Passover: Slaves or Pagans?
The Four Questions that are asked in the Haggadah act as an introduction to the ideas behind the festival of Passover. These questions were already mentioned in the Mishna, written some 2,000 years ago. In fact, the idea that we should ask questions is mandated in the Torah, which was written much earlier. Four times, the Torah says something like, “And when your children ask you why are we celebrating this festival, then you should answer…” (Exodus 13:14, etc.).
Thirty years ago, I attended an interfaith conference in Vienna, hosted at the Schwarzenberg Palace; the guest of honor was Prince Schwarzenberg. (The Schwarzenbergs were one of the most important dynasties in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and staunch Catholics, producing cardinals as well as princes.) At the conference, the late Sir Sigmund Sternberg presented Prince Schwarzenberg with a Haggadah in gratitude for his work on religious reconciliation.
The prince rose to thank him, saying that he was always impressed by the fact that the Haggadah, and indeed the rabbinic tradition, encouraged asking questions — in contrast to the Catholic Church, which discouraged questioning and valued submission to priestly authority.
It was a moving speech, and fortunately none of the Jewish attendees got up to contradict him. After all, in the rabbinic world of today, questioning is confined to a very limited academic context, and challenging religious authority or tradition is both frowned upon and positively discouraged. But that’s not how things used to be.
On the Seder nights, we were asked to analyze, challenge, and expect answers. The primary questions were why we were slaves in Egypt, why we were freed, and why we still exist as a people, 3,000 years later. All of this was originally asked at a time when slavery was the universally accepted norm of all human societies around the world. It still amazes me that the campaign to end slavery only began in the last few hundred years, and still has not been entirely won.
Slavery means the dehumanization of a person. No freedom of choice, no rights, no protections — just daily humiliation of the worst possible kind, in which human bodies are treated as animals, with little hope of escape or freedom till one dies, which might be at any moment. As I have said, such states exist in the world today. Even in the US, although it is completely prohibited by law, there are still cases of enslavement of undocumented agricultural workers and involuntary sex trafficking, to name just two examples.
That a whole nation was enslaved and then miraculously freed was remarkable at the time, and certainly worthy of commemoration. The Talmud responds by saying that we once were downtrodden and at the very lowest rung of humanity. What was it, asks the Talmud, that caused us to be at this very low state of affairs in human society?
Two answers are given: We were slaves and we were pagans. One state was imposed on us by other humans, but the other was a matter of our own primitive way of thinking about the world and our place in it.
We escaped. And our story was adopted by other slaves. There is much debate in our fractious society as to whether you can compare situations of discrimination, slavery, and genocide to one another.
Usually the arguments are either ignorant or misguided. There may be similarities, but there are never exact copies. In some cases, the slaves were enslaved by their own people. In some, it was possible to attain freedom under certain conditions. In others, slavery was accompanied by an intentional, planned program to obliterate a people and a culture. In still others it was simply a matter of religious, commercial, or political gain.
It is invidious to compare one tragedy to another. To suggest that Israel wants to exterminate the Palestinians just like Nazi Germany tried to do to the Jews is just malicious deceit. There are no gas chambers in the West Bank.
To say that Jews cannot claim to have been discriminated against or excluded is likewise ignorance. Jews have been framed and indeed lynched in the US, let alone elsewhere, albeit not in the same numbers as blacks by any means. To compare modern American treatment of blacks to the Nazis is also laughable. The Constitution of the United States forbids discrimination. Although it cannot control personal prejudice, and it is true that prejudice in attitudes and policies have and continue to have a debilitating and humiliating impact on the victims, there is no comparison.
Appealing to history is always problematic. History is in the eyes of the beholder. You cannot always compare different examples, situations, and precedents.
The Seder advocates freedom not just as an escape from a situation, but as the condition of creating a better alternative — a moral, spiritual world in which we are enabled to fulfill our potential. What defines us is not just our freedom, but what we do with it. For us, it is our culture and our religion too. That’s the true meaning of freedom: not just the removal of the shackles, but using the gift of freedom to be better people. That’s precisely why the Talmud says that each one of us should say, “He took us out of there.”
I hope that you had enjoyable Seders and a Happy Pesach.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York