Saturday, October 20, 2012

Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt

I skipped Passover this year. There was a lot going on--Anime Boston was that weekend, and my food processor was broken so I couldn't make the sauce for the lamb, and so on--and I didn't think I would miss it. After all, it's an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn't exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it's an empty, meaningless ritual I've participated in every year of my life except this one.

Oh, and except that it's not empty or meaningless at all.

Passover is the only time I say prayers. Sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English--depends on who I'm celebrating with--every year, I ask call God the King of the Universe and ask hir to bless the matzo and the wine. I sing about how any one of the miracles God performed in the course of freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage would have been enough, but zie kept on performing more.

The rest of the year, if I find myself somewhere that people are praying (a religious wedding or funeral, say), I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I don't join in, because that would be dishonest. But on Passover I say the prayers and sing the songs, because that is what you do on Passover.

The prayers and songs, considered in isolation, are meaningless. But they are part of the package of Passover for me, and that package is deeply meaningful, because of its central theme, which as far as I am concerned is the central theme of Judaism: Because I was a slave in Egypt.

I wasn't, of course. No Jews ever were; the story is just that--a story, not history.

But when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me about their participation in the civil rights movement. Stories of my mother fighting apartheid in her native South Africa, my father hitchhiking thousands of miles from Arizona to join the March on Washington. They did this, they told me, because "never again" means "never again to anyone." They taught me that, because of the Holocaust, because of pogroms, because of the Inquisition--because of all the times and places in which Jews were persecuted--Jews have a special responsibility to aid other persecuted peoples.

This is a pretty problematic attitude, of course. Everyone has a responsibility to help the victims of persecution, especially if you yourself are among the privileged. But still, there's something worth pursuing there.

You see, I've never been persecuted for being Jewish. Oh, there was apparently some time in elementary school when I came home crying because some other kids accused me of killing Jesus, and there was a nasty kid a few years later who broke one of our windows, but these are isolated incidents. There was no pervasive pattern of intolerance; I've never felt less-than because of being Jewish, or missed out on a job opportunity, and I've certainly never been put in a labor camp or chased out of my home. Why, then, should I feel any sort of kinship with the victims of persecution?

Because I was a slave in Egypt...

You see, every year at Passover, we recite the story of Passover. There's a bit in there where it says you are supposed to tell the story as if it happened to us--not our ancestors, fictional or otherwise, but to us. It doesn't matter that the Egyptian bondage never happened to me--I am still to take the lessons of it to heart. I am still to open my doors to any in need.

"Never again" means never again to anyone.

I don't recall my parents ever explicitly drawing the connection, but it's clear to me. So the Exodus never happened? Well, the Holocaust didn't happen to me, either. My family left Europe decades before the Holocaust began. As far as my own experience is concerned, both events are equally just stories.

But not meaningless. Because I was a slave in Egypt, I support gay marriage and immigration amnesty. Because "never again" means never again to anyone, I oppose the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.

Of course there are excellent secular reasons to do those things. I like to think that, if I weren't Jewish, I would still do those things for the secular reasons. But as it is, I do them for the Jewish reasons: Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt.


  1. Thank you for this, Froborr. :)

    It is not even close to the same, but it occurs to me that there is a similar mythos among Wiccan activists: you will often hear reference to "the Burning Times" as a reason for why religious freedom (among many other things) is so zealously pursued. As you note, a discussion about the historical accuracy behind that mythos is essentially missing the underlying point.

    Thank you.

    1. Thank you!

      That's actually an interesting point. I've never thought about the "Burning Times" that way. I admit, I've usually regarded it as bad history, but it makes a lot of sense to regard it as good legend instead.

  2. I like this post a lot. The power of story to compel us to be our best selves and make our best world really can't be overestimated. (And our worst selves, too...power is power...)

    Ana's point is good, too. I guess I never quite thought of it that way. I have come at it from the perspective that "religious practice is valid, full stop, it doesn't matter how it came to be." And "Never again The Burning Times" tends to annoy me, because knowledge is important and holy dammit, and destroying flawed theories to build more accurate models is the way things are supposed to work. But there were burnings. And there are persecutions and injustices. And if there's a story we tell and feel, even if we also debunk it, that makes us say, "when you do it to them, you do it to us" then that's powerful and valuable.

