Vicktor (Noah) Ratumbanua holds the Torah during Saturday morning services..
(photo credit: ANNA CLARE SPELMAN)
What does it mean to be a Jew? A simple question with no simple answer.
The controversies which surround this question touch on the essence of Jewish identity.
For the rest of the world questions of identity are easier to answer. There is a concept of citizenship and nationality of a particular country; and then there is the separate matter of religion. But for Jews the line between national and religious identity is blurred. It is in the blurring of these lines that many of the controversies of Jewish life erupt – at the intersection between whether we are a nation with a genetic, cultural and territorial identity, or a religion with a spiritual and moral identity.
The clues to defining Jewish identity are to be found on the Seder night when we tell the story of the origins of our people. How a story is told is very revealing. Think about how a journalist tells a story. You can look through an article and it may be entirely true from the first word to the last, but ask yourself how the facts are presented. Telling a story is an art form. What do you put in? What do you leave out? What do you emphasize? And what do you leave in the background? And so, on the night of the Seder what is important, apart from the fact that we are conveying the historical facts of the origins of our people from one generation to the next, is how we tell the story.
Look in the Haggada and you will find that, based on the teachings of the Gemara, the story of the going out of Egypt is told in two ways. One is the obvious: “We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our G-d took us out.” Much of the Haggada elaborates the details of the background to that simple statement.
But there is another way that the story is told, and that is also contained in the Haggada: “In the beginning [in the times of Terach, the father of Abraham] our fathers were idolaters, but then G-d brought us close to His service.” In other words, alongside the story of our journey from slavery to freedom, there is another story we transmit at the Seder – that of our journey from idolatry to Torah, our spiritual journey from darkness into light.
Jewish identity is rooted in these two stories.
One is the physical preservation of a national entity called Am Yisrael – the Jewish people. The other is a moral and spiritual identity rooted in the values that G-d gave us and the mission that He imbued our lives with when He gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jewish enterprise is then about two imperatives. One is to protect and defend the safety and physical survival of Jews wherever they may be. In this regard we live in blessed times, with the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel, which with G-d’s help, is involved in the great mitzva of protecting Jews in Israel and throughout the world. Jewish history has unfortunately shown time and again how seriously this sacred task of physical security and protection needs to be embraced. But then there is the other dimension of what it means to be a Jew. And that is our moral vision and the values which determine who we are and why we are here in the first place. That imperative needs to be embraced with the same vigor and energy because it is equally part of the Jewish story and part of Jewish identity.
On Seder night we embrace both, because the experience of the liberation from Egypt is about these two stories. On the one hand, it is clearly about G-d’s intervention to extract the Jewish people from the slavery and oppression of Egypt. But the Rambam writes that it was also a spiritual liberation, because when Jacob and his family moved down to Egypt, their descendants began to assimilate into Egyptian society – a society at the time filled with idolatry, worshiping not one G-d of the universe, but many G-ds of nature. They started to assimilate into the value system of the Egyptians until, as the Rambam describes, the world was in danger of completely losing the light and the truth of what Abraham had discovered and transmitted to his family.
The Haggada refers to the final speech that Joshua gave the Jewish people shortly before passing away, and in which he gives a summary of Jewish history. He says to the people “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river from the earliest time and Terach, the father of Abraham... and they served other G-ds.” Joshua is saying in effect: remember where you came from. We came from Terach, and he worshiped idols along with the rest of the world and it was Terach’s son, Abraham, who rediscovered the idea of one G-d. And G-d took us out of Egypt to give us this truth, and we are responsible for guarding and carrying this truth in the world.
The Rambam describes in evocative language that “the sapling that Abraham planted was almost at the point of being uprooted,” and that the children of Jacob were about to return to the mistakes of the past.
But what happened? G-d intervened, He took the people out of Egypt and He brought them to Mount Sinai and gave them the Torah. And so we see that for the Rambam there is a very deep connection between the two stories we are obligated to tell on the night of the Seder – the story of our physical journey from slavery to freedom and the story of our spiritual journey from idolatry to Torah and belief in G-d.
Taking us out of Egypt also enabled G-d to give us His Torah. How else would you get 3 million people to stand at a mountain in the desert with no distractions to hear G-d’s voice? And with giving us His Torah the idea of the belief in one G-d and the values and the ethics that accompanied this belief could be entrenched in humanity forever.
On the night of the Seder we tell both stories. We don’t just tell the story of the exodus from Egypt: we go right back to the beginning “when our forefathers worshiped idols”. And at the Seder table we hand down the truth to our children: that we were in Egypt, that G-d saved us through signs and wonders, and that G-d exists, the one omnipotent G-d, who gave us a way of life to live in accordance with His mitzvot, and who charged us with the responsibility to share the light of that truth with the entire world, and with the responsibility to carry that legacy forward. And that’s what we are doing when we gather around the Seder table. We are there to reaffirm what it means to be a Jew, to discuss our purpose in life, our divine mission in this world, and to hand that down to the next generation in a manner which is inspiring and uplifting for all.The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.