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Nati Faber

Heritage Beyond Historicity: Reframing Jewish Identity

Pesach, 2020, the Jewish world was at a standstill. Yes, this would be the first Yom Tov to be done in lockdown; but more than that, this would be Pesach in lockdown. The fact we had to do Pesach in isolation felt much more profound than a Sukkot or Shavuot in isolation ever could. Pesach is supposed to be the time to come together, remember our history, relive our traditions, and practice our faith. Nearly every affiliated Jew in the world has special Pesach recipes or Seder traditions.

Back in 2016, in my only other TOI Blog post, I argued that the reason Pesach has such a profound impact on Jewish identity is precisely because it is a celebration of history, and it is history that unites the Jewish people. Now, 7 years later, I want to amend my previous post. While I stand by my older post’s sentiment, I want to sharpen its message today.

One of the most well-discussed and well-known passages of the Haggadah is the following:

״עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה. וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם.״

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would [all] be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Translation from Sefaria)

The passage is well-discussed because it feels untrue. Any modern reader knows that the Pharaohs did not last. Similarly, any historian knows that the Pharaonic dynasties often changed. The Haggadah could not have been compiled before the time of R. Judah b. Ilai (circa 170 CE), as he is the latest quoted Tana in the Haggadah. The last Pharaoh was Cleopatra VII, who died in 30 BCE, ending the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the Pharaohs as a whole. That means there had not been a new Pharaoh for 200 years, even as the Haggadah was being compiled. Many economically privileged, white American Jews also have some sort of intuitive feeling that slavery would have ended at some point, even if the Israelites stayed in Egypt. Unfortunately, an almost certifiably true part of the passage is that if Bnei Yisrael remained in Egypt, they would likely still be enslaved or otherwise oppressed, even today.

One of the classic answers given to the questions raised on this passage is the idea of Hashgacha Klalit, general Divine Providence. Hashgacha Klalit, as opposed to Hashgacha Pratit (personal Divine Providence), is the idea that God intervenes in major world events. Therefore, through that lens, the passage is understood to be saying: “The only reason why you are not a slave is because God decided for history to play out the way it did. If it were God’s will to keep the Israelites as slaves to Pharaoh, they would still be slaves to Pharaoh.” Theological objections aside, this does effectively answer our question. However, the statement of the Haggadah that, today, we would still be slaves in Egypt if our ancestors were never freed is untrue for an entirely different reason: your bloodline was likely never enslaved in Egypt, to begin with.

According to Num. 1:46, there were a total of 603, 550 men over the age of 20 that left Egypt. Given that these men likely had wives and children, and we know from Ex. 1:7 that the Jews were having many children, we can estimate, according to what is written in the Torah, the total number of people leaving Egypt at around 2 million, if not higher. We know this cannot be true for many reasons. Firstly, it is hard to believe that an actual census would end in a multiple of 10. In fact, this is so bizarre that Colin J. Humphreys, in “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI,” uses it as one of his proofs that the word “eleph” generally translated as “a thousand” really means “troop,” in the context of the census. Moreover, given the common dating of the Exodus (13th century BCE), the entire world population was only around 50 million people, making it that the Israelites alone would make up 4% of the world population after starting with only 70 people a few generations earlier. Humphreys quotes various scholars that put the actual number of people leaving the Exodus somewhere between 5,500 and 140,000, with the most scholarly consensus at 20,000.

These scholarly numbers are also well corroborated with the archeological findings. To date, the archeological findings suggest a small group of people who moved from the desert to the northern mountains of Israel in the early Iron Age. Their material culture slowly integrated into the already existing Canaanite culture until it became the more dominant culture. In other words, the archeology suggests that a small number of people entered the land of Canaan, possibly having been slaves in Egypt. Eventually, the people already living there adopted their culture and beliefs to become the dominant culture. Meaning most “Israelites” by the Babylonian Exile were not born from families that had been in Egypt. That means, most likely, you and me, and every other Jew, do not have ancestors that were in Egypt.

Many people may find this all to be difficult to process. And, in light of my article 7 years ago, it might make it seem like there is nothing tying the Jewish people together at all. That is the downfall of the history-based Jewish identity: it needs to be historically accurate. If we are to connect to our Jewish past, there needs to be a Jewish past that is ours to connect to.

However, I do not believe relating to Jewish history means that our specific bloodlines needed to be a part of it. Many American bible scholars compare the Passover story to Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. Although the overwhelming majority of Americans today did not have ancestors on the Mayflower, the story of Thanksgiving has become our national origin story (however whitewashed, unethical, and untrue). Every American can hold the story as their own history, regardless of if their specific ancestor was actually present because their national and ideological ancestors were. So too, the Jewish people, even if most Israelites were not actually freed from Egypt, Passover, and the Exodus have become our national origin story, because our national and ideological ancestors were present for it. This phenomenon is true for the Holocaust as well. As more and more Jews are being born to families that were not in the Holocaust, the Holocaust has become no less a part of our collective history.

This is the exact reason I felt the need to write this post. A Jewish identity based on the historical accuracy of Jewish history is an identity that is limited and tenuous. It is an identity solely reliant on the availability of data and scientific discovery. However, understanding that connecting to Jewish history is not dependent on the historicity of any story or event but rather is relating to a heritage of culture, beliefs, ideologies, language, and practice creates a Jewish identity that is free and limitless. It is a Jewish identity that will exist forever because it is based on legacy and thought. As long as there are Jews on this earth, there will be a Jewish history to remember, regardless of the blood origins of those Jews. We are often left to believe that historicity is what determines significance; if it’s historically accurate, it is important and true, and if it’s not, then it is unimportant and untrue. This line of thinking could not be farther from the truth. History, literature, culture, and language are only as significant and valuable as the significance and value we give them. It is through the fact that we incorporate them into our identity that their true meaning exists.

With this in mind, maybe I was being too harsh on the Haggadah to say it was untrue that our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt; our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt, just not necessarily any one of our particular bloodlines. It is our ideological and cultural ancestors that left Egypt, and it is our association and connection to their beliefs and practices that make them our ancestors. It is those very associations and connections that we are celebrating and remembering each year at the Seder. In fact, so much so that the material culture that ended up taking over Canaan really only differed in one significant way from the material culture that was already there: it was devoid of all Egyptian pottery.

To be a Jew means that your ancestors left Egypt. Even if nobody in your bloodline was ever in Egypt, it is the very fact that each year you come together with family and friends, sing your family’s tunes, make your family’s recipes, and sit together to discuss the history of our people that makes us a people. From the fact that you claim Jewish history to be your history, to be your identity, does it belong to you.

About the Author
Nathaniel (Nati) Faber is a rabbi, teacher, and linguist originally from Southfield, Michigan. Nati studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut for 7 years. He also studied at the Jacob Herzog Teacher's college, with a focus in Biblical Linguistics, Rabbinic Literature, and ESL. Nati is completing a B.A. in Sociology and Linguistics from the Open University. He received his Smicha from the World Mizrachi Musmachim program.
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