Who Owns Passover?

Passover is a time of asking questions, and I have a few. This year, though, the furor that surrounded Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his sermons that dared to suggest that this Christian nation may actually be earning God’s wrath and damnation for some of its behavior, reminded me of an issue I’d first encountered in South Africa: The idea that the Passover/Exodus narrative of the Hebrews’ flight from Pharaoh and slavery doesn’t belong exclusively to any tribe, but is a universal tale of freedom into which suffering people everywhere are able to insert themselves. And also that even if your forebears were victims of injustice, you’re quite capable of being a perpetrator of injustice

I think the Rev. Wright furor offered many white Americans an introduction they found shocking to the reality that the black Church in America has always connected viscerally to the liberation narrative of the Biblical people of Israel, making that narrative their own as a source of succor for their own struggles and trials. Martin Luther King, remember, spoke of going to the top of the mountain and seeing the promised land, knowing that he might not make it there. In other words, casting himself as Moses. And it’s an ongoing, vibrant tradition that gives the African American church its special vitality.

The ability of oppressed people to find themselves in the Exodus narrative of liberation is, of course, precisely the point of that narrative. The problem in Egypt wasn’t simply that it was the Jews who lived in slavery; the problem was was slavery itself. And the antidote to slavery advocated in the Torah (the five Books of Moses) — human community constituted on the basis of law and justice rather than political authority claimed on divine grounds — is a universal one; it applies, absolutely equally, to everyone, and everyone is invited, as Moses did, to challenge authorities that offer anything less.

The God of Abraham, proclaimed as the one true god, is obviously everyone’s god; he’s not a tribal fetish; he’s been invoked precisely to challenge the sort of tribal fetish deities that the Egyptians had used to rationalize their system of oppression. So, the Passover/Exodus narrative has powerful resonance to all people of the Abrahamic faiths (and possibly others) who may find themselves confronting oppression.

But those who feel threatened by others’ demands for justice — oppressors who cloak their own abuses of others in pieties of Christian soldierhood or the Star of David as the brand icon of an occupation — get very uncomfortable when they realize that others see them as inheritors, not of the righteousness of the Biblical Hebrews’ flight to freedom, but of Pharaoh’s attempts to suppress the Israelites.

But throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish prophets are warning the Israelites to take nothing for granted. The mantle of righteousness cannot be inherited genetically (surely, the God of Abraham is not a racist who judges people by their DNA) or claimed simply through vigorous prayer and observance of ritual; it must be earned in one’s conduct in relation to others. Thus Hillel’s famous definition of Judaism while standing on one foot: “That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary.” In other words, it is only via the decency of your behavior in the world that you can be a good Jew.

Jews who commit injustices against others would be unequivocally condemned by the Jewish prophets, just as those who drop bombs on others or sentence them to death are plainly deluded when they claim to be guided by the inspirational example of Jesus. That, I think, is the essence of what Reverend Wright was saying in those passages that caused so much controversy — that God would damn, not bless an America that committed injustices. To which I’d add, in line with Rami Khouri’s profound challenge to Israeli journalists at the height of the last Lebanon war, an injustice committed under a flag bearing the Star of David would be fiercely condemned by the Biblical Jewish prophets.

It was easy to see how little our Jewish genetic lineage did to make us really Jewish in the South Africa of my youth, where every Passover, we sat around seder tables singing, in a barely understood Hebrew, of the days when we were slaves, while the black women who lived in our backyards under domestic labor system not that far removed from slavery, carried in steaming tureens of matzoh ball soup and tzimmes. We may have convinced ourselves that our DNA entitled us to claim this story as our own, but it was abundantly clear that in the South African context, most Jews had thrown in their lot with Pharoah, while the Israelites were working in their kitchens.

The mantle of justice associated with the Torah prophets, it seemed to me later, was nobody’s birthright; it had to be earned.

As a young activist heading out into the townships every weekend to meetings where communities were planning to resist eviction or burying those who had fallen in the fight against the regime, I was intrigued to hear the preachers and ordinary people couch their own struggles firmly in the narratives of the Exodus.

But around my own seder tables, the descendants of Pharoah’s slaves paid scant attention to the plight of those in their kitchens. They were discussing real estate and accounting scams — and, of course, how long it might be before “the schwartzes” (yiddish for “blacks”) would rise up and spoil the party.

If Hillel was right (and I believe he was) that Judaism is less about rituals and the minutiae of halachic law than it is about the ethical treatment of others, I can safely say that I learned very little of Judaism in the more than 200 hours of family Seders I sat through in South Africa. In keeping with thousands of years of tradition, we always kept a chair empty and a glass full in case the Prophet Elijah showed up. Looking back, I shudder to think what he would have made of the spectacle had he actually accepted the invitation.

I suspect he’d have dragged us over the coals in language not unlike that used by Reverend Wright. A friend once told me that his father, an Anglican priest, believed that whereas Christians had to work their way into heaven, Jews were basically on the guest list; our entry to Paradise was assured, by virtue of the fact that we’d been born Jewish. I thought that was a remarkably silly idea. Not only that; it’s remarkably dangerous, too, because it rationalizes moral laziness and injustice and violence committed in the name of a false righteousness. Unfortunately, I suspect, my friend’s father’s belief that as Jews, we are genetic entitlement to God’s favor, is all too widespread. Passover, and the universal tale of oppression and freedom it celebrates, is a good opportunity to burst that bubble.

