As the festival of Pessah draws nearer, the streets of Jerusalem, where I live, are filled with signs of joyful aspirations and preparation for a major spiritual event in the lives of the Jewish people. Supermarket shelves are lined with ever-increasing varieties of matza, families spend the weeks leading up to Pessah washing the drapes, the linens (I wonder how they could not be kosher for Pessah – I never saw the drapes in my house eating bread), the floors, even rewashing loads of laundry. Everyone talks about cleaning, recipes and kashrut: Do you follow the Ashkenazi custom of not eating kitniyot, or do you follow the Sephardi custom? Must you eat shmura matza to fulfill the mitzva on Seder night? And exactly how much matza must you eat to fulfill the mitzva?

As much as I am happy to be part of the Jewish people preparing for the holiday of Pessah, I confess that I am bored by the atmosphere and the questions. I am bored by the kinds of conversations I hear around me, by a level of discourse that doesn’t seem to get beyond an excessive concern with the minutiae of halachic ritual.

Coupled with the concerns about food, Pessah suggests a supernatural model of redemption, which posits that God will break into history and save us just as He did during the Exodus from Egypt. Rather than give weight to our own personal will, responsibility and moral agency, this theological worldview says that the best we can hope for is that God will look down and have mercy on us. It is a way of understanding the holiday that positions us as passive and patient, waiting for an interventionist God to rescue us from our galut realities.

Does this truly reflect what Pessah is about? A memory of miracles? An obsession with rituals? Whatever happened to the dramatic, overarching themes of freedom from oppression, self-governance and spiritual rebirth?

In search of a little religious sobriety, I recently began revisiting the work of Mordechai Kaplan, the great 20th century Jewish thinker and founder of the Reconstructionist movement. The crucial question for Kaplan is how do the commandments percolate into the lifestream of the Jewish people? How do the rituals shape us ethically? How do the mitzvot propel us to become full human beings and reach our powers of ethical personality? In other words, how does Judaism impact us in the quest for human self-realization?

Kaplan’s philosophy grew out of his quest to understand how the Jewish people created patterns of living with the potential to redeem us from selfishness, narcissism and cruelty, and open us to a world of holiness.

Although I am very far from institutional Reconstructionism as a religious movement, I am very moved by Kaplan’s thoughts. In Mordechai Kaplan I found a potential remedy to the frantic praxis and fervent fantasizing that have made such deep encroachments into popular religious thinking about Pessah. Kaplan constantly tried to find underlying spiritual and ethical meanings beneath the surface of Pessah. He sought to crack open halachic formalism and reveal a deep teleology of spiritual aspiration.

What is the holiday of Pessah about? We all know the story of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, the Splitting of the Red Sea. But what do we make of our inherited narrative, which we recount every year around the Seder table? How do we understand its theological implications? What kind of God is the God of Pessah? And what are we talking about when we talk about freedom?

For the Jewish medieval philosopher Yehuda Halevi, the Exodus story is the central prism through which to understand the Jewish God, as it illustrates the most fundamental principle of Judaism: God’s absolute will and sovereignty over history. For Halevi, it is the miracle of the Exodus that mediates the reality of God. It is this view that Kaplan rejects unequivocally. The notion of Judaism as supernaturalism – the idea of a God who is above nature, yet whose interference nature must obey – is anathema to Kaplan’s thought. Kaplan, and his philosophical antecedents, such as Maimonides and Spinoza, did not see nature in opposition to God’s will. On the contrary, it was in the very processes of nature that they saw the divine. For Maimonides, God is revealed within the normal patterns of the world, within the natural order of the universe. According to this school of thought, we need not see God as supernatural in order to feel that God is present.

But a God revealed exclusively in nature is a difficult experience for Jews. I remember after the Six Day War visiting Heichal Shlomo, where people sat for hours recounting miraculous interventions during the war: the bomb that fell into the ark containing Torah scrolls but didn’t go off; the Egyptian troops who were about to attack but then suddenly turned away; the sighting of Elijah the prophet. Jews love miracles. Why? Because they can’t stand order.

I met a Jewish man from England recently who told me he believes in providence. He reasoned that God has been good to him. “I’m successful in business. I live in the best neighborhood in England. My children are well-mannered,” he said. But what about the poor Jews? What about those who live in the worst neighborhoods? What about those whose children are suffering? In this type of theological outlook, those painful realities cannot, by definition, have a place. Harsh facts must not disturb one’s need to feel that there is a divine – even miraculous – guidance in one’s life. In this worldview, the conditions of the world are not interesting; what’s interesting is the break in the ordered framework of the world.

ONE OF the most evocative and psychologically complex parts of the Pessah narrative is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Maimonides is particularly concerned with the biblical passage that describes the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an explicit act of God. This is a critical passage for Maimonides, whose entire conception of Judaism is based on the notion of human freedom. How do we explain the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Did God suddenly turn Pharaoh into a puppet? Did he take away his human will?

Maimonides provides an answer. He says that none of the biblical instances of God taking away a person’s freedom should be read literally. Rather, they should be understood as instances in which an individual brought about a curtailing of freedom as a result of his own actions (Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 6). It is Maimonides’s understanding that human beings can create a habitual form of behavior which, practiced enough over a long enough period of time, obliterates the possibility for change. Erich Fromm writes about this as well, in Escape From Freedom: God did not take away Pharaoh’s power to make his own choices. Pharaoh did.

