Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahead of the Passover holiday, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the head of Jerusalem’s pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute, has called for a greater awareness of a universalist narrative within the Exodus story as a counterbalance to a worrying particularism that he says endangers the Jewish soul of the State of Israel.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Hartman said that the recent election had served to underline a focus in Israel on a narrative of “chosenness” present in the Exodus story, which is having a damaging effect on the way Israeli society relates to non-Jews, particularly the way some of the country’s political leadership has exploited this sentiment.
In particular, Hartman criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his election- day rhetoric in warning automated phone calls about “masses of Arabs going to the polling booths” and about the country’s attitude to African asylum-seekers and migrant workers.
“We have two different stories that we tell in the Passover story,” said Hartman.
“We have the focus on the plagues and on the Exodus as the story of our redemption and our election as chosen by God, which is what we are told by the Torah. This story is extremely powerful and is what kept us alive and prevented us from disappearing during our exile.”
The rabbi argued, however, that despite the power and necessity of this narrative in the Diaspora, it is changing into something less desirable in the Jewish state.
“A powerless people is always a moral people. But now we have control of a state in which 21 percent of its citizens are not Jewish. Now all of a sudden non-Jews from Africa want to come here. Back in the Diaspora, no one ever wanted to break into our ghettos, this was never an issue, but today we have ministers of the interior who say 20,000-30,000 non-Jews from Africa are a threat to the Jewishness of the State of Israel.
“We’re not even willing to accept that there’s one refugee among these people,” said Hartman. “We call them infiltrators, the same term used for the fedayeen [Palestinian terrorists] in the 1950s.
“We’re living in a world of us and them, and we can look at the last election and the willingness to create an us/them reality by the prime minister,” said Hartman. “And it’s not so much that this is what Netanyahu said, it’s that it worked.”
Hartman also criticized Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu for what he described as the negative and un-Jewish messages of their election campaigns. He cited in particular the Bayit Yehudi election slogan, “We’re ceasing to apologize” as particularly unworthy.
“Judaism is all about the concept that someone can sin, and can do wrong, and that we are but dust and ashes, and that as the Bible tells us, ‘There is no righteous man in the world who does good and never sinned.’” Instead of focusing on the particularism of the Exodus story, advised the rabbi, greater focus needs to be placed in Israel on the universalism of Passover.
“Most of the core rituals of the Seder focus not on redemption but on the story before the Exodus. We have matza as the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs. The most repeated verse in the Torah is ‘Love the stranger, because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’” the rabbi said. “In this story, the redemption wasn’t a moment of election, but when God showed compassion for the downtrodden.”
According to Hartman, Jews in the Diaspora also are able to emphasize these universalistic aspects of the Exodus story and of Judaism, but these values are being lost in the return of the Jewish people to the Middle East and the difficulties the region presents.
“We thought the challenge of Israel was just to create a safe country, but we also need to decide which Jewish values to bring with us and which ones we don’t want. This is our educational challenge for the next 50 years, and we have to fight for the soul of the state.
Hartman said that the aspect of election and being chosen within the Passover story was a crucial element for creating a national identity, but it is in danger being over emphasized and distorted. “The second narrative is of injustice and of God helping the downtrodden, and when your narrative is not only a story of triumph but also of failure, your nationalism becomes less arrogant and allows empathy for others,” Hartman said.
“We see that part of the story of Egypt is not just that we are the successful, chosen people who have been redeemed, but that we were slaves beforehand, and that we must remember that. So eat some matza! And put some charoset and bitter herbs on it too!” he said.
“Which story we tell is in our hands, and we can choose which stories to tell and remember.”