This Pesach I’m thinking about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight.
I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.
Woe betide the empire that fails to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharoahs among us ever learn?
There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Read that one around the seder table tonight. And for good measure, throw in this sentence from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
It is my fervent hope that this Pesach, we American Jews, who rank among the most privileged and powerful citizens on earth, will talk openly and honestly about the wages of our power when we gather yet again to tell the story. What would it mean if we truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?
Conversely (and much more painfully), are we, as Americans and as Jews, ready to confront the ways we regularly wield our own power and privilege in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that the power that we chronically take for granted, will eventually, inevitably go the way of history as well?
Indeed, if there is any message we learn at seder table tonight, it’s that, to paraphrase the words of poet Kevin Coval, all Pharoahs must eventually fall:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Read that one around the seder table too.
I’m so proud to be part of a tradition, a people, a spiritual nation that has survived to outlast far mightier nations because it has affirmed a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora, where this sacred vision was sown, took root and eventually blossomed forth.
May the story we tell tonight inspire us to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.
All the best for a challenging and liberating Pesach.
I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.
And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own oppression – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.
When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.
Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well. And it is not at all surprising to me that we are now witnessing a new generation of rabbis and young Jewish leaders starting down the road he has paved for us.
All this to say I am profoundly sorrowed to learn that Ellis is currently under threat of losing his job at Baylor University due to an investigation led by new university president Ken Starr.
By every appearance, Ellis has had a distinguished academic career, having taught at Maryknoll School of Theology, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions and Florida State University. Thirteen years ago, he was appointed Professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor, where he founded Baylor University’s Center for American and Jewish Studies and currently serves as its director.
There is ample reason to mistrust the academic validity of this investigation. According to a new petition now being circulated by Cornel West and Rosemary Ruether:
Marc Ellis was brought to Baylor in 1998 and all previous presidents supported his dissident voice. After Ken Starr (nemesis of Clinton in the White House) became president in 2010 the attacks started. During the last year Baylor lawyers were instructed to communicate with many of Marc’s colleagues, past students and staff. The objective was to request all of them to report all “abuse of authority.” Most of us explained to the lawyers that was a lost cause because Marc has been an exemplar colleague, professor and mentor.
But starting this Fall he was separated from his classes, his center closed and a hearing scheduled to take place some time in this academic year. As far as we know the accusations are about abuse of authority but we are not aware of the details because they are part of the internal legal process. Obviously it is about something else: Marc’s dissident voice. We will inform all of you as soon as we know more information.
In a statement released yesterday, Ellis commented thus:
Given what I currently understand of the rules of the Baylor process I will, for now, honor the process by not discussing the specifics, except to say that I believe this is a pretext to silence an independent voice at the place for which I have had deep appreciation.
I write now to ask you to please join me in signing this petition in support of Ellis – an important Jewish dissident thinker and (as his many academic colleagues are now attesting) a truly distinguished scholar. I would add: even if you don’t personally agree with all of his ideas, I urge you to support his cause. It is high time for us to stand down those who would trample academic freedom, shun open discourse and debate, and muzzle those with whom they simply disagree.
I’ll end with Professor Ellis’ own words, all too sadly apt under the circumstances:
Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.
(“Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation,” p. 206)
The most memorable aspect of my Pesach this year? A combination Passover – Good Friday service JRC held together with the wonderful folks at Lake Street Church of Evanston.
The whole thing was hatched somewhat by chance. A month or so ago I was having lunch with my good friend Reverend Bob Thompson of Lake St. Church (appropriately enough at Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe) and our conversation turned to our respective upcoming rites of spring. Bob mentioned to my surprise that he hadn’t celebrated Good Friday at Lake St. in quite some time – mainly because he simply couldn’t abide by blood atonement theology – the notion that God would somehow require the bloodshed of one man to atone for all of the sins of the rest of the world.
