NEW YORK: All peoples and religions want to survive destruction. That is a given. But the question is “At what cost?
The Jewish people are celebrating Passover this week. Reading the relevant sections of the bible, it’s possible to interpret them as commanding the Children of Israel to survive at all costs. Although Abraham is depicted as someone who has good relationships with Egyptians and other peoples in the region, his descendents fall into slavery. The Children of Israel who emerge from this experience are commanded to obliterate the Seven Canaanite tribes and never lower their guard against the Amalekites who attacked them from behind. Yet they are also commanded not to hate the very Egyptians who had oppressed them. So even in biblical times, not only was there no command to hate one’s enemies, but an actual insistence that one should not. What is more, in the book of Deuteronomy there is a command to seek honorable peace terms before resorting to war.
The world that existed 4,000 years ago was a cruel place where might was right and no universal moral codes or Geneva conventions existed. One could be forgiven for thinking that not a lot has changed. Certainly hatred nowadays seems to be endemic and positively cultivated in many circles as a necessity for gaining the upper-hand against others.
Judaism insists that one’s own survival comes first, whoever that “one may be. At the same time, Jews, who have always fought for their own rights, need to be sensitive to the rights of others. But unfortunately, in every religion and in every people, there are those who distort and misapply their holy texts for their own purposes.
Two thousand years ago the Jewish exegetical tradition, known as Midrash, already began dealing with these issues even though it was a time when Jews were fighting for their survival. They had just about managed to escape Syrian Greek attempts to obliterate their religion and now were struggling to survive Roman domination. Yet at this very moment rabbinic leadership set about revisiting biblical ideas about how we should relate to others.
Firstly, the rabbis officially made all biblical references to Canaanite tribes inapplicable for the future by saying that the peoples of the Middle East had changed so much they were no longer identifiable with any original tribe. Thus at a stroke they removed the idea that enmity towards a people could be ongoing, and they insisted that new realities replace old ones.
Secondly, they introduced a series of measures to emphasize universalistic principles. Already two thousand years ago rabbis ruled that on Passover we should reduce the rejoicing of our freedom precisely because it was at the expense of other human suffering. This is why, to this day, we pour out wine from our cup at the Passover meal whenever reference is made to others’ suffering and we reduce the number of psalms we sing in praise of God for our salvation, because Egyptians died in the process. The value of Midrash in Judaism was not just that it ameliorated inappropriate or anachronistic ideas but that it carried absolute authority in its revisionism.
It also taught that nothing is ever black and white, which is why it is so important to see the other side.
Too many of us are still sadly caught up in the unacceptable vortex of violence and insensitivity as a result of two peoples claiming the same homeland. Nothing offends my Jewish values more than to hear hatred spewed out on any side – and all the more so when it contradicts the very values for which we stand. No doubt many Muslims and Christians feel the same way when they hear their religions of love and peace turned into agents of hate as well. Nothing offends my humanity more than the dehumanization of others or the generalized pigeon holing of others as “enemies . It offends me doubly when I hear rabbis, who ought to know better, descend to the same level.
If Passover has any message of relevance today, I believe it is the importance of freedom and of the need to struggle for its attainment by any person who does not experience it. But it is also the necessity of avoiding hatred, of recognizing the needs of others and accepting that we all come from a physical and spiritual source. I hope that whatever festival we celebrate at this time of the year we can grasp this universal message.
Jeremy Rosen,orthodox rabbi and academic, lives in New York where he is rabbi of the Persian community. He can be contacted at: [email protected]. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).