Wednesday, 04 May 2016

Written by Nathan Godleman


Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These Four Freedoms were outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a speech to Congress in January 1941, eleven months before the United States entered the Second World War. For Roosevelt, they summarised why America should fight, and once the war had begun, what it was fighting for. As part of a campaign to persuade people to support the war effort, they were illustrated in a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell. They are not artistic masterpieces, even disappointing the artist a little, and are subject to some criticism for the rather one dimensional portrayal of white, Christian citizens only. Nevertheless, there is a certain power to them. A man dares to stand up to make his voice heard at a meeting. People clasp their hands together in prayer. A mother and father tuck their two children up in bed. A family gathers around the table for a thanksgiving dinner. Americans, apparently, speak of a ‘Rockwell Thanksgiving’, so famous is the painting there.

Numerous versions of the Four Freedoms have appeared over the years, as a quick internet search reveals – some humorous, some satirical. I was particularly struck by one which re-imagines them from the opposite perspective. Police break up a peaceful protest with batons. Desperate people assemble, not for worship, but in a long queue, waiting for who knows what? A homeless person, wrapped in a blanket, begs on a street corner, a newspaper lying in the gutter proclaiming ‘welfare reforms planned.’ A man in uniform stands over a body on the ground, his colleague preparing to load the van, the word ‘fear’ etched on the wall behind them. These are bleak images, not idealised ones as in Rockwell, and reflect our post-modern cynicism or even growing sense of despair.

For some years, working as a humanities teacher in a secondary school in Willesden, copies of the originals decorated my classroom. My aim was to inspire the students and also to sustain myself. Sitting alongside, among others, Gandhi and Martin Luther King,  the philosopher, Martin Buber, and the anti-Nazi resistance heroine, Sophie Scholl, proclaiming ‘Die Sonne scheint noch’ – ‘The sun still shines’, they reflected a Liberal Arts syllabus in a school still aiming to build the human being more than train the future worker. Of the past, the paintings spoke to the present and pointed beyond.

It is easy to imagine Rockwell’s art in a Jewish context. I remember a photograph in the house of my mother’s friend. A family portrait from 1930s Germany, the fear and anxiety on the faces of her parents unmistakable. She would escape with her sister to England on a Kindertransport, mother and father left behind. Another photograph. A full synagogue, again in Germany during the Nazi period. Every seat taken and two men sitting bareheaded – members of the Gestapo, monitoring the rabbi’s words. And where might the lone Jew stand up to speak? A meeting of the National Union of Students or the local Labour party branch? The final image is a happier scene. Any one of the sedarim we attended over Passover, with people sitting round the table, singing songs, reciting prayers, eating foods – remembering what it is to be free and committing themselves to universal liberty.

It is a little ironic that the events of last week, where one man, who surely knew better and who perhaps should have exercised his right not to speak, conjured up those dark times once again and reminded us of the need to be ever vigilant. Is he one of those enemies who ‘in every generation… seek to destroy us’, as a surprisingly illiberal prayer in the new LJ haggadah has it? The answer is almost certainly ‘no’, although he is no friend. With others rushing to our defence, or seeking to establish their own credentials for political ends, let us not feel ‘boxed in’ by it all, that internal Mitsrayim of which the haggadah also speaks.

President Roosevelt introduced the Four Freedoms with the following words: ‘In future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.’ It is remarkable that he could show such confidence in 1941, when half the world lived under dictatorships and the other feared that it soon would. Yet, FDR was not naïve. (He spoke, too, of concentration camps and ‘quick lime in the ditch.’) Rather, he was articulating a prophetic message, one which accords fully with Judaism and one we can all work towards, for the challenges we face today may be as great. If we differ at all from the generation of the first Passover, it is because we know we cannot wait for God to lead us out of Egypt. Neither can we expect manna from heaven nor the waters of Merivah once we are on our way. The Children of Israel have grown up. We are reliant on our own resources, while finding strength in our tradition and that which is beyond us. Age-old needs still wait to be satisfied, as in the wilderness, as in the 1940s, so too in 2016. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. May they come soon, in our days, or at least in the days of our children and grandchildren, and let us say ‘Amen’!

LBC rabbinic student Nathan Godleman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.