What Kind of Freedom Do We Celebrate on Passover?
The New York Review of Books recently devoted a lot of space to a review of “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King” by Peniel E. Joseph. In the current context of Black slavery and its ramifications, I found some interesting parallels (and differences) between the Jewish and the American Black experiences.
On one level, the confrontation between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X was over tactics rather than the common end goal of rectifying the evils of prejudice and discrimination. King believed in avoiding outright conflict. He was a disciple of peaceful protest and the moral righteousness of this cause. He was anxious to involve support and participation from beyond the Black community, and was grateful for the overwhelming support of the Jewish community.
The photographs of King marching together with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (and other Jews) from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965, are iconic. They had a profound influence on me and led me to get involved as a student and later as a rabbi in opposition to racism wherever it existed.
On the other side stood Malcolm X, the spokesman of Black violent opposition. Whatever sympathy I may have had for his argument that violence can be needed for change, I lost any respect I had for him when he joined the Nation of Islam, with its disgusting antisemitic racism.
And whereas King supported Jewish self -determination and Zionism, Malcolm X was strongly opposed.
How can we explain this? According to Malcolm X’s view, is freedom only permitted to some ethnicities and not others?
The dichotomy between the two men, of course, has always existed in the Jewish world as well. It set the Jewish Agency against Jabotinsky’s Irgun, and David Ben-Gurion against Menachem Begin, over how to achieve an independent State of Israel and defend it. This distinction between peaceful negotiation and violence is a universal challenge for anyone seeking radical change.
I am not sure we can always say that one is right and the other is wrong. It is a moral challenge that was first raised in the Bible.
The Black experience of slavery looked for solace and hope in the Bible and the Exodus. Spirituals drew constant parallels between Moses and the Children of Israel, and Black Americans’ desire to be free. Even so, no two experiences of suffering can ever be exactly the same. One cannot even compare one person’s pain to another’s, just as one cannot compare the cruelty of evil slave owners to the genocide of gas chambers. On the other hand, the Jew can sometimes disappear, disguise, or assimilate if he or she wants to, whereas the person of color is always identifiable.
But there is another subtle difference that emerges from the language of the Exodus story and Passover. And it lies in how we understand the word free.
The modern Hebrew word for freedom is herut. This is a word that is not found in the Torah at all. In the Talmud, where it is used for the first time, it is used as a pun. Harut means engraved. The Tablets of Stone were engraved. So the Mishna (Avot 6) says that real freedom, herut, is the acceptance of harut.
Freedom is not enough. One needs to think about what one will do or how one will use that freedom. That’s why the rabbinic liturgy we use today talks about Pesach as Zeman Heruteynu, the time of our freedom. But it is more than that. It is the occasion of our aspirations. Herut is an aspiration, not just a release.
The word in the Bible for freedom as a release is chofshi. Servants are freed from their obligations to serve. Ironically, this is the word in modern Hebrew for someone secular, released from the obligations of religion. Moses did not just ask for freedom from slavery, he asked for freedom to worship, freedom to live a better life.
It is a feature of seder night that we are asked to “ feel as if we ourselves have been freed from slavery.” But surely one cannot really feel what they felt. Or what slaves today feel? No, of course, one cannot. Theater is not life. But it can remind us of life. It can inspire us when just words are dry, repetitive, and often lose their impact. We need to employ our intellect, emotion, and aesthetic sensibilities together — which is what the seemingly banal rituals of the seder are designed to achieve.
This is why the seder starts with an invitation to the poor, the hungry, and the disadvantaged. We are encouraged to think of “freedom from” — rather than “freedom to.” Freedom not just from authority, but also from the materialism that suffocates our souls. And we end the seder meal by looking forward to creating a just society in our homeland, as well as in the world at large.
Otherwise, Pesach becomes just a gourmet experience that owes more to the cookbook than to the Torah.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.