Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Narrow Place

Apologies to the 3.5 people who read this. I haven't posted anything here in a long time. Blame other social networking media, and grad school. And life.

Anyway, here it is, Passover. And as usual, I get irritated by the literalists--both the historical literalists who insist on believeing that the Exodus must have happened, as written, in historical time, for it to have any meaning, and the ritual literalists, who insist on leading the seder as though every page must be read out loud, in order, as is, for the evening to have any meaning. I reject both points of view.

I've participated in discussions, at my congregation, about the historical truth of the story, and everyone at the table got completely hung up on the topic. To them, the idea that maybe, just maybe, there were no Israelites enslaved in Egypt--the fact that no archeological evidence had turned up yet to confirm this--was terribly threatening to them. Like the story had no meaning unless it was literally, historically true.

And this is a Reform congregation.

To me, the story might actually have MORE meaning if it's not true. I mean, think about it--why would our ancestors have chosen, on purpose, to make this story of enslavement and redemption their founding myth? Who does that? Every other ancient culture that I know of saw itself as descended from gods or heroes. The Jews saw themselves as descended from slaves. Why? What does that say about us, as a people?

For me, as a writer and a former English major and English teacher, the fact that something may be poetry does not mean that it isn't true. There is truth in poetry--sometimes greater truth than we find in history.

What does the poetry of Exodus tell us?

Let's start with crossing the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, or whatever it was. Does it matter whether the sea was really parted? Not to me. What matters to me is the imagery of something enormous being crossed by the Israelites, and then being closed behind them. It means that true freedom requies a boundary-crossing in a way that does not allow for backsliding and return. We know the Israelites bicker and complain constantly--that they are terrified of freedom and, in the face of each crisis, beg to return to Egypt. It's important that the door behind them has been closed, and that the only way forward for them is forward. If the oppressed peoples we've known of had been able to truly close the door on old chapters of their history, they might have been more able to move forward into freedom, rather than backsliding into tyranny, as so many of them have.

How about 40 years in the desert? What does it mean that the slave generation had to live out in the wilderness and die there, and that only their children--the ones born in the open spaces of freedom--were ready not only to understand the commandments given unto them, but also to live them, and make a new nation for themselves? How many peoples throughout history have had the benefit of "40 years in the desert" between tyranny and freedom? How many have had the luxury of not having a new potential tyrant, in their nation or in a neighboring country, breathing down their necks and waiting for them to fail? We, in America, had that luxury, only because most of the rest of the world was separated from us by two oceans that took a long time to cross. In fact, we had worked out quite a lot of what it meant to self-govern long before our revolution took place. Who else has been so lucky?

What about the giving of the law and the building of the calf? Huge. Someone once made what he thought was a nasty joke about Jews, saying, "Only the Jews would come up with the idea that laws = freedom." But I didn't find it nasty. I said, "You're damned right. Because laws DO equal freedom. Without law, all you have is chaos, and chaos leads straight to tyranny. If you don't have some laws or principels that allow you to self-govern, it won't take long for you to turn to some strong man and say, 'govern us.'"

None of these issues ever seem to get talked about by the literalists. Nothing that could teach us how to live, how to understand ourselves. Just facts.

And the literalist seders don't help us learn from our story, either. Instead, we get page after page of psalms extolling the power of God. And that's fine, to some extent. Maybe, for some people, that's fine in its entirety. That's the only lesson to be drawn.

But not for me. That's all I'm saying. To me, the Torah--the Bible--is not a book that you are simply supposed to swallow, whole, without reflection, and say, "I believe." From where I sit, my heritage and culture teach me to wrestle with the book, to argue with it, and to learn from it--constantly. And the only way to do that is to let the words and images resonate with you--to let them bounce around and reflect off things and work on you in different ways.

Like a poem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Other social networking media be damned...we've missed you.