For my part, I mentioned that Good Friday had not generally been so “good” to the Jews throughout history, since this was invariably the time in which the worst pogroms were perpetrated against European Jewish communities. As a result, for much of Jewish history Passover was a secret ritual: observed in fear and in private. Given our complicated mutual history, we both agreed that it would be enormously powerful to celebrate Passover and Good Friday together in a spirit of healing and hope.
So that is exactly what we did this last Friday. While Bob and I weren’t at all sure if this service would fly, it actually suceeded beyond our highest expectations. Hundreds of JRC and Lake St. members filled the sanctuary at Lake St. church. Together we celebrated with a service that mixed Hebrew and English, Jewish songs, Christian hymns and prayers for healing. We ended with a rousing “Down By The Riverside.” Afterwards, countless participants – both Jewish and Christian – told us that the service was an immensely moving and healing experience for them.
During the service, Bob and I had a conversation in which we both mused about what our respective holidays might look like if we recast them in the spirit of healing and hope. Bob began by saying the first thing Christians needed to do when celebrating Good Friday was to apologize to the Jewish community for the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. He then went on to explore how Christians might recast the meaning of the crucifixion itself. Here’s what he had to say:
Every Good Friday well meaning folk gather to listen to priests and ministers talk about how Jesus was crucified, the “lamb of God,” to take away the sins of the world. In other words, Jesus died a sacrificial death to satisfy the God who demands retribution – the God who requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Thankfully these days there’s an emergent form of Christianity – one that does not buy this “blood atonement theory” – and it is a theory. Today, more and more Christians are saying they do not believe that God requires the shedding of blood… The point is, violence is not a solution – it’s always a problem. We have to get to see that violence never purifies – it always defiles. In every form it is defiling.
That’s why if Jesus was standing here today, I believe he’d say, “don’t call me the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might say rather something more like “I am a window to divinity and a mirror of humanity. What I came to do is to show you what it means to be open to the Divine and to reflect the best of who we are as human beings. And everybody can reflect this and be this window if only we have the spiritual vision to see clearly enough.”
In other words, Jesus, I believe, would not say that he suffered to keep us from suffering – he suffered because to be human is to suffer. Jesus hangs there because life is always hanging in the balance for all of us all of the time.
I was so taken by his willingness to take on the violence inherent in the crucifixion image – and I responded in kind with my remarks:
There’s no getting around it: to observe the Seder, you need to tell a story of oppression and violence. And you cannot get to what is for Christians resurrection and what is for Jews the Exodus from Egypt without going through that moment of violence…
I will also say I share with you, Bob, completely, that I do not view violence in any way as redemptive. I reject that categorically. I think we all have to. But we still have to struggle with the way violence affects us and what it does to us and what it does to our souls. We can’t ignore it. Even if we disavow it, we can’t ignore it.
As a Jew… I fear the violence that is embodied by the Seder and that has been waged against the Jewish people for centuries will turn us into a bitter people. That it will only cause us to have a sense of entitlement which means we use our pain as a weapon against the outside world because nothing we do to anyone else can be nearly as horrible as what’s been done to us. Or it will cause us to build bigger walls between us and the rest of the world and to instill a Jewish identity that basically says nothing more than “all the world really wants us dead, and that’s what it means to be a Jew. And we have to be forever vigilant because we live in a world that hates Jews.”
And while I’m not unmindful of this history and I do think we need to retell this history because those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it…I also think we need to look seriously at what this legacy of violence and oppression does to us and what we do with it.
And for me that means bearing witness to oppression in the world. If there is any sliver of redemption in violence, it means that it can open the door to empathy – and I would suggest that this idea comes from a very deep place in Biblical tradition – in the Torah.
The commandment commanded more times than any other in the Torah is some version of “Do not oppress the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” To me what that says is “you don’t take your pain and use it as a weapon against the outside world. You take your pain and use it as a tool for empathy with the outside world – and to bear witness against oppression no matter where it is fomented, whether it is in our community or it’s in any community.
