Our Gemara quotes the verse that describes the Jubilee year (VaYikra 25:10)

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃

⁦and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.

The founding fathers of the United States ordered the Liberty Bell in 1751 and had this verse engraved on it, apparently in an effort to articulate their ideals of liberty and freedom, in the years preceding the revolution. The question is, were they right? Are ideals of liberty and freedom represented in this verse?

The Hebrew word is “Dror”, roughly translates as the ability and freedom to move about, as our Gemara explains. Targum Onkelos translates “dror” as the “cherusa”, which certainly seems to imply actual freedom from bondage, and corresponds with the word liberty. By the way, “Cheirus” is not in Tanach. It is an Aramaic word, but perhaps related to the Biblical Hebrew word “Ben Chorim בן חורים” as in Koheles (10:17) which means nobleman. By the way, this makes the line in the Haggadah a double entendre:

הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין.

Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

בני חורין might also be translated as nobles as it is used in Koheles. 

Additionally, The word “Chor” in Hebrew means hole, and could be related to freedom as a slave taken out of the pit, as happened to Yosef (Bereishis 41:14):

⁦Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח פַּרְעֹה֙ וַיִּקְרָ֣א אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְרִיצֻ֖הוּ מִן־הַבּ֑וֹר וַיְגַלַּח֙ וַיְחַלֵּ֣ף שִׂמְלֹתָ֔יו וַיָּבֹ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹֽה׃

What about the popular movement today criticizing many of the founding fathers for being slave owners? How did they square the language of the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, and slavery?

According to the website ( https://www.ushistory.org/LibertyBell/index.html )

The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania's original Constitution. (Another double-entendre as they realized it was a Jubilee year from the Charter.) It speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over. Particularly forward thinking were Penn's ideas on religious freedom, his liberal stance on Native American rights, and his inclusion of citizens in enacting laws.

Philadelphia was a center of the Abolitionist movement, and William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania, though a slave owner, was a Quaker and philosophically opposed to slavery, and presumably treated them with dignity according to the ethos of his time. Let’s not tear down his statue quite yet.

Now of course the Torah is not opposed to slavery; there are verses that clearly support the institution of slavery. Yet the idea of basic dignity and liberties indeed is expressed in regulations such as Yovel. Debts should not become crushing nor should families permanently lose their ancestral share in Israel’s real estate, no matter that poverty forced them to sell their land. And though the verses proclaiming liberty applied to Jewish slaves and not Gentile slaves, the sentiment of treating slaves with dignity was a moral obligation. See Rambam (laws of slaves 9:8):

It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake…Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims.

Thus, the founding fathers had the basic idea right and they had good reason to model their ideas for a free society on the sentiments expressed in this verse. As to why the Torah approved of slavery, which could lead to people being abused, that’s like asking, “Why did the Torah approve of monarchy?” Every system has its dangers, including democracy, which can sometimes lead to the tyranny of the majority over the minority -- unless great pains are taken to protect unpopular views, opinions and lifestyles. In the Biblical form of government, the leaders and the people were to be kept in line by the prophet. The prophet answered to no one but God, and Tanach is replete with prophets criticizing kings, nobles and people for their moral shortcomings.

Without prophets, a monarchy is a dangerous form of government. Shmuel himself lambasts the people and predicts the power abuses of monarchy unchecked (Shmuel I:8). I think we can say that personal freedom and liberty is honored and encouraged by the Torah but not in an absolute libertarian manner. Liberty but not libertarianism. As the Mishna Avos (6:2) states:

וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not haruth [‘graven’] but heruth [ ‘freedom’]. For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah.

True Freedom comes from becoming evolved in character by engagement in study and the development of intellectual and moral virtues that free one from petty and hedonistic pursuits. Plato in Republic tells us (Book one 329):

When the passions relax their hold in old age, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many.

For Video versions of this click here, and look for title and daf.  

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)