Why Retell the Passover Narrative?


by Arthur O. Waskow and Phyllis O. Berman

Jewish Lights, 2011

The Passover haggadah (order of service for the seder) instructs that in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we had participated in the exodus from Egypt. Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman, pioneers of the Jewish Renewal movement and frequent contributors to Tikkun, have taken up this call with passion and creativity in their new book. In the preface the authors explain why they believe the Exodus story remains powerful today:

Looking at the world today, we see and feel the whole human race, the whole planet in a crisis that dwarfs any crisis before. Several elements of that crisis remind us of the archetypal tale of Pharaoh, the Exodus, the transformative experience of Sinai and the struggle to shape a new kind of community during a generation of experience and experiment in the Wilderness.

They go on to explore in depth how this ancient drama can serve as a vital resource in an age of globalization when we struggle with both familiar and unprecedented human and planetary challenges.

The volume is organized into eight sections following the chronological unfolding of the narrative in the Bible. Each section contains several brief essays (three to five pages) on a different aspect of the story. The volume also includes three essays by prominent Christian and Muslim contributors on the place of this ancient drama in their respective traditions. The authors draw on a variety of classical and modern sources as they guide the reader from Egypt, through the desert, to the banks of the Jordan River. This is not, however, simply an anthology of prior commentaries on the Exodus, as Waskow and Berman weave together these materials with their own insights to create a unified and engaging narrative.

In describing their methodological approach to this project, the authors invoke the rabbinic image of the Torah being written with “black fire on white fire.” The meaning of this statement as they apply it is that their interpretive process includes close readings of the original text of the Bible — the “black fire” or ink — and imaginative readings in the blank spaces or “white fire” between the words on the page. They engage in this complicated exegetical exercise with great reverence for the Jewish textual tradition and with intellectual honesty, challenging certain assumptions, ideas, and values held by our forebears, including issues of gender, sexuality, and models of communal leadership. In so doing, they present us with an important model of how to both dance and wrestle with our sacred texts.

Anyone familiar with Waskow and Berman’s work will not be surprised that they dedicate significant space in this volume to a discussion of how the Exodus story might help us in our efforts to address the current climate crisis. What lessons can we learn, for example, from the Bible’s descriptions of Pharaoh’s abuse of power, of Moses’s revelatory experiences in such natural settings as the burning bush and at Mount Sinai, and of God’s mysterious name, YHWH, which contains the very same letters as the ancient Hebrew term for being itself, HaWaYaH? While many modern commentators have reflected on the power of the Exodus story for social change, not enough have yet connected the human struggle for liberation with ecological responsibility. As the authors write, one of the great challenges of our age is to come to a deeper understanding of the “interrelatedness of human beings with the rest of Creation,” of adam (the human being) with adamah (the earth).

"The Seventh Plague" by John Martin, 1823. The seventh was a plague of the climate: hail and fire.

In reading Freedom Journeys, one issue that captured my attention was Waskow and Berman’s articulations of their understanding of God. There are places in the book where they speak of God as a personal figure, of the great “Thou” of the Bible and other Western religious texts. However, Waskow and Berman are also clearly attracted to a pantheistic or panentheistic worldview, elsewhere describing God as the “interbreathing of all life,” (see chapter 17, “Sinai: The Universe Says ‘I’”). As a person of great spiritual longing and theological uncertainty, I am intrigued by the different ways Jewish commentators throughout the ages work with the strongly theistic (and anthropomorphic) imagery of the Bible in seeking to make meaning in their own lives. What remains the same and what changes? What exegetical techniques do they use to introduce new ideas and values? The authors provide us with some poetic and evocative theological language in this volume; I hope they will expand upon it in future works.

Arthur Waskow first burst on to the Jewish scene in the late 1960s with his Freedom Seder and accompanying haggadah. Since that time, he and Phyllis Berman have been courageous and compassionate voices for Jewish spiritual renewal, interfaith cooperation, social justice, and environmental responsibility. It is wonderful to read their reflections on the Exodus more than forty years after they began their journeys into Jewish life and leadership. Freedom Journeys is a fresh and inspiring commentary by two wise teachers who understand that this ancient text still has much to teach us today.

Rabbi Or N. Rose is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is a contributing editor for Tikkun and co-editor of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections (Jewish Lights).

tags: Books, Judaism, Reviews   
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