In “The Jewish Way,” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that the Exodus from Egypt teaches not just about social justice in the past and present, but of the redemption of the world in the future. “The overwhelming majority of earth’s human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering…Most of the nameless and faceless billions know the world as indifferent or hostile. Statistically speaking, human life is of little value. The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined; the powerful and the successful accept good fortune as their due. Power, rather than justice, seems always to rule.
Jewish religion affirms otherwise: Judaism insists that history and the social-economic-political reality in which people live will eventually be perfected; much of what passes for the norm of human existence is really a deviation from the ultimate reality.
How do we know this? From an actual event in history – the Exodus…The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free…No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world. What it did was set up an alternative conception of life. Were it not for the Exodus, humans would have reconciled themselves to the evils that exist in the world. The Exodus establishes the dream of perfection and thereby creates the tension that must exist until reality is redeemed.”
The story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egyptian slavery has served the Jewish people, on a national and individual level, as an inspiration in the midst of oppression. The drama of the Exodus has given hope for a brighter future. For some, the Exodus is not seen as a one time event, but rather as God’s intervention in the world and in God’s promise that God will be with the Jewish people.
In “The Role of Non-establishment Groups”, journalist Walter Ruby exhibits this idea when he wrote “virtually no one,… dared predict in 1985-88, that the seemingly impregnable citadel of repression that was the Soviet Union would self-destruct so quickly, or that more than 500,000 Jews would be able to leave the USSR in three years beginning in late 1989.
The only person I remember who made such a prediction was Avital Sharansky, who told me during an interview in New York during a very bleak moment in 1984 … that not only would Anatoly soon be granted his freedom, but that hundreds of thousands more Soviet Jews would be coming on aliyah in the near future.
I asked Avital what was her basis for being so optimistic at a moment when U.S.-Soviet relations had hit a low point. She responded with evident seriousness that her study of Judaism had convinced her that the God of Israel had already preordained a great modern Exodus of Soviet Jewry to rival the biblical Exodus from Egypt. I recall feeling in awe of Avital’s evident deep faith in Jewish redemption in the face of an implacable situation that appeared to be turning more ominous, but concluding sadly that she was engaged in willful self-delusion. I fact, Avital Sharansky’s unworldly vision proved prophetic.”
The redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery was and continues to be a defining moment in Jewish history. In Genesis 15:13-14, in the context of the covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people, God foretells the suffering that Israel would endure as slaves in a foreign land. This can suggest that this experience is of significance to the very reason and mission of the Jewish people.
In Deuteronomy 24:17-22 we read: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow – in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”
In society, we tend to view gifts to the less fortunate than us as charity. Charity is understood as what we give out of the goodness of our hearts, when we feel moved to give. The Torah takes a different view on charity. We call it tzedakah, which has its root in the word righteous, and justice. We are told that assistance to those less fortunate than us is in fact a matter of law. We are required to act in a way that reflects sensitivity for those who are vulnerable. God has gifted something to us, money, a harvest, etc., and we are obligated to give some of that to the needy. The imposition of this demand is that we were slaves in Egypt and that we were redeemed from there. We were a persecuted group who suffered at the hands of others, and we were redeemed from there in order to do right in the world.
I have heard people say about Passover, “We were slaves, God redeemed us (let’s eat).” But that is not the story. There should not be a “period” after “us.” Rather there should be a comma. The real message of Passover is, “We were slaves, God redeemed us, so that we could become a holy nation.” The challenge is to live the second half of that sentence in our everyday lives.
Judaism is a religion that attaches meaning and purpose to life. The mitzvot are intended to enhance and enrich us and the lives we live. With Judaism’s focus on life, what does that mean about Judaism’s perspective on death? Is death the cessation of life or is it the beginning of a new type of existence? Does how we behave in this life have any connection to what happens to us after we die?
While there are a clear Biblical references to burial and mourning practices, there are few Biblical references to what happens after one dies. There are references to sheol – which is described as a destination for all dead, but the Bible’s silence on the topic could suggest its belief in finality to life once one takes his/her final breath.
