Redemption: Fusing Israeli and Jewish identities

On Passover we say “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt.”

Swifts bird at Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Swifts bird at Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
PASSOVER IS a holiday celebrating people-hood and redemption, commemorating the emergence of a new Jewish identity, from slavery to nation. This identity has evolved significantly since the exodus from Egypt, culminating with the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
The Jewish creation of Israel brought with it the creation of a new national identity, the Israeli identity. While some have been able to seamlessly integrate their Israeli and Jewish identities into a multifaceted worldview, others have struggled to identify with both nation and religion.
The Haggada’s parable of the Four Sons is the perfect lens through which to examine this struggle. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask. Each son represents the spectrum of modern identities in Israeli society; the questions they ask mirror many of the issues we are grappling with today.
The wise son asks: “What are these statutes?” This son takes an active part in the Seder, eager to fulfill his obligations to his people and Judaism.
This is the Israeli who understands his or her national identity as the continuation of the people whose narrative was formed during the exodus. Today’s wise son holds a Seder to commemorate the biblical exodus, recognizing its connection to his modern life. He is “wise” in his ability to fuse his Jewish identity with his Israeli one, recognizing that Jewishness is the foundation of Israeli nationhood, with each component of his identity enriching the other.
The wicked son asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” By stating “to you” he is wicked not in character, but by separating himself from the narrative of his faith, tradition and people.
In Israeli society, there are two types of wicked sons at opposite extremes; the ultra- Orthodox and the ultra-secular. There is a significant segment of the ultra-Orthodox community who remove themselves from the state of their people. They will have a fully halachic Passover Seder, but then step outside of their homes and ask, “What is this State of Israel ‘to you?’” They refuse to work, to serve and even to hold official ministerial appointments, because they believe that by doing so they legitimize a state that they do not endorse or feel a part of.
Yet the state is the collective body of the Jewish nation. By excluding themselves from participating in the life of their nation, while simultaneously excluding the rest of their people’s mainstream more plural interpretations of Torah as not credible, they divide the nation of Israel as the wicked son brings division to his father’s Seder table.
Members of the ultra-secular are equally guilty of this separation, but at the other extreme. This is the person who will state he is Israeli, but not Jewish. In his mind, the two have no connection. He will have a Passover dinner, because to him a Seder means nothing.
His identity is the state and he rejects any religious connection. By denying the foundational origins of both this holiday and where his identity to be “Israeli” even came from to begin with, he separates himself from and destroys both his heritage and the origins of his very identity.
The simple son asks: “What is this?” He knows he is meant to be at the Seder, but he is unsure why.
His modern counterpart is the unaffiliated Israeli. He will hold a festive meal with some semblance to the Seder. He will eat some matza and drink some wine and toast “Pesach Sameach!” He recognizes the connection between the biblical Jewish narrative and his modern-day Israeli holiday, but this association is surface-deep. He is uninformed; the symbolism of the Seder is lost on him.
Similarly, this is the simplest version of Israeli identity. He knows that he is Jewish and Israeli, and that the two are loosely connected, but the depth of this connection is of little consequence and both identities remain superficial at best.
The fourth son is the one who is silent, for he knows not how to ask. He is at the table with us, but hasn’t said anything – yet. This is the son who knows nothing about Judaism or Israeli people-hood. He has not rejected these identities, but rather is simply ignorant to their bearing on him as an individual and a member of the collective.
The manner in which we choose to educate this son, and what he will one day have to say to us, will matter most for where we want our future to be.
Marcus Garvey stated: “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” He knew this to be true and made use of it in his struggle to liberate his people during America’s civil rights’ movement.
It is by no way coincidental that this civil rights’ movement, and many other liberation movements, were replete with exodus imagery. For example, Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, used to refer to slave masters in the coded term “pharaoh.” There is a revolutionary power unequaled in the exodus story, and what makes it even more powerful, is that the nation whose liberation is commemorated in this story is still here to tell their tale.
Tubman once said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
THIS MESSAGE is profoundly powerful; it is our duty to educate the Israeli people from whence they came. This is the only way to truly ensure the Jewish-Israeli future, not only for ourselves, but also for the important messages (such as the one we tell at the Seder table) that we have to share with the entire world.
It is therefore imperative that we impart onto our youngest son, the one who knows not how to ask, as well as the other sons, a deep appreciation for who he is and where he comes from, to bring our family back together. It is not just the seder rituals, but also the symbolism behind them and the sense of uniting our nation, beginning with our family, that we must impart to our sons and our nation.
On Passover we say “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt.” We must not only recount the exodus, but rather understand its integral role in the foundation of the Jewish state and people.
This is why the Sages ask: What does “to see” mean? It actually means “to know” yourself. Hence, we must promote this self-awareness, not only of the Passover story, but also of the rich, intertwined Jewish-Israeli identity. We must free ourselves from modern-day bondage, and remove the chains of indifference and ignorance.
Although Passover is coming to a close, we, as a Jewish and Israeli people are yet to be fully redeemed. The four sons of modern-day identity are still divided; we cannot forget the Jewish foundations Israel was built upon, nor can we forsake the nationhood our forefathers fought to create. It is only through fusing these identities and embracing their symbiosis, that we can truly be a light unto the nations.
Michael Faivush is an Israel government fellow, a one-year fellowship based in Jerusalem sponsored by The Menachem Begin Heritage Center. As part of the program, he is working for the Bureau of World Jewish and Inter-Religious Affairs in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. He is also an iEngage fellow for the Shalom Hartman Institute's iEngage program. The views expressed are his own.