The Ethics of Memory: Religious Amnesia and Social Justice

Shavuot is not the holiday of matan Torah – this historical linkage entered our tradition later on – but rather a national festival.
Menachem Fisch has a doctorate in history and philosophy of science from Tel Aviv University. He is the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, and chair of the Graduate School of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He has held visiting research positions at Queen’s College in Oxford, Trinity College in Cambridge, The Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Dibner Institute for Advanced Study in the History of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute

Also by Menachem Fisch: The Dialogical Rationality of Judaism’s Formative Canon

The story of the Exodus, of Israel’s bondage and miraculous deliverance, is the only one of our many stories that we are required by Jewish religious law not merely to tell and remember, but to reenact and internalize. It is the only story, the only juncture of Jewish history, that we are solemnly obliged to regard ourselves as having personally experienced. “In every generation,” says the Passover Haggadah, “a person must see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt.” In addition, it is the only story for which there exists a special mitzva to pass on to our children — a point made explicitly no fewer than four times in the biblical book of Exodus.

Seder night is a strangely unique event in the Jewish ritual calendar. The dining room is converted into a combination of beit midrash and beit knesset — study hall and synagogue — in which, reclining around the table in Roman banquet style, men and women together ponder the Exodus, reciting the Hallel and other prayers, feasting in a heady tangle of ritualistic gestures commemorative of both our slavery and liberation.  It is, above all, a night of remembrance. But it also signifies a severe case of religious forgetting, with serious implications for our collective future.

First Fruits of Independence

On the day after the Seder begins the counting of the Omer. “You shall count off seven weeks,” commands the Torah. “You must count until the day after the seventh week: fifty days.” (Leviticus 23:15-16). That fiftieth day, of course, is the holiday of Shavuot. The counting itself is a pedantic daily tally: “Today is twenty-five days, which is three weeks and four days of the Omer.” The tense and meticulous counting creates the strong impression that what began on the first day of Pesach reached completion on Shavuot.  As we have all been taught, Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Law at Sinai, matan Torah.  The Omer serves to remind us that we Jews were miraculously delivered from Egypt in order to stand at Sinai; that the final purpose and goal of the Exodus was to form a religion.

But the Torah itself tells a very different story. In the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, as the Israelites stand ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, Moses says to them: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horev, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Aravah . . . Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them.” (Deuteronomy 1:6-8). Mount Sinai, also known as Horev, is described by Moses as an important but intermediary stop, where Israel must not tarry too long en route to its main political mission. According to the biblical narrative, what began with the Exodus has not reached its culmination at Sinai.

Indeed, according to Scripture, Shavuot is not the holiday of matan Torah – this historical linkage entered our tradition later on – but rather a national festival. Here is how the Torah, in Deuteronomy 26, describes the ceremony performed on Shavuot by citizen-pilgrims offering up their bikkurim — first fruits — at the Temple. When you come in to the land that God has given you, says the text, put your first fruits in a basket, and “go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there.” As it came to pass, this holy place was the Temple in Jerusalem. The Shavuot pilgrim would give the fruits to “the priest who shall be in those days,” and make the following declaration:

A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery; And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice … And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders; And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land…

The Torah continues: “And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-11). In this important passage, Israel is described as dwelling in its land as a sovereign state with national institutions, whose population includes “strangers” – which in the Bible means non-Jewish minorities.

Shavuot, as envisaged by Scripture, is the celebration of that sovereignty. Citizen farmers offer up their first fruits in gratitude for Israel’s national independence. The declaration accompanying the offering, known in our tradition as Haggadat Ha-Bikkurim, is a concise, five-stage summary of the events that led up to national independence: the emigration to Egypt; the enslavement; the unbearable suffering; the miraculous delivery; and, finally, the arrival in and possession of the land. Sinai, by the way, is not even mentioned, which further emphasizes the national, rather than religious nature of the celebration. Shavuot, in its original biblical setting, is the Independence Day of the Jewish people, not the holiday of the giving of the Torah, and the Haggadah of First Fruits may be viewed as the Israelite Declaration of Independence.

Most significantly, it is these very lines from Deuteronomy 26 – and not the original account in the book of Exodus – that constitute the basic text of the Exodus story that we read out each year from the Pesach Haggadah. As constructed by the rabbis of antiquity, the Haggadah emphasizes that the story be told and reenacted on Seder night not with Sinai at its center, but with political sovereignty firmly in mind. The tight linkage of the two festivals by the Omer means that Shavuot stands for the ultimate purpose of the Exodus: We were delivered out of Egypt not merely for the sake of founding a religion, but in order to establish a sovereign nation state.

The Heart of a Stranger

Jews have many foundational stories. We have stories of creation, of the Fathers, of wandering, of the giving of the Torah, of the conquest; stories of judges, kings and prophets, stories of destruction and exile, stories of salvation. But it is only the Exodus story that we are commanded to tell and retell to our children, to etch into in the personal consciousness of each and every Jew. Why is this so? To paraphrase the opening question of Seder night: why is this story different from all other stories? The answer, I believe, lies in the unique and pivotal role the story plays in establishing the two covenantal relationships that constitute the heart of Judaism.

