Jews are a fascinating people. We have trodden the scene of history longer than any other monotheism, before most ideologies and faiths. We have seen nations rise high and fall hard: we ourselves were severely shaken by the Holocaust but burst into renewed life with the emergence of Israel in 1948. Difficult to define, our identity is an amalgam of ideology and experience.
We believe in God but incessantly quarrel with Him; we have a religious culture but constantly weave in and out of belief, a messianic posture which we sometimes embrace and sometimes dismiss as mere dreaming. A fractious people, united in crisis: a small minority, occupying a large share of history. We wander – physically, intellectually – but feel lost if we have forgotten the way home.
Especially is this true on Pesach. The Haggadah names four sons, four types: the wise, the wicked, the simple, the one that knows not how to ask. All make tracks for the tradition on this night, moved again by the old songs, sentiments, stories and symbols.
The events behind Pesach are simple. The Hebrews were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt until Moses led them to freedom. When opportunity offered, they left in a hurry. Dough baked on boards on their backs and became matzah. They got across the Red Sea to evade pursuit, and finally reached the Promised Land. We joke about it, “The enemy chased us and we were near beat; we escaped from their clutches: so now let us eat”.
On Passover we indulge in sentimentality, we wallow in nostalgia, we talk about people, we wonder what has happened to so-and-so. The big ideas hardly rate a mention. It is the festival of freedom, but it isn’t freedom that they tend to talk about.
When I was a child in Melbourne, Passover services were presided over by the venerable Rabbi Jacob Danglow whose festival sermon always seemed to say the same thing, that it was a blessing to have freedom under the British flag. The bottom line never varied. In British countries one was free to live without hindrance or horror. Even so, Australia had its problems, and indigenous Australians enjoyed less freedoms than we did. I also discovered when I went to London as a postgraduate that Britain was not too perfect. But other countries were much worse, and in the 1950s there was palpable gratitude to have survived the evil of World War II and the Holocaust.
What freedom did the rabbi have in mind? Presumably what the Talmud meant when it linked the Hebrew d’ror (freedom) with another d’ror (a swallow). Said the Talmud: freedom is like a swallow which can fly where it wants and settle where it wants, without interference or coercion. What I would have said as a child was the ability to run, jump and play. In time I learnt that there was such a thing as free will, the ability to weigh up the options and freely choose.
In the first instance freedom is the ability and right to be oneself and uphold one’s own ethos. In this sense freedom goes with tolerance. I have the right to choose and so do you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” – the Golden Rule of Leviticus 19:18, endorsed by the New Testament – implies, “I hate to be hurt; I hate to see you hurt As I love and believe in myself, I also love and believe in you”. I say my way is the truth: you say yours is. I say my wisdom is better than yours: you prefer your wisdom. A paradox.
How can both be right? The old story speaks of the couple who come to the rabbi with a conflict. To the husband he says, “You’re right!” To the wife he says, “You’re right!” The rabbi’s wife says, “How can they both be right?” The rabbi says, “You’re also right!” Yet this tolerance is ambiguity, not ambivalence. Ambivalence says I can’t make up my mind: ambiguity says that truth has many faces. How can we both be right when all options cannot be equal? That’s God’s problem. Solomon Schechter said, “Leave a little to God!” Leaving nothing to God is arrogant: leaving too much to Him is abdication.
Whatever Jewishness is – religion, ethnicity or culture – a Jew is entitled to the freedom to choose the aspects he wants. But until the modern age – whenever that began – Judaism knew of no such set of options. There was no Judaism by Elimination that played down or rejected certain aspects and said Judaism was valid without them. Until the coming of modernity, Judaism was whatever amalgam it was. Now the options have changed. Believers have an ideology centered on doctrines and practices, whilst secularists manage without God and the synagogue. The debate rages: Is a Jew free to reject religion and still be a Jew? Haven’t the believers themselves curtailed their freedom by religious creeds and commandments? But believers say it really is freedom they are practicing. The discipline of religion gives it direction. Being free to choose God saves freedom from being aimless. Norman Lamm says in “The Royal Reach”, “A moral act is authentic only if it issues out of a genuine freedom of choice”.
There are dangers in freedom, not only blessings. Freedom can lead to boredom. A French thinker writes about the culture of the picnic; the sort of freedom that is a waste of time and only leads to mischief. Despite beautiful words like peace and freedom, it actually brings new tyranny and bondage. In freedom you need to make decisions – and some people prefer their chains. On the other hand, freedom starts before it arrives: Ludwig Boerne said, “To want to be free is to be free”.
Freedom is one of the Jewish ethical values. These values are said to be shared with Christianity in what is called the Judeo-Christian tradition. I am not sure there actually is such a joint tradition even though both religions (and Islam) have things in common.
They believe in God but understand Him differently. They respect scripture but very on its exegesis. Ahad HaAm says Judaism is more pragmatic, Christianity more other-worldly. Judaism believes material things are good if used wisely; some Christians extol poverty. Judaism emphasizes marriage: some Christians prefer celibacy. Judaism sees events more historically; Christianity is more apocalyptic. Judaism places more store on community, Christianity on the individual. Judaism finds atonement through personal effort, Christianity vicariously. Major differences concern Jesus, the Torah and the Messiah. But despite varying accents and emphases, we share an emphasis on ethical quality. What makes our ethics distinctive is that these are not simply the outcome of human experience but the will of God, freely chosen as our guide.
Neither tradition can expect instant obedience but has to work through reasoned explanation. Others are free to turn a deaf ear and dismiss religion’s voice as outmoded sermonizing. On the other hand religion has the freedom to continue to speak and warn. The discourse ought to be decent and democratic without anyone muzzling or murdering those they disagree with. In a fair-minded world all should be able to speak and live without fear. Passover teaches freedom, not feardom (did I invent that word?)
What a tragedy it is that we lack a fair-minded world community. The UN has been captured by anti-democratic slogans and has made the world worse. Freedom doesn’t authorize anyone to blurt out mantras without first studying and acknowledging the facts. Freedom means fairdom (another word I have invented, but why not?)
What sort of freedom is the best? It’s not a matter of which party advocates freedom but which is able, with the least interference with people’s lives, to create a climate of, political, economic, technological, medical, educational and social opportunity.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. That seems to be happening again. Populations are in thrall. People are on the move; no-one knows where home is or what home should be like. No-one is safe crossing a bridge or running in a marathon. Terrorism stalks the streets. Errorism has overtaken the media. Like the ancients who wept at their tent doors when evil was abroad, there is a paralysis of decision. Peoples and governments should uphold principle, but they’re scared to open their mouths. Rome is burning. Nero just weeps. It was all very well when St. Augustine said, “God, make me good – but not yet!” It’s too late for a “Not yet!”
Passover with its message of freedom is too important to be merely a cosy family get-together. Heinrich Heine said, “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent”. That’s the level of discussion that should take place around the Jewish Passover table and wherever thinking people gather.