Leaving Heschel On The Cutting Room Floor

Imagine if Ridley Scott’s big-budget “Exodus: Gods and Kings” did not feature the character of Moses. It may seem strange, but this is, in fact, what we do each Passover at the Seder; with a handful of passing mentions, the text of the Haggadah does not mention Moses.

If we retell our own national story with such apparent disregard for historical detail, perhaps Ava Du Vernay can get a little more slack for leaving Abraham Joshua Heschel on “Selma’s” cutting room floor. After all, beyond a few ritualized questions and pat answers, I do not know of a serious critique leveled against the editorial choices made by the original editors of the Haggadah. On the other hand, Du Vernay has been the subject of much controversy and “fact-checking,” both in terms of the omission of Heschel, as well as the attitude of President Lynden Johnson towards the civil rights marchers.

There is always a gap between historical drama and documentary, and this is true at the Seder as well. Maimonides taught (Laws of Chametz and Matzah, 7:2):

If the child is young or foolish, the father says to him, “My son, we were all slaves..and on this night, God redeemed us and we left towards freedom. If the son is older and wise, we teach him what happened in Egypt, and the miracles that were done for us through the agency of Moses, our Teacher.

It turns out, then, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with mentioning Moses at the Seder. He is a detail, albeit an important one, but details can either reinforce or distract from the critical message that the narrator is trying to convey. The Seder is, first and foremost, a drama; for those who want a more historical account, there is the entire book of Exodus. Similarly, there is plenty of source material about Heschel’s deep involvement in the Civil Rights movement (including the documentary film, “Praying With My Legs: The Spiritual Witness of Abraham Joshua Heschel“).

The key question is what Selma is really all about, and whether Heschel’s presence is critically necessary or an important, but nonessential subplot. This week, I was moved by two essays, the first written by Susannah Heschel, entitled, “What Selma Means To The Jews,” and the second written by “HamdenRice,” entitled, “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.”

I think these titles, taken as a sort of dialogue, really say it all.

In her essay, Heschel spoke about the ecstatic spirituality of the march that unified so many people behind a common, biblically-resonant cause:

More than a historical error, the film erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father. The photograph reminds us that religious coalitions can transcend and overcome political conflicts, and it also reminds us that our Jewish prophetic tradition came alive in the civil rights movement. Judaism seemed to be at the very heart of being American…Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a Confederate general) opened a door, inviting all Americans to join in unity against segregation and racism.

In contrast, here is an excerpt from “HamdenRice,” who grew up in a context of slavery and Jim Crow (but please read the whole thing).

[Dr. King and civil rights leaders] made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.
And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.
Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?
These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south…
But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears…
That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.
Once the beating was over, we were free.

Perhaps, in the end, Moses’ story, as important as it is, has little to do with our annual attempt to reenact the experience of slavery and liberation felt by the common Israelites. After all, Moses was never enslaved, nor was he liberated. If our goal is to literally see ourselves as having left Egypt, then our story is not about Moses; it is about everyone else.

In a similar vein, we should welcome “Selma” as an exercise in empathy, an opportunity to understand what happened there from the lived perspective of those who were impacted directly by it.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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