By the time of the rabbinic period, 3rd century B.C.E – 6th century C.E., we see the belief in an afterlife was a central theme. What the nature of the afterlife was varied, from it being a place where the soul of only the righteous ascended to a place where everybody ascends, even the wicked, after their souls have been purged over the course of a year.
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer states that “We live on after our death in the God works that we have done in the good name we have made for ourselves… we gain a kind of immortality through our deeds and our accomplishments, the institutions that we build, the charities that we endow, the families we nurture, and the lasting memories that endure in the minds of those who will survive us.”
The Exodus from Egypt is a significant event in Jewish history. It is where we began the transformation from people to a nation. The Egyptian experience provides much of the basis for social justice and morality. We are told not to subvert the rights of strangers and orphans, we are prohibited from taking a widow’s garment as a guarantee for a loan and if we overlook a sheaf in the field we are not permitted to retrieve it.
The collective memory of the Exodus from Egypt has served the Jewish people as an inspiration in the midst of oppression. The Exodus has given perpetual hope for a brighter future. Throughout history, Jews have continuously prayed to God and asked to be redeemed again.
In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago. “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ first words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.’ While Pharaoh retorted:’Who is the Lord that I should heed his voice and Let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
For Rabbi Heschel, the Bible’s tale of the Exodus served as the foundation for his belief that human beings are meant to be free and equal. That message can be quite complicated to actually live out, but is a message we need to struggle with to live out everyday.
If the Torah is an eternal document, how do we reconcile issues or topics that were written about in the Torah that do not seem to be in step with our modern day thinking? Women’s roles in society, slavery, or polygamy are a few of those possible topics.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in “Jewish Women in Time and Torah” offers a thoughtful suggestion. He writes: “If one considers the status of women as it emerges from these laws, mores, and opinions, one cannot help wondering: Is this Judaism? Is this Torah? How is all of this to be reconciled with Torah values and ideals? What happened to ‘And thou shalt love your fellow as yourself’ and to “Righteousness, righteousness, thou shalt pursue’?… Undoubtedly, the basic views and values that originally determined the status of women in Jewish society were not derived from the Torah, even though many of them were later given midrashic justification. They were Torah-tolerated because they could not be abolished with an act of Torah legislation. They had to be tolerated, but certain changes and differences were present which indicated that an entirely different system of values and teachings also existed…we have discovered the developing status of women as it passed through two different levels: the Torah-tolerated one and the Torah-guided and Torah-instructed one. On the first and lowest level, in the early man-built and man-maintained society, woman is not recognized as possessing her own personality. At this stage she is merely an impersonal adjunct to the male. It is the Torah-teaching that recognizes her in her own personal existence and establishes her human dignity in a world in which she has her own vitally important place because of her own life-related nature.”
What does it mean to be the Chosen People? Does the idea of chosenness imply entitlement or responsibility?
For contemporary western-minded people we are uncomfortable with the idea of chosenness, as it goes against values of equality. If God created all human beings, why would God single out one group of people? For what purpose?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “ The Hebrew Bible speaks of a God who not only loves, but who loves precisely those who are otherwise unloved – the younger rather than the older, the weak, not the strong; the few, not the many. From this flow all acts of chosenness in the Bible: Abel, not Cain; Abraham, not a nation; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Israel the slaves, rather than Egypt the masters. To be sure, no one is rejected. Divine choice does not mean that God is with this person, not that; with one nation, not another…There is nothing exclusive about patriarchal covenant: “Through you shall all the families be blessed.” But there is nonetheless an insistence on the integrity of diversity, the dignity of difference; the preciousness to God of those whom the world ignore or mistreats, God sets His image on the only creature for whom difference is a source of identity, namely man. And to exemplify this truth, He chooses Israel, the people who are called on to be different, to show that for God, difference matters.”
What could the purpose or purposes be for keeping kosher? Do we need a reason, or is because God said so enough? If we do not need a reason, but would still like one, what could a reason be for keeping kosher?