    1. "And if there's a story we tell and feel, even if we also debunk it, that makes us say, "when you do it to them, you do it to us" then that's powerful and valuable."

      This. I think it's important to distinguish true from untrue stories--Exodus is bad history--but just because a story isn't true doesn't mean it isn't powerful, meaningful, or influential. Legends and fictions have value, and meaning is where you find it.

  3. That's a lovely piece. I'm reading a book right now on community organizing and one thing that it emphasizes over and over again is to tell your story. The idea that if you don't have a personal stake - whether because your individual or your family history - then you'll just be doing activism out of moral superiority or pity.

    I think the distinction between "history" and "valuable story/myth" is one that conservative Christians really don't get. Personally, it's fine with me that much of the Old Testament probably isn't historically accurate. It's the Truth in it that matters and Truth can be bigger than history.

    1. Thanks!

      I think the distinction is one a lot of people don't get in both directions. "This is a valuable story/myth, therefore I MUST convince myself it's history," and "This is not history, therefore it has no value as myth," are essentially the same error, and I see both happening a lot.

      For example, part of the genesis of this piece is that, right before Ana asked me to post something about my experience as a secular Jew, my fiancee and I happened to talk about her family's (entirely unsubstantiated) legend that they were Ethiopian Jews before being enslaved (they're almost all Christians now), and I made more or less the same points as the article.

      My other go-to example, which I did not include here because it's not related to being Jewish, is that if you're trying to understand the last thousand years of European history, it doesn't matter whether or not Jesus came back from the dead; it does matter very much that a whole lot of people believed he did.

  4. A lovely piece, Froborr.

    And to chime in with the "retired-Catholic" perspective, I guess that's why I can still celebrate Christmas. Because the light still shines in the darkness.

    1. Probably not coincidentally, the one book I can point to as most illuminating how I feel about this topic is Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather."

      Paraphrasing: Children need to believe the little lies, like [Discworld Santa-equivalent] the Hogfather, as practice for the big lies, like justice and mercy.

      "You're saying that humans need fantasy to be happy."
      "No. Humans need fantasy to be human."

  5. And because I don't like how I worded that comment:

    What I'm saying is, I suspect Pratchett feels similarly about Christmas. If, for you, Christmas is the light shining in the darkness, and you need that light, then it makes sense to celebrate Christmas.

  6. Something only tangentially related...

    I grew up a Christian child in a Jewish suburb of Detroit, and as such was invited to more than a few seders at the homes of friends (also, children's Purim parties). I realized this evening (while we were discussing Middle Eastern flatbreads over dinner) that not only have my children never been to a seder, my husband hasn't either. So now I'm torn between the desire to make a seder for them next Passover and the fear of offending someone with my cultural appropriation. It's not 'our' story, but it is still one I think they should know.

    1. You could try contacting a local Reform or Reconstructionist synagogue or Jewish community center, if you have one. They sometimes have large public Seders as fundraisers. Explain the situation honestly and ask if they're willing to sell your family tickets; they probably will be. (A Conservative synagogue *might* be willing to do so, and an Orthodox one almost certainly won't be.)

    2. That's interesting. The UCC church I grew up in always celebrated Passover with the local Reform synagogue. I feel keenly the lack of a seder, but I haven't been to any as an adult.

  7. I don't know. I mean, illuminating stories can be illuminating even if they aren't true, but to me, whether a story is true has a large impact on its value. It matters to me whether a story is describing a real thing that happened, a real part of human history that affected real people, or whether it just illustrates a point. Maybe this is because I was raised (relatively progressive) evangelical Christian, but to me, stories carry a lot more weight as illustrative of human nature and experience if they really happened. It also feels dishonest to me to conduct rituals and pray as if a story did happen, when we know it didn't.

    I'm not sure I'm explaining this very well. A story can certainly illustrate something about human nature and experience even if it isn't real. But I don't think I would feel quite right participating in ritual that assumes a story happened if I firmly believed the story hadn't happened.

    1. I think it would be difficult to find someone whose life is entirely untouched by "untrue" narratives, particularly when it comes to holidays and/or religious narratives.

