Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who served as chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1940 to 1972, spoke with pride about the contributions that Jews and Judaism have made to humanity in the areas of ethics, social justice and religion. Judaism has something important to say to the world, he believed, and should say it loudly and clearly.
I was reminded of that avowal a year ago when a Mormon attorney asked me for tips to help with the Passover seder he was about to host. The question surprised me only momentarily, given the many Christian, interfaith and “freedom” seders that are routinely held each year, not to mention the seder held at the Obama White House. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether and how Jews can share, along with the seder itself, the broader set of concepts and commitments of which Passover is a part. Three seem particularly salient at this season.
First: the biblical notion of God, which via Christianity and Islam has come to influence billions of believers. Monotheism as we know it seems not to have existed anywhere before ancient Israel, the writings of its Prophets and the magisterial opening chapter of the Book of Genesis. Ancient Egyptians worshipped a sun god, who reigned supreme over other deities, but Genesis proclaims a Creator who wills light into being on the first “day,” and conceives sun, moon and stars on the fourth.
We generally take worship of one God so much for granted in the modern West — whether as believers or nonbelievers (known for this reason as “a-theists”) —that we are unable to appreciate what the world would have been missing without it. We are all too aware of the problems to which monotheism gives rise. Theodicy, for example: why would a “good” God who rules the world allow so much evil and suffering to take place? Or a particular kind of fanaticism and intolerance: how could the One God not demand adherence to one truth, one way, and no other? But we are not as attuned to the good that monotheism uniquely has made possible.
Science, of late in tension with religious belief in many quarters, was for centuries regarded by Judaism, Islam and Christianity as a faithful attempt to understand the mind of the Creator. A good friend of mine, winner of high honors in science and medicine, told me that he (like many of the founders of modern science) believed that the biblical notion of God as sole Creator, while not to be taken literally, is utterly foundational for the practice of science. Belief in God as Creator has entailed not only the commitment to ponder God’s creation, but to use knowledge for the preservation of God’s creatures and the stewardship of God’s earth.
This points to a second contribution that Judaism has made to the world: the idea of one humanity, rooted both conceptually and historically in the belief that one God created all human beings. The rabbis commented 2,000 years ago that the story of Adam and Eve teaches that all of us come from the same set of parents, meaning that no one can legitimately claim superiority on the basis of blood. While there are, of course, other sources for the notion of human rights, the conviction that the one God created one humanity in God’s own image offers the strongest possible basis for a robust notion of human rights and dignity.
These commitments lead directly to a third major gift bequeathed by Judaism to the world: the Exodus narrative, which has inspired countless liberation movements throughout history. Anyone familiar with the civil rights movement knows the central role played by the Exodus in the consciousness of generations of African Americans. Michael Walzer’s study, “Exodus and Revolution,” shows that the impact of the Passover narrative is practically universal, its lessons repeated far and wide. None of us is completely free until all of us are free; those who are liberated from oppression have a special obligation to liberate others; God is on the side of justice, “loosens those who are bound,” “raises up those who are bound down” — and wants us to do the same.
Ask about the meaning of Passover, and you will usually hear: it is the holiday of freedom. The Haggadah says a lot more. It teaches that “in every generation a person is obligated to regard himself/herself as if he/she went forth from Egypt.” The point could not be clearer. “Not our ancestors alone did the Holy One Blessed be He redeem from Egypt, but us with them.” We are therefore obliged to give thanks for the blessings we have and to share them; not just to tell the story of the Exodus, but to join it so that we too may take part in the work of redemption.
Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.