We must learn to share the bread of freedom

The message of the matzah defines our national vision.


By Jonathan Wittenberg, April 7, 2009
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Stories need careful handling. Stories may be the secret of survival; stories can also kill. The way we tell our people’s story, how we cast our national narrative, the place we give to self, to others and to God, not only reflects but determines our destiny.

Seder is the great night of the Jewish story. We have always been mindful of how we tell it. The Haggadah is Judaism’s most frequently printed, most variously interpreted, and most fascinatingly subverted, text.

“Mah Nishtanah, how are we worse off than Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meir the banker, from Zarah the moneylender, from Reb Turdus the Rabbi?” asks a Bundist Haggadah from 1900. “May all the... Bundists [and] Zionists... be consumed in the fire of revolution… May annihilation overcome all the outdated rabbinic laws and customs,” proclaims the Hagodeh far Gloiber un Apikorsim, (for Believers in Heresy) published in Moscow in 1927. “Why do we dip the herbs twice tonight?”, asks the Downtown Seder in Manhattan, “Because… there are people everywhere whose tears still drench their food.”

We declare our politics and describe our values through the Haggadah, which is why it has appealed to pious and revolutionary alike. We mustn’t avoid the big issues. How does the great story of the Exodus define Jewish identity? What role is ascribed to the “other”? What is the dynamic between us? Does the Haggadah reveal a philosophy of history?

These questions are urgent. They are out there, to our discomfort, in the public square. Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (a cruel twist on the Haggadah’s four sons?) subtitled A Play For Gaza, wielded the challenges like a sword: “Tell her there are people who hate Jews; Tell her there are people who love Jews; Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews.” Is the constant refrain of “Tell” a conscious recasting of Haggadah, “Telling”? What, then, does the Haggadah tell, and how should we understand it?

Begin in slavery and end with freedom, insists the Talmud. The Jewish national narrative commences not with victorious battles but with the experience of being slaves. Every Seder night we chew that bitter taste once more. For here Jewish morality has its grounding. In his famous Haggadah, the great scholar Menachem Kasher lists the ethical commandments which have their touchstone here, in the memory of bondage: don’t oppress the stranger, don’t mete out perverted justice to the weak, because when you were in Egypt you knew what that was like.

The long Jewish experience of marginality and persecution has often engendered a heightened sensitivity towards the alienated and oppressed. It led Abraham Joshua Heschel to march with Martin Luther King; it instructs Jews today to stand up for Darfur and fight the cause of destitute asylum seekers. It teaches Israeli human rights groups tell the truth about how settlers often treat Palestinians, about house demolitions and other acts of cruelty. We define ourselves in the Haggadah as a people sensitised to suffering and bearing the wounds of injustice, to whom freedom means the responsibility to do right and never to condone wrongdoing, to anyone, anywhere.

Include questions, insists the Talmud. Even the person who celebrates alone must interrogate him- or herself. “Questions democratise… Autocrats hate questions”, writes Stephen Greenberg, quoted in The Haggadah Of Contemporary Voices. Questions are the core of the Haggadah’s method, not only because it includes the famous four, and more, not only because it demands that we hear the concerns of the angry, alienated and speechless children, as well as the words of the wise, but because it scarcely quotes a single phrase from the Torah before probing it with other verses, as if to say: What does this really mean?

This curiosity, this relentless pursuit of meaning, this democracy of debate, is Judaism’s glory. However, the questions must be real: “Why… insist on the eating of the bread of slavery? — Because on this night… we must remember that we can never be truly free until all people everywhere can share in our freedom.” (The Downtown Seder). Yet what exactly does the Seder teach about the dynamics of international history? How does the relationship between us and the “other” emerge from the Haggadah? “Not once alone, but in every generation,” we declare, “they rise up against us to destroy us. But the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hands.”

This is a deeply disturbing passage. Is it simply the historical truth? After all, both my parents fled Nazi Germany; I’ve never attended a Seder where victims of persecution were not present. Or is the passage also predictive, dangerous, casting us as history’s invariable victims, blinding us to the power we sometimes do have and placing everyone else, seemingly inevitably, as our enemy?

Long hours of answering questions on El Mustakillah television, broadcast from London to the Arab world, have taught me how it feels to be located on the wrong side of another people’s view of history. It’s frightening and disturbing. It’s taught me the immense power of the way nations and faiths tell themselves history. It’s challenged me to examine what my own narrative may imply about others. I’ve discovered that there are many in other religions prepared to raise the same questions. If we fail to do so, we sail around the periphery of the whirlpool of endless war, imagining that we’re free.

One wonders who had the genius to place at the close of the Haggadah what Yehudah Amichai called “the dreadful Chad Gadya machine”, that sweet song about animals in which everybody kills each other, except God, who wields the final knife. If that’s what our history is, how do we save ourselves from it?

But this is not the Seder’s final message. That would be an outrage against the great moral imagination of its creators through the ages. They required us to set the taste of the breads of slavery and freedom in our hearts. They demanded us “to see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt”. It may be that this act of empathy, of seeing ourselves as the other who suffers, struggles and longs for liberation lies at the core of all morality. Only if we, and others, can “see as if”, and act accordingly, is their true hope for that redemption for which the Haggadah longs.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Masorti’s senior rabbi

    Last updated: 3:53pm, May 8 2009