We cannot hold on to our pain as uniquely ours, and I want to come back to something you said earlier, Bob: “We’re all in this together. It’s not some of us – it’s all of us. And violence against one people is violence against all.”
You can read some of Bob’s thoughts about our service on a piece he’s just written for Examiner.com You can also click below to hear an audio of the entire service. (The service itself begins at the 10:00 point).
By now more than one person has asked me desperately: Rabbi, please tell me: what is the meaning of “The Goy’s Teeth?!!”
I know better than to even begin try and explain it. Even Joel Coen himself has described it as “an elaborate shaggy dog story.”
And given that “A Serious Man” is a retelling of the Book of Job, isn’t that sort of the point? Job is, if nothing else, a Biblical shaggy dog story of epic proportions. (In the words of Rabbi Nachner, “You can’t know everything…”)
Thanks to my friend Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for tipping me to this great clip: a homemade promo made by the 14 and 12 year old daughters of Samir Selmanovic, author of “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.”
No matter what his kids say, I’m thinking I gotta get this book…
This particular Jewish claim is bandied about so much that I imagine it would some as a surprise to many that it is, in fact, a misrepresentation of the Torah and its teachings.
I would go farther and say this: this view is actually a betrayal of Jewish tradition – and has only become widely popular since the rise of political Zionism.
Let’s take a closer look at the texts in question:
Jewish fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists are fond of pointing out that God promised the land of Israel to Abraham in the book of Genesis:
On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Genesis 15:18)
Biblical scholars and commentators note that the covenant God makes with Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) appears as a promisory covenant. In this early point in the narrative, the land indeed seems to be assigned to the people Israel with “no strings attached.”
Later in Exodus, however, once Israel has left Egypt and has become a nation at Sinai, God clarifies the terms of this covenant. It is spelled out in decidedly conditional language: if Israel follows God’s commandments, then they will indeed be able to live on the land that has been assigned to them by God. In other words, Israel now learns that their future on the land will be radically dependent on how they behave on the land.
As I see it, this is the fatal mistake made by those who claim that the land must ipso facto “belong” to the Jewish people. They focus exclusively on the Abrahamic promise, but neglect the critical next step: God’s conditional covenant with the Israelite nation.
In so doing, they pervert the Torah’s meaning – and do great damage to the central Jewish understanding of our relationship to the land. The land is not given to us unconditionally – we will only be able to live on the land if we prove ourselves worthy of it.
Interestingly, the Torah actually points out that previous inhabitants of the land had failed in this regard. Following a long litany of laws in Leviticus, we read:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)
In similarly colorful language, Israel is told that they might well meet the same fate if they do not keep God’s laws when they live on the land:
So let not the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (18:28)
In another important verse from Leviticus, God makes it clear to whom the land ultimately belongs. In the discussion of the Jubilee year (in which landholdings revert back to their original owners) we read:
…the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
Notably, the Hebrew word for “stranger,” (“ger”) literally means “resident alien.” This word appears over and over throughout the Torah – particularly in admonitions to Israel not to mistreat the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is sobering indeed to learn that even after the Israelites enter Israel, they will still be, in effect, resident aliens on the land.
In the end, although many Jewish fundamentalists often treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease” with very explicit conditions. In Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant:
If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching…the Lord will scatter you among all the people from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest… (Deuteronomy 28:58-65)
For the prophets and later the rabbis, the conditional covenant was central in understanding Israel’s collective tragedy: “mipnei chataeinu” – “because of our sins” we were exiled from the land. This in fact remained the normative Jewish understanding of our centuries-long sojourn in the diaspora until the advent of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel.
Though today we live in a radically different context than Ancient Israel, this question remains powerfully relevant: now that we have returned again to this land, how will we prove ourselves worthy of it?