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58 Responses to Who Owns Passover?

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    Shlomo,

    If you carefully read what I wrote, I did point out that the Judaism has a message for the whole world, but you may be correct that I didn’t use the word “universalist” properly. What I meant meant to say is that Tony claims that Judaism is “anti-nationalist” or “anti-particularist”, which is clearly not the case. Judaism makes different demands on the Jews than it does on non-Jews. However, as I indicated, the basic laws of civilization are incumbent on everyone i.e. justice, fair play, honest business practices, etc. However, Judaism does mandate a particular territory to the Jewish people (and others to the Arabs and the rest of humanity as well). Thus, Herzl’s attempt to create a Jewish state in Kenya (the so-called “Uganda Plan”) would simply be another form of colonialism, but a Jewish state in Eretz Israel is wholly within the framework of Judaism, while of course, such a state would have to recognize the individual property and cultural rights of the non-Jewish minority living there.

  2. Shlomo says:

    Judaism does mandate Eretz Israel to the Jews…but the precise nature of that “mandate” is unclear. Given that God allowed the Temple to fall because of our bad behavior, to what degree can we use bad behavior to put it back up? I am just not sure if this mandate is in effect at all times, or if it is only there when the Messiah comes and God’s spirit is with us.

    Based on what I’ve learned about the coming of the Messiah, it does involve acquisition of the Holy Land–but it also involves an ethical and societal transformation that is prerequisite. It is hard to imagine such a transformation is engendered by our current policy toward Palestinians. Yes, it is aimed toward getting us full political control of Judah-Shomron. But if, as a result of this endeavor, hatred spreads throughout the Jewish body populace like a creeping poison, would this not delay the coming of Redemption? Are unholy acts against a people created in God’s image justified to acquire holy ground?

    This is especially pertinent because even if we decided to rebuild the Temple tomorrow, the third-holiest site for over a billion people is in the way. To wreck Al-Aqsa would be one of the most atrocious acts man has seen against a people’s cultural rights. Even worse, because Al-Aqsa was erected to honor God!! I don’t see how, after something like that, performing sacrifices in a Third Temple would be anything more than empty form.

  3. Y. Ben-David says:

    Shlomo-

    It was the Arabs who started the war with Israel and determined its nature. If you are worried about “hatred”, I suggest you address your remarks to them. I am not aware that Jewish rights in Eretz Israel are to be abrogated because the Arabs violently oppose the existence of a small Jewish dhimmi state in the middle of their Dar al-Islam which stretches from the Atlantic to Indonesia. Your remarks put the entire onus for the problems here on us, which is incorrect (e.g. if Gaza is partially blockaded, it is because they launch endless indicriminate rocket fire on Sederot and other places in addition to terrorist attacks on the crossing points that bring trucks carrying supplies into Gaza. Add to this their “democratically-elected HAMAS government” which announced it was unilaterally abrogating the Oslo Accords. They are the ones responsible for whatever suffering the Gaza population is going through

  4. Shlomo says:

    But it is primarily Jews who continue the war today. There is no reason why settlements should continue to expand today–during times of war OR peace. This settlement expansion has been independent of political events, ranging from the Oslo Accords to Camp David Talks to the 2nd Lebanon War. The expansion is not about the Arabs (who by the way, are wrong on a fair number of issues). No, settlement expansion is about US.

    Similarly in Gaza, there are many ways to reduce terror attacks. Only the most cruel of them includes the current starvation policy, in which a family in Rafah pays for rocketfire from Gaza City that they can not control. This is not the way to positively influence electoral politics in the Palestinian Territories–the ostensible rationale for the shutdown. Instead, the Gaza seige appears to have given Hamas powerful political momentum in the West Bank. If the Gaza seige has precisely the opposite of its intended effects, clearly it is not something Israel has been “forced” to do.

    In short, there are concrete steps Israel can take to improve the situation of real human beings, at little to no political cost. God has been quite clear in what He wants from us, other things equal–ESPECIALLY in the Gaza Strip, which has never been a meaningful part of any Jewish homeland, EVER.

  5. Y. Ben-David says:

    Your statement about Gaza (“never has been a meaningful part of any Jewish homeland”) is totally incorrect. First of all, it is clearly within the Bibilical borders of Eretz Israel. While it is true that during much of the First Temple period, it was controlled by the Philistines, it was conquered and settled by Yohanan Hyrcanus during the Hasmonean period and has had a continuous Jewish community down to the present day. The famous Sabbath hymn, “Yah Ribbon” was written centuries ago in Gaza by its then Chief Rabbi. It had a traditionalist and Zionist community until forced to flee by the Arab terror campaign of 1936.

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    Shlomo-
    I forgot to mention in my previous comment that the largest mosaic synagogue floor from the period of the Mishna-Talmud ever found in Eretz Israel is in Gaza.

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