Let us distinguish between two perpendicular axes of covenantal formation: one vertical, one horizontal. The vertical axis represents the establishment of Israel’s religious obligation to God, the covenantal relationship that defines the Jewish religion. The horizontal axis represents the establishment of the people of Israel’s social and moral obligations to each other, the covenantal relationship constitutive of the formation of Israel as a coherent, and decent, social and political collective.

The salvific part of the Exodus story — our miraculous deliverance from Egyptian bondage — serves exclusively in the Torah to ground the vertical covenantal axis. Our religious obligation to God, the Bible argues time and time again, owes not to God’s being the Creator of the world, the Judge of all Living, the source of all Wisdom, the Giver of Torah, or the Answer to our prayers, but rather wholly and exclusively to God’s liberating our forebears from Egypt. This is made very clear in the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

If the miraculous delivery from Egypt is what supports the vertical axis, the torment and affliction under Egypt is evoked by the Bible, with equal exclusivity, to ground what we might term Israel’s “social contract” – the Torah’s laws of social and economic justice. The painful memory of Egyptian slavery provides the basis for the entire horizontal covenantal axis, which binds the people to one another as a self-ruling political body, and specifies its obligations toward those it rules:

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is inside your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt … (Deuteronomy 5:11-13)

And if your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, and serves you six years; then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty; You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress… And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt… (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates; At his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you. You shall not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge; But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow…When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt… (Deuteronomy 24:14-22) 

While the community constituted by the vertical axis comprises, by definition, Jewish co-religionists only, the political community of the horizontal axis extends beyond that, to include as equals all “strangers” among us – gerim – which in the Bible means non-Jews living under Jewish rule. And these, the Torah instructs, by evoking our own pained memory of being a harshly treated ethnic minority in Egypt, are to be considered equal citizens of the Israeli nation, loved by you as you love yourself.

You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child. If you afflict them in any wise, and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry. (Exodus 22: 20-22)

Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-4)

Biblical ethics is thus an ethics of memory — a morality grounded in the vivid recollection of abuse and exploitation, rather than, as perhaps one might have expected in a religious setting, in some form of imitatio Dei. Hence we are commanded by the Bible to treat others well, not because God, in whose image we are created, is good and merciful, but because as victims of horrific enslavement, we Jews should know better. As such, biblical ethics is much more than a personal moral code; it is decidedly political. It forges the solidarity and mutual responsibility that bind a nation, and sets forth core values of governance and social justice: equality, fairness and compassion. It anchors these obligations in a categorical imperative more resolute and self-referential than the Kantian formula. Instead of saying, “Do not treat those you govern in ways you wouldn’t want to be governed by others,” the Torah says: “Do not treat those you govern the way you yourself were so wickedly treated.” It is an argument based not on a hypothetical, imagined regime gone wrong, but on the living memory of concrete suffering at the hands of the evil Egyptian regime.

The Seder, as originally conceived, was meant to convey these values to future generations. With the First Fruits Haggadah as its narrative focal point, the Pesach Haggadah was designed to underscore the centrality of a fair, just and pluralist society, one that would never ever treat its “strangers” as Pharaoh did. But all of this was to change dramatically when, early in the game, Shavuot was radically transformed from a celebration of political independence to a commemoration of Sinai. Seder night and Shavuot remain tightly related in our collective imagination, but the significance of their connection has been emptied of all political aspiration and social obligation. Egypt becomes the dark and terrifying backdrop against which the bright light of divine salvation can shine all the more brightly. The high moment of the Seder becomes the Hallel, the prayer of praise and thanksgiving. The story of the enslavement continues to be told in vivid detail, but only as that of the disaster from which we were miraculously saved, not as a moral outrage that fuels our firm moral resolve never to reproduce such injustice ourselves, when we are the rulers.

The verses about treating our strangers kindly because we were strangers in Egypt remain on the books, of course. But with only the vertical axis in sight, the horizontal dimensions of ethical commitment and social responsibility became identified with the only social entity the vertical axis recognizes – namely the Jewish community. And the only strangers one encounters within Jewish communities are converts to Judaism. And so, incredibly, but understandably, all the aforementioned biblical verses about loving and caring for strangers were reinterpreted by the rabbis of the Talmud as applying exclusively to converts. The word ger is now repeatedly ascribed totally different meanings, even within the same verse, in a way that defies logic. Thus, for example, Exodus 23:9 is now understood as instructing: “you shall not oppress a convert to Judaism [ger]; for you know the heart of a stranger [ger], seeing you were an ethnic minority [gerim] in the land of Egypt.” Converts to the faith and ethnic minorities are very different kinds of strangers, and the Jews in Egypt were slaves, not converts.