Whatever our answer, this much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. The Torah teaches us still: if we insist that the land “belongs” to us and us alone, we will only endanger our collective future upon it.
OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.
When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis, I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.
Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:
(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…
If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.
Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.
There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.
From my Yom Kippur eve sermon last Sunday night:
If the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of fear or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God of compassion? The God of xenophobia or the God of justice? And if our answer is indeed the latter, then we must affirm it. We must bear witness to this image of God in no uncertain terms. History teaches all too well what the God of hatred can do in our world. Those of us who reject this theology must be ready to do so without hesitation – to actively promote the God of compassion.
Click below to read the entire sermon:
Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your fellow as yourself’” (Leviticus 19:18), is the greatest principle of the Torah.
Ben Azzai says, “‘When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) is the greatest principle in the Torah. You should not say: Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow be dishonored along with me…”
Rabbi Tanhuma explained: “If you do so, know whom you are dishonoring – ‘He made him in the likeness of God.’” (Genesis Rabbah 24)
In this classic Midrash, Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai are doing what Talmudic rabbis do best: playing a lively game of spiritual oneupsmanship. In this case, they are debating the central value of Torah: according to Akiba it is the famous verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai counters with the insight from this week’s Torah portion: humanity was created in God’s image.
Rabbi Tanhuma’s final statement reinforces the weakness of Akiba’s claim: though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.
I am particularly struck that Akiba’s statement expresses an essentially humanist point of view, while Ben Azzai’s is an inherently theological assertion. In a sense, Ben Azzai raises the moral stakes of the equation. As the saying (often misattributed to Dostoevsky) goes: “where there is no God, all is permitted.” This drives home the radical imperative in Genesis: if all people are made in the divine image, all people are of infinite worth; all people are deserving of dignity, respect and fair treatment.
The Torah thus begins with this foundational principle, which has both interpersonal/ethical as well as global/moral implications. As we start Torah anew yet again, we return to its central question: how can we find the wherewithal to treat everyone we meet as a fellow child of God? How can we, as Americans, as Jews, as global citizens find dignity and respect for all who dwell on earth?
Postscript: One powerful way you can honor Torah’s central principle: consider attending the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7-9 in Washington DC.
Do you ever find yourself reading the Torah and thinking to yourself, “That’s not the God I believe in!?” If so, then you should know that the Biblical God – the rewarding/punishing, supernatural God that exists apart from Creation – is not the sum total of Jewish theology.
If you are interested in a decidedly different Jewish God concept, check out this wonderful article in the current issue of Parabola Magazine by one of my favorite rabbis, David Cooper. Rabbi Cooper is one of the world’s greatest teachers of Jewish contemplative practice and is particularly adept at teaching Jewish mysticism to laypeople in an eminently accessible but non-trivializing way.
Here’s what he has to say about the traditional Biblical belief system:
Belief in the biblical God has benefited many people with great comfort, good deeds, charity, loving-kindness, ethics, compassion, devotion, and so forth. It has also led to inquisitions, wars, intolerance, hypocrisy, triumphalism, witch hunts, terrorism, and holocausts. We must be circumspect when engaging any belief systems, especially concerning thoughts that are rooted in fear, greed, self-aggrandizement, and any other identities that tend to lock us in a sense of separation and isolation.
In the article, he offers the Jewish mystical concept of the Ein Sof (“Infinite” or “Boundless”) as an alternative to the problems of the traditional Jewish dualistic God concept. If this sounds like your cup of tea (or even if it doesn’t) you should read Rabbi Cooper’s article.
Speaking, personally, Kabbalistic theology – and in particular the conception of Ein Sof – gave me my first meaningful entry into Jewish belief and spirituality. Rabbi Cooper’s article offers a great introduction this powerful stream of Jewish thought that is fast becoming a hallmark of the new Jewish spirituality. (BTW: if you DO find this article to be your cup of tea, I recommend moving on to his book, “God is a Verb.”)