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Slaves Of History?

Slaves Of History?

A student’s challenge offers new light on Jewish people’s old experience in Egypt.

"In every generation,” we read in the Haggadah every year, “everyone must view himself or herself as if he or she had gone forth from Egypt.” This comes from the biblical commandment, “In that day you shall teach your child saying, ‘All of this is because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt.’ It was not only our forefathers that the blessed Holy One redeemed; us too God redeemed together with them. …”

The key to this passage is the Hebrew word k’-ilu, literally “as if.” We are to view ourselves as if we had gone forth from Egypt. But how is this possible?

Some weeks ago, I spent a day teaching theology at the Gann Academy, a Jewish high school in the Boston area. After one of my classes, a young woman student approached me and quoting the above passage, asked, “Would you consider this to be an instance of ‘second naiveté?’”

“Second naiveté” is a term that I have been using for some decades now in my teaching and writing. It is a popular term in the academic study of religion. In my own work, it appears together with my claim that many of our traditional teachings should be understood as myth — where, by “myth,” I mean not a fiction, but an imaginative, poetic and impressionistic attempt to capture the non-literal meaning of a text or a tradition.

In that sense, the first chapter of Genesis 1 is a myth, as is the Torah’s narrative of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai. These may not be literally or factually “true” but they remain profoundly “true” all the same.

Myths can be living — when they continue to inform the life of a community — or they can die. But myths can also be “broken,” which simply means that they are exposed as the myths that they are, not as literal truths. Sometimes, a broken myth dies. But it need not. A broken myth can still live and do its work — precisely because of our capacity for second naiveté.

Second naiveté is the internal step that takes us beyond our critical impulse and enables us to recover the more “primitive” sense of a traditional claim. It is different than “primary” naiveté, which precedes, shuns or fears the critical work of the mind.

I teach in a school that values the critical approach to traditional texts, but at the same time insists that these texts continue to have religious meaning and inspire the modern Jew. This complex process is possible because of our capacity for second naiveté. The Exodus account of the revelation at Sinai may not be historically true, but as I stand during the reading of that account on Shavuot I am moved.

Now along comes Shirah (not her real name), who identifies one of the stranger passages in our liturgy as an instance of second naiveté. In my own work, I use the term to deal, for example, with the implications that the Exodus may not have been a historical event, that it may never have “really” happened, certainly not as the Torah and the Haggadah relate it.

But Shirah was asking a different question. Whether or not it really happened is irrelevant. That is not her issue. Her issue is, rather, what does the event mean to her? Was she there, too? Sure she was, responds our second naiveté. Second naiveté destroys the sense of history. The religious community inhabits an eternal present.

But then she pushed me one step further. What about the tradition that relates that all Jews to the very end of time came together at Sinai to receive the Torah? Wasn’t that second naiveté as well?

As every teacher knows, we learn more from our students than from anyone else.

Rabbi Neil Gillman is the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Emeritus Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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