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.