Monday, February 13, 2012

a seder of the liberated

Roger Cohen's piece in today's New York Times on the inability of Jews to imagine themselves as powerful reminded me of something - so a hunt through my dusty digital attic turned this up:

Usually, we think of religion in terms of faith, and to be sure there are many places in the tradition where we are commanded to believe--or even to know--something: about God, or the world, or ourselves.

At Passover, however, we are enjoined to imagine. No matter what haggadah you use, it is almost certain that you will find the passage that says that it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as though we individually had been redeemed from Egypt. I remember that I used to be suspicious of that section; I assumed that it had been inserted by some twentieth-century editor in an attempt to make this ancient text relevant. But it has been part of the Haggadah for as long as there has been a Haggadah, going at least back to the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE).

With the Hadrianic persecutions still in living memory, with the yoke of Roman imperial rule still heavy on their necks, the Jews were told that one day out of the year they were to experience themselves as liberated. Now that, if not revolutionary, was certainly subversive. For most of the following two millennia, the Seder continued to serve as an exercise in this subversive imagination. Perhaps now our bodies are in bondage, but our minds have taken us to a place where we find ourselves freed and our oppressors overthrown.

But there has been an odd development since then: Jews are not an oppressed people. It is true, of course, that anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared. And it is also certainly true that there are Jews who are victims of a variety of oppressive structures, such as racism, homophobia, and contemporary capitalism. And there is no doubt that the world as a whole is in desperate need of redemption. Still, by any useful measure, Jews as a whole (and American Jews in particular) are doing just fine, thank you.

And thank God for that development, I say. But in the process, what has happened to our Seder? What happens to a ceremony designed to comfort the afflicted when the afflicted become comfortable themselves? First, the imaginative task changes. No longer needing to conjure up a vision of freedom, we may find ourselves in an odd search for the experience of oppression. Frequently this is done through history, and many modern haggadahs refer to the Holocaust (there is even, I believe, an edition entirely devoted to it). Sometimes this is done by making connections to truly oppressed Jews; I remember the "Matzah of Hope" on our table for our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. And there are some especially progressive haggadahs which try to establish solidarity with other struggles for liberation, whether particular or global.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is important for us to remember our history, to stay connected with our brethren, to be mindful of the oppressed of all nations. But when we start imagining ourselves as in bondage we face the danger of "misusing" the Seder. For it is the task of the enslaved to seek freedom for themselves, and to do this they must see that their enslavement is not the primary determinant of who they are. But it is the task of the free to seek freedom for others, and to do this they must take full ownership of such power and position as they have. Rather, such power and position as we have.

Not once, and not twice, but over and over the Torah has God warn the freed slaves that when they come into the Land, when they are in power, they are to remember their experience in Egypt and take special care of those on the margins: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. For Jews, the price of liberty may be eternal vigilance, but it is vigilance about the condition of others. But it is mighty hard to take responsibility for others when you are imagining yourself as powerless.

How should a reasonably free, reasonably prosperous people celebrate the Exodus? By embracing that freedom, accepting that prosperity, and accepting with it God's demands that we look to the condition of those around us.

Much is at stake. The most painful part of the Exodus story for me has always been the death of the Egyptian first-born. It struck me as grotesquely unfair that the innocent, who themselves were perhaps none too free, would suffer. But perhaps it is true that in the great struggle one is either on the side of the slaves, or one is on the side of the slave-owners; there is no neutral ground.

If that is so, perhaps when we spill the wine during the recitation of the ten plagues it is more than a memory. Perhaps it is a warning. For there are those in the world who are truly oppressed, who are waiting for their own Exodus. Whether they know it or not, they look to us. Will we be innocent Egyptians? Or will we be the kind of free men and women God wants us to be?

Maybe that is the first of four new questions, questions for a Seder of the liberated.

1 comment:

marisa said...

Every time I am questioning where, how, and to what extent Judaism fits into my life, I read your blog and I feel closer to an answer. Thank you.