One could say kashrut is about healthy eating. In addressing the aspect of keeping kosher that states which animals are permitted or forbidden to be eaten, there are those who say the animals permitted or prohibited are better or are harmful to your body and how it functions. Others state that the animals permitted and prohibited for us to eat are categorized by whether or not they prey on animals. We are only permitted to eat those animals that do not eat other animals. This can absolutely be seen as an oxymoron, we are determining the permissibility of animals we can eat based on the fact that they do not eat other animals.
There are yet others who would say kashrut for them is all about the idea of training oneself to make choices with the very thing that we need to sustain ourselves. They would say it does not matter what is permitted and what is forbidden, something needed to be in and out. Kashrut is about us differentiating ourselves from animals by making conscious decisions with regard to the very thing that we need to survive – food. By making choices with regards to food, we create a structure in our lives that sets us up to acknowledge we have to control and can be in control of how we live. We have choices as to how to live and we need to aspire to make thoughtful choices with each step every day of our lives. That first step begins with food and then branches out to all of the other aspects of our lives. Conscious, thoughtful decisions – that is what Judaism expects from us.
What role does Halacha, Jewish law, play in deciding ritual practice? Does Jewish practice have to be dictated by Jewish law? Can I decide what and how I want to observe Jewish ritual? What role does community pressure play on one’s observance?
There are pros and cons to each of these approaches. One could observe Jewish ritual by following Halacha to the “t”, but it could be without heart. One could observe based on purely personal feeling toward that ritual, but then where is the commitment that goes beyond whim.
The more difficult approach is following the structure that pushes us beyond relying on our personal feelings, stretches us and at the same time forces us to make sure that Jewish practice and Judaism in general are not a “dead hand without a heart and soul.” How this balance works is an eternal Jewish challenge.
Do the origins of the Torah have any impact on how I observe? If so, what role does it play? Is it all or nothing? Why do we think in black and white? Will I ever be able to prove the origins of the Torah? If I could, would that change how I practice? Do I only practice how I practice because I feel beholden to one vision or another that someone else has presented?
If I believe the Torah was written by God, then the authority of Biblical law is God and Biblical law can only be changed by God. If I believe the Torah was written by humans, than I will probably believe the authority of Biblical law is humans and Biblical law can be changed by humans.
For instance, driving on shabbat is prohibited in the Torah because it violates the biblical commandment of lighting a fire, among other prohibitions. If I believe the Torah was written by God, that prohibition can only be changed by God. If I believe the Torah was written by humans, then I can say that the Torah was written by humans at a specific time period for a specific situation. Continuing down that path, I could make the argument that since humans wrote the Torah to respond to their time period, it is our job today to make sure that Jewish law responds to our time period and that driving on shabbat to engage in shabbat experiences of services, family or friends is permissible and may even be encouraged.
There is an argument that could be made that once the floodgates open and humans are left as the authority for deciding or changing Biblical law, we will decide what is subjectively best for us and all of Judaism will wash away. What if it is something in the middle? God and us working together to figure out how to bring the most holiness, respect and dignity to the world. That would be a lot of work, but I do believe that is what Judaism is about, the brit, the covenant, between us and God.
How do we make decisions and what makes for a Jewish decision? In Deuteronomy we read “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…” How does one figure out “what is right and good in the sight of the Lord?”
Is following halacha (Jewish Law) the definition of this? Is halacha enough? What about subjective human elements such as reason, emotion and intuition? Do they play a role? How do these interact or what is the interplay between them and halacha?
If one does not use halacha, but rather uses Jewish values such as brit (covenant), respect for human dignity, tikkun olam to guide in making a decision, does that make it a Jewish decision?
When faced with making a decision, a person will consider various factors and values which might be taken into consideration. As Jews, one of those values is Judaism. The difference between secular ethics and Jewish ethics is that secular ethics bases itself solely on individual subjective human criteria. Jewish ethics incorporates cumulative wisdom and experience of Jewish texts, traditions, values and customs. How we as individual Jews may use this cumulative wisdom may differ, but just using it makes our decisions Jewish.