broader Israeli society stand to profit from rapprochement. The ultra-Orthodox can acquaint themselves with the pleasures and the pride that stem from developing skills valued by the workplace, providing for one’s family, and contributing to the national defense. And Israel’s secular majority, who—like America’s—tenaciously seek fame and fortune, rigorously choreograph leisure, and restlessly chase after quiet time, can enliven their imagination and deepen their understanding of human diversity by acquainting themselves with those devoted to fulfilling God’s law.