Thursday, April 17, 2008

Observing Passover When Still Enslaved -- A Response to Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf's "Liberation and Obligation"

Note: This post is dedicated to my former Hillel rabbi, Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf, one of the first American Jews to challenge the consensus thinking on Israel, and a simply wonderful human being. Arnie has written a piece called Liberation and Obligation in which, in his typical fashion, he balances the liberation of the Palestinians (i.e., the end of the occupation) with the obligation of both sides "to recognize the humanity of the other, and work together toward their mutual freedom, their mutual obligations." Balancing liberation and obligation is a life-long theme of Rabbi Wolf's work, and, to my knowledge, is a cornerstone of his own take on Torah. But it is also, in this context, a caution to the Jewish left to balance its criticism of Israel's morality and concern with the suffering of the Palestinians, with the recognition that the Palestinians are no less morally obligated -- and that Israelis are no less deserving than they are to be free from fear and terror.

This is my response to his essay.

For some time I have been thinking of what a "Palestinian Haggadah" would look like. The Haggadah is the book read around Jewish dinner tables on Passover that recounts the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and celebrates their future homecoming: "This year we are here; next year we will be in Jerusalem."

I stopped the project for two reasons.

First, while the parallels were painfully apparent (compare Pharoah's, "Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us..." with the interminable Zionist discussion of the "demographic problem"), the differences are real, and the project counterproductive. True, a "Palestinian Haggadah" may be instructive for us Jews; it may help to "circumcise the hearts" of those of us who have been made "hard-hearted" by our own tribalism and post-Holocaust traumas. But most Jews I know really aren't interested in having their hearts circumcised by reading parallels between the oppression of the Gazans by Israel and the Israelites by Pharoah.

Still, were this difficulty surmountable, there is another, more powerful reason for abandoning the idea: The Haggadah celebrates liberation, but the Palestinians are still oppressed. How do you celebrate the Feast of Freedom when you are still enslaved?

The answer, according to the Bible, is that you observe Passover before you are free. You unite as a people while you are still under enslavement -- indeed, your sense of national identity comes to you partly as a result of that enslavement. You celebrate yourselves as a people, you remember happier days, you resolve to press onward with your liberation and never to despair: "This year we are here. Next year we will be in al-Quds".

That is my modern reading of the very first Passover, described in Exodus 12, which was celebrated shortly before the exodus. The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice and to eat the pascal lamb, and to prepare themselves for leaving Egypt, while the Lord was striking for them the firstborn of the Egyptians. They were commanded to repeat the ritual year after year, and to tell their children not that it was because the Lord had liberated them from slavery -- for He had not done that yet -- but because He had killed the first born of the Egyptians and had "passed over" the Israelites (whence the name, "Passover".) They were to celebrate their own salvation as well as the mass killings of their Egyptian oppressors -- a harsh celebration, no doubt, yet befitting an oppressed people that had only recently entered into a covenant with God, a people who, like people everywhere, were concerned first and foremost with their own situation; a spiritually impoverished people, no doubt, but desparate for their own freedom, and conditioned by their slavery.

To judge such a people from the mountain top of Sinai, and what is worse, to condition their liberation on their being able to give assurances that they will not rise up against their oppressors (who may actually have their own good reasons for continuing that oppression) is simply unfair -- unless you make the same requirement of your own people.

Of course, no people is given carte blanche to act in any way that it sees fit. We are all of us after Sinai, Jerusalem, and Mecca, and, for that matter, after Noah, and after the Geneva conventions. There are standards to which decent states must conform. If I don't spare myself or my people moral criticism, then who am I? But if I only single them out for such treatment, then what am I?

But there is a progression: first national consciousness and national struggle,then national liberation and the hope for true freedom and security, and then -- and only then, the acceptance of the law and obligations of states. Before Sinai can occur, there had to first be a people (Passover celebrated in Egypt), then a liberated people (Passover celebrated after Sinai), and only then, a nation that takes its place with other nations (Shavuot celebrated after the Giving of the Law).

I repeat what I have said before. The State of Israel was not born as a result of a peace agreement with the natives of Palestine or the surrounding nations. You can see this as a reason to oppose the legitimacy of Israel -- many do. But progressive Zionists don't. They argue for Israel's legitimacy, despite the fact that it came into existence by a unilateral declaration of independence in the midst of an inevitable war, which both sides prepared for and fought. (I am not suggesting that progressive Zionists did not criticize Jewish behavior during the war. But they believed, and believe still, that the declaration of independence without the agreement of the Palestinian Arabs was just.) For progressive Zionists to have one standard for Jewish liberation and another standard for Palestinian liberation is inexplicable to me.

And yet...must the Palestinians win their state in the same way that the Israelis won theirs? Is there no better way? Can such states, born in violence without any agreement, be truly viable? Wouldn't it be better for all us -- Palestinians and Israelis -- to be in the mindset of Sinai rather than in the mindset of the Egyptian enslavement?

If there is another way, then it is when human beings realize that they must bind together to prevent injustice and the oppression. That is our agenda now, and that is our agenda first. Justice now, peace as soon as possible thereafter.

I believe that we will all, one day, get to Sinai, and I hope that we shall all listen to the voice coming from Sinai then.

But now our discourse should focus freedom and liberation -- for them and for us -- from the inequities and injustices of the last sixty years.

A happy and healthy festival of freedom to us all


Anonymous said...

Before the Abolitionists (via the midrash created by the African slaves who were converted to Christianity) and the socialist Zionists altered the meaning, the haggadah had nothing to do with universal manumission or liberation. It was what God did for us and there was no implication that it was for anybody else.

