The Jewish holiday of Passover is upon us: The eight-day festival of freedom celebrating the Jewish people’s emancipation from slavery begins Monday, April 10. It is the most widely observed holiday among Jews, even those with little other religious inclination.
The Exodus story is often cited as a major reason why so many Jews throughout history have thrown themselves into the struggle for human betterment. The Torah—the Five Books of Moses—reminds us thirty-six times (!) in several variants of the phrase to “remember the stranger among you, for you were once slaves in Egypt.”
The Exodus account is the foundational “creation myth” of the Jewish people, and has been adopted by many other peoples as a symbol of the struggle for freedom from oppression—even though there is actually no scientific or historical evidence that such an “Exodus” ever occurred. The African American spiritual “Go Down, Moses” is but one example of the centrality of this Biblical account to the emancipation movement.
The most popular song included each year in the Seder, the ceremonial meal for Passover (Jesus’ “Last Supper” in the Christian tradition) is “Dayenu,” with 15 stanzas followed by the word “dayenu” (Hebrew for “it would have been enough” or “it would have sufficed”) sung repeatedly in a catchy tune. The stanzas recount the gifts God bestowed, involving freeing the Jews from slavery, performing miracles that contributed toward freedom, and finally the particular features that make up what came to define the Jewish religion:
If He had given us the Sabbath, Shabbat (dayenu), If He had led us to Mount Sinai (dayenu), If He had given us the Torah (dayenu), If He had brought us into the Land of Israel (dayenu), If He built the Temple for us (dayenu).
Rabbi Brant Rosen, midwest regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and leader of the congregation Tzedek Chicago, has recently published a Passover Seder supplement on his blog to be read following the singing of “Dayenu,” in which he writes:
“Our telling of the Exodus story is not yet complete. It is not ‘dayenu’—it is not enough for us—to sing joyfully of the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land without noting that this promise came with a command: To dispossess and annihilate the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan:
“‘So the trumpets were sounded, and when the army heard the sound, they raised a great shout, and the wall collapsed. The army advanced on the city, every man straight ahead, and they captured it. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city; both man and woman, young and old, as well as the cattle, the sheep and the donkeys, with the edge of the sword.’ (Joshua 6:20-21)
“As difficult as it may be to read lines such as these in our most sacred text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that the conquest tradition of the Bible has inspired centuries of colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the world. It has also been used in various ways by early Zionist ideologues, the political founders of the state of Israel and by the present day religious settler movement.
“Therefore, we cannot continue with our Seder until we honestly face—and disavow—the immoral conquest tradition that is embedded within our Exodus story. We now take this time to read and discuss the teachings of three liberation theologians: one Native American, one African American and one Palestinian. As we consider their challenge to us, let us ask one another: How will we hearken to the cry of Canaanites past and present? Are we ready to admit our complicity in their dispossession? Can we transform the dream of a Promised Land into the reality of a land that is truly promised to all?”
Rabbi Rosen directs our attention to the following three passages:
By Robert Warrior
“The land, Yahweh decided, belonged to these former slaves from Egypt and Yahweh planned on giving it to them—using the same power used against the enslaving Egyptians to defeat the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan. Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror.
“The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identity with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stand in solidarity with the other tribal peoples around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanite eyes.” — From “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians.”
By Delores Williams
“Womanist theologies, in concert with womanist biblical scholars, need to show the African-American denominational churches and black liberation theology the liability of its habit of using the Bible in an uncritical and sometimes self-serving way. This kind of usage has prohibited the community from seeing that the end result of the biblical Exodus event, begun in the book of Exodus, was the violent destruction of a whole nation of people, the Canaanites, described in the book of Joshua. Black liberation theologians today should reconceptionalize what it means to lift up uncritically the biblical Exodus event as a major paradigm for black reflection.” — From “Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.”
By Naim Ateek
“For the Jews who came to establish the State of Israel, their journey to Palestine was an exodus from the different nations where they had been living and a return to the promised land. Obviously, for them the imagery has connected the ancient past and the present. This uncritical transposition, however, makes the Palestinians appear to represent the old Canaanites who were in the land at the time and who at God’s command needed to be dispossessed. The Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are, in the minds of many people, a unified and inseparable theme. To choose the motif of conquest of the promised land is to invite the need for the oppression, assimilation, control, or dispossession of the indigenous population.” — From “Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.”
Perhaps every invader and conqueror throughout history has been sustained by the notion that “God is on our side,” as Divine Will is recruited to defend extermination—and, in many cases, slavery. The sacred texts of most religious traditions contain passages that disturb modern sensibilities. It takes some intellectual maturity not to “explain them away,” but to set them in their appropriate historical and theological context.
We cannot fail to mention that this year in particular is an appropriate time for this conversation. It is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war in which Israel took possession of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. This half-century of Occupation will certainly be noted around the world.
Rabbi Rosen asks, “Can we transform the dream of a Promised Land into the reality of a land that is truly promised to all?” Indeed. And perhaps we can even dare to think beyond a certain parcel of land in the Middle East and imagine the entire Planet Earth as our “promised land” for all.
We wish our readers a sweet Passover and a happy Easter.