The Vertical Monopoly

Lacking a formally ritualized event dedicated to the forward-looking memory of Israel’s original mission, the political culmination of the biblical narrative fell out of the equation and ceased, for almost two millennia, to function as a motivating religious value. The idea of Jewish statehood remained dormant and forgotten for centuries until it was revived by the primarily secular Zionist movement during the late 19thth century. The return to Zion certainly did remain a central theme – indeed the central theme — in Jewish prayer and yearning. But it did so in a manner utterly stripped of political content and social significance. The grandest prayer we have for returning to Zion as the consummation of the redemptive process is to be found in the Musaf service of Rosh Hashana:

Our God and God of our Fathers: Sound the great Shofar for our Freedom, and set up the banner to gather our exiles, assemble our scattered ones from among the nations, and gather our dispersed from the uttermost parts of the earth. And lead us to Zion Thy city in song, unto Jerusalem Thy Temple in everlasting joy
And there will we offer our required offerings as decreed in Thy Torah given to Moses Thy servant from Thine mouth…

This passionate prayer seeks our complete deliverance from exile — but not in order to build a nation, or establish Jewish statehood, or to justly rule ourselves and others.  Instead, religious Jews pray day after day, year after year, century after century, to return to the Holy Land for the sole purpose of performing the sacrificial rituals of our vertical, Temple-centered obligations. The entire horizontal dimension of Israel’s initial biblical commitment to nationhood and statehood has been forgotten and eradicated from Judaism’s ritualized collective memory and religious aspiration. Zion is remembered and yearned for in prayer only as a holy place of worship, not as the platform for social action. This helps explain why from the very beginning, the lion’s share of observant Jews were incapable of accepting political Zionism.

But what of the few who did, and the many who followed them? Religious Zionism, many would argue, attributes great religious significance to Israel’s newly found sovereignty and statehood. Hasn’t the forgotten horizontal axis been restored to its original glory in the hands of religious Zionists, aren’t we well on our way, thanks to them, to recovering from the religious and cultural amnesia I describe? Unfortunately, we aren’t. And the key to understanding why lies not in Israel’s political reality, but in the ways we continue, as a religious culture, to remember our past and present suffering.

The way the Seder reenacts and represents the Exodus is the paradigm for the way Jews conceive and remember collective calamity, and celebrate or yearn for salvation. The Jewish calendar is dotted with days commemorating a variety of past sufferings and near sufferings, salvations real and yearned for: the Ninth of Av, Hanukkah, Purim, and now Yom Hashoah, along with several other minor feasts and fasts. Some, like Tisha B’Av, mourn what was lost; some, like Purim, loudly rejoice in being saved in the nick of time. On Passover and Hanukkah, we rejoice more soberly, since deliverance came only after our ancestors had paid an enormous price. Among observant Jews, the normative emotions that these days of remembrance evoke range from grief to thankful relief, but none are accompanied by ethical reflection. This is not to say that they are experienced devoid of any commitment, only to say that the commitment they do carry is relegated to the vertical axis. Grief and relief, lament and celebration translate into the familiar oscillation between awe and fear of God’s judgment, on the one hand, and praise, thanks, and yearning for salvation on the other. Maoz Tzur (“Rock of Ages”), the hymn sung on Hanukkah, vividly captures the purely vertical dimension of this rather manic-depressive seesaw of repeated cycles of disaster and deliverance.

The empathetic political ideal so central to the Bible’s moral system and foundational narrative has largely faded from collective memory, leaving the realm of social justice beyond the pale of Jewish religious yearning. This seriously limits our capacity — not as individuals, of course, but as a people — to feel for other victims of such mistreatment. And this, in turn, affects the way the State of Israel is perceived by much of the world.

The dream of Jewish sovereignty was pursued by the Zionist movement not as a revival of Israel’s original Biblical mission, but as their radical solution to what they considered to be the problem of the Jews. This resulted in the greatest upheaval in Jewish history: a revolutionary process of nation-building and revival of Hebrew culture. The early Zionist ideologues preached lofty visions of equality, liberty and social justice, which found stimulating expression in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Israel is formally democratic, but its political culture draws on the fresh memories of 19th th and 20th -–th century persecution, in a manner lacking the kind of moral resolve of which the Bible spoke. The early Israelites came away from Egypt with a moral code that firmly declared “Never again!” — never shall we torment others as we were tormented. When modern Jews say “Never again!” we generally mean something very different.

Ancient Israel’s essential promise was to establish a state morally antithetical to the one from which they had fled. Modern Israel’s essential promise is to build a state capable of defending us from the likes of those we fled. These two political mentalities — never to victimize other people, as opposed to never to be victimized again – represent the fundamental moral tension facing Jews in the 21 stst century. Our daunting challenge is to reclaim the ethical sensibilities of the Torah amid the realities of a menacing world.

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