      Santa Claus isn't real. Thanksgiving is rarely the time when we sit around the table and bring up the fact that the Europeans were robbing American Indian graves that summer for food and wealth. Easter may or may not have happened, but it probably didn't happen the way your local church celebrates it, with a white Jesus and candied bunnies. St. Valentine probably didn't give a shit about lovers.

      Even our personal rituals almost always have some degree of untruth to them, thanks to fuzzy memories. Family stories of birthdays, weddings, major events become larger than life and embellished in the retelling.

      And this isn't even getting into how we are often disposed to react to "untrue" fictional narratives in literature and television: witness reactions over Left Behind, Buffy, Twilight, and so forth. For many people, those narratives are deeply touching and add meaning to their lives (for both good and ill), and for the most part we've left behind the conceit of some church leaders who taught that fiction was *sinful* because it is a form of deceit.

      Being untrue doesn't make a narrative meaningless unless you require perfect truth in order for something to have any meaning at all. And that's a rigorous yardstick that most of us can't maintain at all times for everything.

      / My two cents.

    2. Being untrue doesn't make a narrative meaningless for me either, but it does affect the quantity and type of meaning. I respond deeply to stories that I know aren't true, but I don't think I personally would want to perform religious rituals that assume a story happened if I didn't believe the story had happened. I'm deeply uneasy about the idea of teaching kids that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real. Maybe this is just a personality difference?

    3. I'm uneasy with teaching children that Santa is real, too, but I don't think that's what's under discussion here, is it? I was under the impression that we were talking about celebrating narratives that we (and the children) *know* aren't true in the literal sense.

      If I misunderstood that somewhere then, well, I've misunderstood.

    4. Yes, my intent was to talk about celebrating narratives that the celebrants know aren't true. I think a celebration can hold meaning because of the things within it that are true--the people who have celebrated it before (not least of which, several past instances of myself celebrating it), the values it endorses, and so forth.

  8. I mentioned the Santa issue mostly because you used it to illustrate your point.

    With celebrating narratives, I can understand enjoying and learning from narratives that aren't literally true. But to me, religious rites have generally assumed that the narrative being celebrated is literally true. I have virtually no exposure to religious rites outside Christianity, and I was raised evangelical, so maybe this isn't an assumption that is common in the rites of other religions. But in my experience, religious ritual around a story has generally treated the story as literally true, and I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that sort of ritual around a story if I believed the story to be literally untrue.

    1. I mentioned the Santa issue mostly because you used it to illustrate your point.

      I see. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but we -- the adults in my family -- celebrate "Santa" leaving gifts by the tree, so that is what I was referring to.

      FWIW, I am personally infertile and unable to have children, so my comment should be read in light of adults-only, all of whom understand that the narrative being participated in is a construct. :)

  9. Thanks, Froborr.

    I think the idea that a narrative can have value - educational, moral, whatever - even if it's not literally true is one that's been lost in the gradual quest for greater accuracy in reportage, and it's certainly one that the modern fundamentalist Christians cannot accept - see many of Fred's pieces on how opposition to evolution undermines the ethics of Christianity, because when such a person learns the truth about evolution the rest of the edifice crumbles with that opposition.

    (When Beowulf said "I swam thirty miles carrying fifteen men's gear on my back"*, nobody thought this was an accurate recounting of what he'd done - but it was still a right thing to say, with the meaning "I am a tougher bloke than you lot".)

    * numbers are certainly wrong, as this is from memory.

    Looking at another part of the post, I think there's a potential difficulty. If one says "this lot of people suffered greatly, therefore they have a special obligation to help prevent other suffering", that's a proposition one might argue about, but it doesn't seem intrinsically unreasonable. But if one turns it round and says "they suffered, so it's their job more than ours, and we don't need to put in as much effort as they do"... well, no. Which rather tends to negate the idea, I fear. (I realise this isn't the main thrust of the argument, but it rather leaped out at me.)

    1. A narrative about "why I do X" should pretty much never be used to say "why YOU should do X".

    2. What Ana said, basically.

      I think the notion of untrue narratives having value kind of has been lost; I think the main reason for its loss is the rise of positivism and the definition of "true" as "successfully models material reality" (which is the definition I use), and more importantly positivism's insistence that only things which fit in the true-false binary can be meaningful (which I reject utterly).


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