Further the slavery was ordained by God and Pharoah's sin was making it harsher and longer than was ordained. The Talmud approves of slavery but disapproves strongly of harsh slavery.

So once this new interpretation is overlaid the confusion over
"The Haggadah celebrates liberation, but the Palestinians are still oppressed. How do you celebrate the Feast of Freedom when you are still enslaved?" follows.

What we are left with is indeed a difficulty, the Teiku of our time with no Eliyahu in sight to answer a question which cannot wait for him. Do we open the door and wait for an answer or open the door and curse the situation?
Neither option is particularly satisfying.

Jerry Haber said...


With due respect, I cannot agree entirely with your analysis.

Of course, the Haggadah was for us, and was always intended for us. But, as Michael Walzer pointed out in Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has served as an inspiration for many peoples, and many revolutionaries, not just Jewish socialists.

The Israelite's slavery was pre-ordained by God? Your explanation follows Nahmanides, but is disputed by Maimonides and Gersonides among others, who deny that God foreordains anything regarding human action. They interpet away the verses in the Covenant of the Pieces that suggest otherwise.

I should have said that the Haggadah celebrates the liberation of the Jews, not liberation tour court. But it does celebrate their liberation, and not just from a harsh slavery, but also from the spiritual slavery of idolatry. Jews are not supposed to be slaves. There is a scriptural ambiguity about the Hebrew slave -- on the one hand, the institution exists; on the other hand, one who prefers his human master's service to God's service (according to rabbinic Judaism, Hebrew slaves/servants are exempt form certain positive commandments) is denigrated and worse. All this is well-known.

No, the Bible is not opposed to slavery, but one doesn't gain a favorable view of the institution from the Haggadah.

Anyway, I was responding to a liberal intepretation as provided by Rabbi Wolf. I can out-frum the best of folks, but that was not my charge.

Anonymous said...

I am a Reconstructionist Jew-- perhaps my take on the normative orthodox position was too strong.

However the point about universal liberation presenting a real problem is the one I was trying to make. It is no problem for the right -- it is a big problem for the the rest of us.

As far as I know Walzer whose book is a gem appeared on the scene long after the abolitionists.
Before abolitionism many identified themselves as "Children of Israel" asking for an end to their particular enslavement because they were "chosen" but universality was a gift of the African slaves to us and the world.

A Liberating Pesach to one and all

ross said...

"If there is another way, then it is when human beings realize that they must bind together to prevent injustice and the oppression."

The charoset on the seder plate is sometimes thought of as the mortor for binding the bricks of slavery but it tastes sweet so perhaps it is telling us that human beings must bind together, Jew and non-Jew, to prevent injustice and oppression.

Ben Bayit said...

Is the United States an illegitimate country b/c it came into being without the agreement of the Indians (oops, Native Americans) already living there?

Jerry Haber said...


Had the US been founded after World War II, as a result of expelling 300 million Native Americans, many of whom demanded a right of return, I think some would question the state's legitimacy. Were Palestine to be founded by expelling over five million Jews, I think you may question its legitimacy, even if the UN would recognize it.

Look, Israel has legitimacy as a state because of its international recognition. "Legitimacy" was a poor choice of terms in my term; I should have said "moral justification". Progressive Zionists who accept the moral justification of unilateral declarations of independence and the acquisition of a state by military means should, in principle, have no problem with the Palestinians were they to do the same. All I am claiming is that both sides be judged by the same standard.

Ben Bayit said...

1) I fail to see how the passage of time can make a state "morally justified". By your standards the USA is still a morally unjust state - just as morally unjust as you claim Israel to be.

2) The Arab states expelled nearly as many - if not more - Jews, as Arabs that left the areas within the borders of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine. The Arabs have already done what you say they are within rights to do by the standards of Progressive Zionists. You just want them to do more, blow up more Jews, kill more Jews. You have gone over to become a moral citizen of Hamastan.

Jerry Haber said...


I don't think it is right to say that the United States was founded on genocide or forced expulsions but rather that American governments participated in genocide, and to the extent it did it was morally reprehensible.

The rules of the game change. The rules governing states post-1945 are not the same as they were beforehand. The idea that a people had a right to self-determination was not at all accepted before the twentieth century. It is quite silly to compare the legitimacy of states and their actions from different periods.

For example, those who look to the postwar for possible models of population-transfer today deceive themselves. What was arguably acceptable then (let us not forget that even then forced transfer of population was controversial) would not be as acceptable today.

Times change.

The Arab states' expulsion of Jews is entirely irrelevant to the Jewish expulsion of Arabs. No Arab state was founded by the mass expulsion of its Jewish natives. No demographic consideration was at work.

On the contrary, the mass expulsion of the Jews was a Zionist dream come true, and the Arab states who expelled their Jews were the unwitting partners of the Zionists.

In any event, if you read this blog, I believe that the Arab states as well as the Jewish state should a) make restitution for property and b) recognize the rights of the Arab and Jewish refugees to return.

Tying the fate of the Palestinian refugees to that of the Jewish ones is morally obscene. It makes the Palestinian's suffer three times -- first, when they were not allowed back to their homes; second, when their homes were inhabited by Jewish refugees; and third, when they are now being asked to pay -- again -- for the expulsion of the Jews by having their compensation reduced.

The Jewish refugees was caused by the Arab and European states. They should pay -- not the Palestinians.

The only possible connection between the Arab expulsion of the Jews and the Jewish expulsion of the Arabs is that were it not for the latter there would probably not have been the former. But that is only a possible connection

Ben Bayit said...

Do you wear a kafiyeh?
You have a very distorted view of history as well as public international law - aso do many Arabs that claim to be "Palestinians"