Maimonides develops this idea further in his explication of the following passage, also from Hilchot Teshuva (Ch. 6): “What is meant by David’s utterance, ‘Upright is the Lord, therefore He will teach sinners in the way?’ He will guide those meek in judgment and will teach them the ways of the Lord and bring them back in repentance. Furthermore, He endowed them with the capacity of learning and understanding for it is characteristic of every human being that when his interest is engaged in the ways of wisdom and righteousness, he longs for these ways and is eager to follow them. Thus the Sages say, ‘Those who come to purify themselves, God will aid them.’”

Maimonides maintains that it is precisely because God created human beings with rationality that once we begin to seek righteousness and perform good deeds, we have a natural hunger to continue. Those who, of their own initiative, “come to purify themselves,” are aided by God. God’s “aid,” in this sense, is built into the laws of nature – in this case, into the very essence of human nature. God has structured a universe in which human beings are driven by an innate capacity to act righteously. That is the meaning of divine grace. God is not seen in miraculous breakthroughs, but in the very structure of human reason and human nature.

Thus, according to Maimonides, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is distinctly not an example of God intervening in nature or compromising human will. God created humans in such a way that once we set out on a course in life – noble or nefarious – we become “wired,” in a sense, to continue on that path. Based on this reading, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart so much as he created a world in which Pharaoh’s ongoing refusal to free the Hebrew slaves gave birth to a self-perpetuating reality. For this reason, Pharaoh represents the antithesis of freedom. He is the embodiment of enslavement, of both the self and the other.

Pessah is meant to celebrate and sustain our deep yearning for freedom, not necessarily to show that God can change the order of the universe. Pessah is a holiday that inculcates the belief that man will overcome oppression, that freedom will reign throughout the world. The faith that tyranny will ultimately be vanquished is deeply embedded in the significance of Pessah.

As Fromm writes in Escape From Freedom, the meaning of Pessah is to celebrate deeply our belief that humankind will overcome oppression. Yet we must not allow that faith to obscure the need to address the various expressions of modern-day slavery. How do we treat foreigners and immigrants in our society? Do we take seriously the precept not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt? The Haggada calls for nothing less than a seminar on freedom, slavery and oppression. We should leave the Seder table with a new consciousness of what freedom is and what it means to yearn for it.

WHEN I WAS a rabbi in Montreal, I imagined a Jewish society in Israel where the values and themes of a particular holiday would inspire a national discussion. I dreamed that when the calendar turned to Pessah, the dominant discussions in the culture would be about subjugation, alienation and human dignity; that the prime minister, the rabbinate and Members of Knesset would speak the language of freedom and self-determination. I hoped that the Jewish state would be a place where the deepest values of our tradition are filtered into the public discourse. That Pessah would mean more than spring cleaning – that we would at least attempt to take the notions of oppression and freedom seriously and examine how they were reflected in our lived reality.

But what do we talk about instead? In place of a holiday about values, Pessah has become a holiday about recipes. The discourse has become overtaken by rabbis who have to make a living on kashrut.

When my children were little, I used to ask them at Pessah, what is a slave? But they didn’t know. So I told them a story about a little boy whose father lived far away from the family because he had to make a living. The father was determined to be home for his son’s birthday. But when the day in question came, he had to call his child and explain to him that he couldn’t come because his master demanded that he work more. The son, of course, says, “Why do you have to listen to him?” And that father explains, “Because I am a slave and I have no choice.” When I told my kids this story, they thought, wow, what a terrible thing to be a slave, and that got them into the spirit of Pessah. Why did I tell them this story? Because I felt an obligation to make it real in their lives.

What Kaplan wanted was to make Judaism real as an experience, not as a supernatural obsession. He did not believe that revelation meant God breaking into history. He believed that Judaism is not most essentially from God; it is, rather, the Jewish people’s prayer to God. In Kaplan’s understanding, it is not that the Jewish people exist in order to serve God and to obey the commandments; the commandments exist to help the Jewish people access a sense of possibility for their own moral future. Judaism is the Jewish people’s way of maintaining God consciousness in our souls.

Redemption is not otherworldly salvation at the end of time. It’s not the World to Come or Resurrection of the Dead. For Kaplan, redemption is not something that’s going to happen at the end of days when we’ll all be instructed to pack our bags and welcome the Messiah. Redemption is an individual’s growth into a complete human being, a person who fulfills all of his or her aptitudes. Redemption is not an abstract philosophical or theological construct, but a fine-tuning of the human soul that helps us to love more and to be more sensitive. It creates a meaningful pattern of self-fulfillment.

To me, messianic aspiration and hope should act as a normative critique of the status quo in history. Messianism takes us beyond the given and creates hope for new human potential in history. It is not a predictive moment in history but a religious aspiration to redo history in the image of peace and love.


It is the mission of these holy days to create conditions within human beings for their personal fulfillment. It is the purpose of the holidays to wake us up to our true capacities, to release the deeper ethical components of what it means to be a human being.

That is the reason it’s incumbent upon us to try to keep alive the ethical implications of the Haggada. If we understand and internalize the true message of Pessah, we can develop a whole new response to those without power and take seriously the opportunity to love the stranger as yourself.

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman is Founding President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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