No Jews should be Egyptians

The title on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Why Jews Should Not Be Liberals.” Larry F. Sternberg, a politically active Jew in Orange County, California, is the author of this book, which makes the case that liberalism is fundamentally inconsistent with Jewish values. Liberalism, Sternberg maintains, erodes individual integrity and responsibility. It is non-Jewish to the core, and the fact that so many Jews vote for liberal candidates and support liberal causes constitutes a betrayal of their faith and an outright shame.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that, flipping through the pages of Sternberg’s book at Barnes & Noble, I briefly considered writing the rebuttal, “Why Jews Should Not Be Conservatives.” Then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t actually have to write the book, as someone had already done most of the work for me. It was a simple matter of good marketing. I would just have to take a work in the public domain and give it the new, catchier title. “Deuteronomy” is a pretty opaque title anyway, don’t you think?

* * *

I’m kidding. Really, I am. I don’t believe that the Bible per se argues against liberalism or conservatism. Torah, after all, is multivocal on all sorts of social issues. It contains both a defense of monarchy and a condemnation of monarchy. Some passages seem to reward individual thrift and initiative, while others place great limits on private ownership of property. There are passages that make great fodder for conservatives and others that are not out of place in the left-wing blogosphere. The Bible is multivocal and even self-contradictory, and is therefore largely useless as a source for prooftexting the platforms of political parties. Jim Wallis, the evangelical pastor who heads Sojourners, has it right: “God is not a Republican…or a Democrat.”

However, this much can be said, unequivocally: “The God of the Hebrew Bible is the God of the underdog.” From the opening chapters, God favors the less likely of two rivals, the one with the deck stacked against him. In a world that gave every prerogative to the first-born son, consider these famous second-born sons: Abel, Isaac, and Jacob. I defy you to find a Jewish couple who’s named their son Cain, or Ishmael, or Esau. God loves the underdog, and Jews do too.

Nowhere is that identification with the underdog more prominent than at Pesach. The story of Passover, which we’ll relive at our seders on Monday and Tuesday evenings, is the story of liberation from bondage. A broken and dispirited people is lifted up and carried forth on eagles’ wings. A cruel dictator with unlimited power is crushed, his empire left for dead. God emerges, through the first fifteen chapters of the book of Exodus, as a champion of the downtrodden Hebrews; and, each year at this time, we emerge, through the fifteen steps of the Haggadah, as those very Hebrews.

* * *

This is a very important point, worth dwelling upon. The Haggadah asks us to see ourselves as those very Hebrews. It teaches us, b’chol dor vador chayyav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mimitzrayim. “Everyone, in every generation, must consider himself as having personally been freed from Egypt.” The mitzvah of observing the seder is, first and foremost about a sacred remembering of our roots. We eat the bread of poverty and we say with our biblical ancestors: ba’avur zeh asah adonai li b’tzeiti mimitzrayim. It was through this – the poverty, the bitterness, the servitude – that God made me what I am, taking me out of Egypt. The Haggadah may start as history, but at some point during the telling of the tale it must become biography if it is to mean anything at all.

But to say that the Jew must see herself has having personally left Egypt is not only to say that we need to ‘get into the story.” I believe that the text from the Haggadah has more in mind than just a “make history into biography” lesson. No, for this most prosperous generation of Jews in the history of the world, the commandment to feel personally freed from Egypt is a goad to the conscience. To say that we must see ourselves as having been freed, after all, implies that we must see ourselves as having been enslaved. And to have been enslaved is precisely not to have been the slave owner. “See yourself as one would have been freed,” the Haggadah is telling us, “…and not as one who would have washed up dead on the shore.” Nowhere in the Haggadah
does it say, “In every generation, let each person see himself as having owned a Hebrew slave in Egypt.”

* * *

Jews in America have to stretch to see themselves as oppressed. The Haggadah has us acknowledging, avadim hayyinu, “we were slaves.” We do not say avadim anachnu, “we are slaves.” But if no longer oppressed ourselves, can we at least see ourselves in solidarity with today’s avadim? Torah demands this of us again and again, calling us to compassion, justice, and solidarity with the downtrodden: “Love the ger…don’t oppress the ger…treat the ger like a citizen…know the heart of the ger” And, in each case, why? Ki gerim heyitem b’eretz mitzrayim. Because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.”

Ger is an interesting word. In later Rabbinic usage it comes to mean proselyte, but in the Bible it refers to the non-Israelite resident alien. Such a person was without property, often without extended family, and perhaps without a command of the local tongue. Torah often mentions the ger along with the yatom and almanah, the orphan and the widow. Among the things that unite the three is the propensity “regular” folks have to abuse them economically. It occurs to me that they are also united in that they bring the rest of us a great sense of unease. We don’t know what to say to widow or widower, we can’t look the orphan in the eye, the ger makes us feel guilty…and so we push them to the margins.

The lot of the ger was a tough one then, even as it is now. We rabbis are fond of pointing to passages like the ones I cited earlier, or sermonizing about the fact that the commandment to care for the ger is found, in various forms, no less than thirty-six times in Torah. We ought to be less enamored of that piece of biblical trivia, in my opinion. It is hardly a point of pride that our ancestors were so thick-headed on the issue that God had to tell them thirty-six different ways to stop taking advantage of their maids and gardeners!

But God did have to tell them thirty-six times, and it never hurts to be reminded ourselves. In the coming weeks, we’ll lift up immigration at Temple in these ways:

  • At Temple’s seder on Tuesday night, we’ll be reading the Haggadah with an immigration supplement created by the Jewish Funds for Justice. I’m particularly glad that we’ll be joined by several of our neighbors from the Catholic community, along with Father Stowe.
  • Then, members of Temple Mount Sinai are attending the benefit dinner for Annunciation House just after Pesach, at which Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles will be honored as a “Voice of the Voiceless.” For lifting up this issue and framing it in moral terms, he is indeed worthy of the honor. I am glad that Jews will be in the audience to see him receive it.
  • Finally, I hope that we are able to forge a serious and sustained relationship between youth at Temple Mount Sinai and youth in the immigrant community, through “Immigration Academies” sponsored by Border Interfaith. Our students should have the opportunity to know immigrants as something other than the marginalized, impoverished, faceless Other whose presence elicits discomfort and shame.

El Pasoans, residents of the largest bi-national city on the U.S.-Mexican border, have a unique perspective on immigration, and have much to bring to the national conversation. Jews, the quintessential wanderers and people of the Haggadah, have an important perspective as well. It follows that the tiny subset of Jews who are also El Pasoans are a voice that must be heard whenever the immigration debate is carried out.

* * *

As the national conversation around immigration heats up once again, our seder tables and our synagogue should be open to discussion. Liberals and conservatives will debate the finer points – what a path to citizenship should look like, how to balance security in an age of terror with the human needs of decent and hard-working people, and more – but let no one who claims the name “Jew” deny that the God of the Hebrew Bible is the God of the underdog.

God stands with the downtrodden, and to be a Hebrew is to know this. Jews cannot be complacent in the face of injustice. Jews cannot be satisfied with a status quo that pushes millions to the margins of society and makes them avadim. Jews cannot countenance pervasive, multi-generational poverty, enduring racism, the scandal of a dehumanized, permanent underclass. Jews cannot stomach the scapegoating of immigrants.

Some Jews should be liberals, and some Jews should be conservatives. But no Jews should be Egyptians.

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