The Jews are a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are. The story is the secret of Jewish survival. Without a coherent narrative, we risk disintegration.
It is no coincidence that the most widely practiced ritual among Israeli Jews is participation in the Passover seder, the retelling of our origins, the one thread of commonality holding this fractious society together. If we can’t minimally agree on a shared future, we can at least conjure a shared past, in the hope that the story itself will intimate its next chapter.
The extraordinary diversity of the seder rituals in our day – feminist and Zionist and renewal and interfaith and neo-hasidic and secular humanist, to say nothing of traditional Reform and Conservative and the multiplicity of approaches within Orthodoxy – reflects as much argument as commonality. Each family, each community, offers a different version at its seder about the meaning of the story that began with the Exodus. Who are we? What is the purpose of our survival?
Our inability to tell a common contemporary Jewish story is especially acute when we confront the meaning of the modern Exodus, the return to Zion. I believe that one day Jews will celebrate the Zionist return with the same awe and devotion we apply to our story of origin.
For now, though, we disagree on the most minimal meaning of our modern Exodus story. Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews downplay or deny altogether any spiritual significance to the return. And those Jews who do celebrate the return understand its spiritual meaning in opposite ways.
For many secular Israelis, the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty affirms the primacy of human initiative and the absence of a Divine hand in history: Only once Jews took responsibility for their own fate and stopped depending on miracles did the miracle occur. For religious Zionists, the astonishing conditions of our national rebirth, emerging from the lowest moment in our history and under constant and at times overwhelming threat ever since, affirm the active if hidden presence of Divine intervention.
Until the Six Day War, there was a basic shared narrative among Israelis, however much they disagreed over the nature of the State, about the significance of the State itself. Now, though, we have lost our consensus over the meaning of our story. One part of the people of Israel regards the Six Day War and its consequences as blessing; another part, as curse.
In the absence of the most minimal unified Israeli narrative, we risk losing our ability to understand ourselves. Worse, we risk forfeiting our story to our enemies, to those who insist they know its meaning and are trying to transform the modern Exodus from a symbol of hope and human fortitude into a symbol of evil.
One result of our inability to make sense as a people of our contemporary story is that growing numbers of Jews, especially in the Diaspora, are losing interest in Israel – and on the vocal fringes some are adopting an anti-Zionist narrative.The repudiation of the modern Exodus among some Diaspora Jews is one of the torments of this moment in Jewish history. That rejection of Zionism is a profound expression of ingratitude toward the movement that retrieved the Jewish people from a physical and psychological abyss – perhaps from the end of Jewish history. The vibrant Jewish world we live in today is a direct result of the establishment of Israel immediately after the shattering of the Jewish people.
American Jews are currently debating how to respond to anti-Zionist Jews. A community is defined by its limits, and today, protecting the integrity of Jewish communal institutions means excluding Jews who actively support our enemies in undermining the legitimacy of our story. Anti-Zionists, haters of Israel, one-staters whose agenda would mean the death of Israel and of its people: They are the contemporary equivalent of the “evil son,” in the words of the Passover Haggadah.
And yet once a year, during the seder, everyone is at the table, including the evil son. What is so striking about the Haggadah’s account of the four children is that they are all present – asking, taunting, remaining silent. The evil child repudiates the story — but from within the family. In the ritual of storytelling, everyone has a voice. The rest of the year is meant for communal boundaries; on seder night we recall the moment when every Jew left Egypt together in haste, in dread, in anticipation.
On this night, we look around the table, and at all the tables around the Jewish world, and surrender to our irreconcilable diversity. “This is the bread of affliction,” we repeat. No one, no matter how spiritually impoverished, can be excluded from the ritual of memory. The story that began 3,500 years ago in Egypt has produced a cacophony of stories, and our storytellers all try to shout down down the others with their conflicting versions of what the Jewish narrative means.
Tonight all have the right to be heard, even the most outrageous among us, because all share in the telling. Tonight we return to primal beginnings, to the moment before our fragmenting. For one night a year, we celebrate the fact that we are still telling our story, that we cherish the story enough to continue arguing over its meaning.
We all left Egypt together. We all stood at Sinai together. We were all in Auschwitz. And in 1967, Jews around the world shared the same fear for Israel’s safety and relief at Israel’s victory. Now we are at a low point in our ability to function as a people. But we continue telling the story of our origin, waiting for another moment of revelation that will illumine our common future.