The past year, in addition to facing all of the various physical, social, and economic ills caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had a sort of national reckoning on race, and we continue to look deep inside ourselves as we wrestle with the biases and prejudices that we all have. As a part of this process, we have continued the public struggles over symbols of the racism of American history. And this has not been an easy or comfortable conversation.
Right now, we are celebrating one of the most essential festivals of the Jewish year, a holiday that marks our freedom from slavery and our freedom to worship as we please. And yet, in more than one passage in the Torah, it is clear that some of our ancestors, thousands of years ago, owned slaves. Now, the slavery described in the Torah seems to be largely an economic arrangement born of bankruptcy, in which one who could not repay debts could effectively sell him/herself as a slave, although there are also arrangements for enslaving those captured in war. And it is worth pointing out that the Torah requires slave owners to let slaves go free, if the the slaves desire, after 7 years.
How can the Torah permit something which it elsewhere decries?
Of course, the very idea of slavery of any kind is detestable to us today as Jews, and as Americans. And yet, of course, as with all the other passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable, we continue to read them, albeit with the disclaimer which I find myself making whenever explaining these thorny parts of the Torah, that although this was permissible in ancient times, we no longer do this. That’s the thing about the Torah – we read it all, out loud, every year (well, every three years at Beth Shalom, where we follow the triennial cycle). We cannot edit out passages that we do not like.
And let’s face it: as an ancient tradition that unfolded over centuries, there are plenty of things in Jewish life that we have received from our ancestors which today we find uncomfortable. And we must wrestle with those things.
The traditional Pesaḥ haggadah, for example, includes a passage that I find particularly objectionable. You can find it in your haggadah right after the berakhah for the third cup of wine, which is in the “Barekh” section (most of which is Birkat haMazon).
It is the following:
שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ
שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם
תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה
Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7).
Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).
You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66)
These are a relatively late addition to the haggadah, probably from the 12th century, in the context of the Crusades, which were particularly painful to the Jews of early Ashkenaz: four verses saturated with anger and grief and pain. They were chosen because they are an obscene gesture to our non-Jewish enemies, a reflection of the powerlessness of our medieval ancestors in response to their horrible condition, maintained by anti-Semitic oppression.
And what do we do when we recite these verses? We open the door, ostensibly to welcome Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. Yes, I know that is what they told you in Hebrew school.
But what are we saying as we do this? May God slaughter our enemies, in anger.
One theory about why we open the door is that our ancestors in these troubled times were demonstrating to our non-Jewish neighbors that nothing nefarious was going on, to show that we were not, as we had been accused, using blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah. So the irony here is that we open the door for all to see our innocence, and yet at the same time we are calling on God for vengeance.
I have often been at a loss to try to square these verses, their origin and context, with my own outlook on American Jewish life in the 21st century. On the one hand, anti-Semitism is, lamentably, still thriving here and around the world. On the other, is cursing our neighbors and calling for their destruction the right response? So, when leading a seder, I have tried to put these in context, to rationalize their presence in my haggadah, or to lean into the Eliyahu haNavi bit rather than the pouring out of Thy wrath.
But that is what we do: when faced with rituals or text that challenge our contemporary sensibilities, we do not merely take them out. We modify them slightly (for example, adding the Imahot, the matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Amidah), or we put them in context. The Conservative movement has historically been the home of Tradition and Change. We do not gloss over the ugly parts; rather, we seek context, meaning and intent in every generation, as our world evolves.
And we must do the same as Americans. We are struggling right now with symbols of our past that are fraught with the sting of racism.
You may recall that the wider movement to remove some of these symbols, like statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags, gained a new urgency following the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist in 2015. You may also recall that the shocking march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 was precipitated by a public debate in that city about whether to take down a monument of Robert E. Lee.
Some symbols, like those of Confederate generals, are too painful to remain in public places. Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-Americans, only removed the Confederate emblem from its flag last June. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to the 40% of Mississippi that is Black to live in a state that flew that flag; picture having to tolerate veneration of Nazis in your neighborhood.
But while Confederate symbols and statues are clearly unacceptable, all cultures have heroes, and heroes are never saints; they are human. Their achievements can be admired while also giving context and even speaking of their failings. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, for example, were slave owners. Should we remove the statues of these icons of American democracy?
We the Jews are all too familiar with the danger of words and images. We understand where the constant denigration of others can lead. We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by ancient hatreds – the pogroms, the forced exiles, the forced conscriptions, the genocide.
When we look deep into our own tradition, there are clearly troubling items to be found there. But our response is always to teach, to argue with ourselves, to write commentaries and fiery sermons and opinion pieces and critical editions of ancient texts. And, of course, around Purim time, we remember to forget Amaleq, who sought to destroy us.
In short, the remedy to these things is education. We do not edit out the bad parts; we teach them! And we teach that hatred is wrong, that oppression and slavery are wrong.
And so too as Americans. We have to teach the shameful parts of our past, and help our coming generations wrestle with our own internal demons to lead us all to live in harmony with each other, to understand that we are all in this together, that nobody is truly free until all are free. We have to make sure that the commentaries are there, the explanations that say, “This is not who we are. We are better than this.”
We, the Jews, have to share a little bit of the seder with our non-Jewish neighbors, a different part, the passage that is, I think, the most important one in the whole book: Check out the beginning of “Maggid”: Kol dikhfin yeitei yeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. I am going to break these down, Rashi-style:
Kol dikhfin / All who are hungry: This refers to all who suffer in any way, whether through physical or spiritual deprivation. It includes the homeless as well as the oppressed, the abused, the victims of grinding poverty, baseless hatred, and corrupt governments.
Yeitei / Let them come: Open our doors with love, honesty, and compassion.
Veyeikhul / And let them eat: We are obligated to take care of one another, to make sure that all are welcome, all are fed and clothed and housed and all have access to health care and justice. We should incline toward building a better society, one in which nobody falls through the cracks. The work of repairing this world is not yet done.
If you want to reinterpret “Shefokh ḥamatekha” / pouring out God’s wrath a different way, that’s fine. Perhaps you’d like to interpret this passage as directed at the enemies within ourselves, the parts of our personalities that resist God’s holiness. Maybe right afterward, you could reprise Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. But just make sure that we know why we are saying what we say. Teach our values, so that we may live them, and that our children may live them, and all of us may live together.
חג שמח / Ḥag sameaḥ!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesaḥ , 3/28/2021.)