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    The Festival of Freedom: Moral Concepts of Passover

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 10 April 2017.

    Jews are a fascinating people. Inexhaustibly tenacious, they have trodden the scene of history longer than any other monotheism, before most ideologies and faiths.

    They have seen nations rise high and fall hard: they themselves burst into renewed life with the establishment of Israel in 1948. The Holocaust tried to eradicate them, but they overcame and survived.

    Difficult to define, their identity is an amalgam of ideology and experience. They believe in God but incessantly quarrel with Him; they have a religious culture but constantly weave in and out of it – a messianic posture which they sometimes embrace and sometimes dismiss as mere dreaming.

    A fractious people, united in times of crisis and diverse at other times; a small minority, occupying a large share of history. They wander – physically, intellectually – but generally feel lost if they have forgotten the way home. Few completely sever the apron strings.

    Especially is this true when it comes to Passover. The Haggadah (the home ritual) mentions four sons, four human types: the wise, the wicked, the simple, the one that knows not how to ask. All somehow make tracks for the tradition on this night. Over 80% of Jews celebrate the festival, moved again by the old songs, sentiments, stories and symbols, annually re-awakening the Passover feeling of family.

    The events behind Passover are simple. The Hebrews were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt until Moses led them to independence. When the window of opportunity opened, they left in a hurry. Dough was grabbed from the oven, baked on boards on their backs, and became matzah. They got across the Red Sea (a lake of reeds) to evade their pursuers, and eventually reached the Promised Land. They joke about it: “Our enemies chased us and we were near beat; we escaped from their clutches, so now let us eat.”

    Strangely, the one thing that most Jews never talk about on Passover is freedom. They indulge in sentimentality, they wallow in nostalgia, they talk about people, they wonder what has happened to so-and-so. The big ideas hardly rate a mention. It is the festival of freedom, but it isn’t freedom that they tend to talk about.

    When I was a child in Melbourne, Passover services at the St. Kilda Synagogue were presided over by the venerable Rabbi Jacob Danglow whose festival sermon always seemed to say the same thing, that it was a blessing to have freedom under the British flag. The bottom line never varied. In British countries one was free to live without hindrance or horror. Everyone should appreciate and honour the British flag.

    Even so, Australia had its problems, and Indigenous Australians enjoyed less freedoms than we did. I also discovered when I went to London for postgraduate study that Britain itself was not so perfect. But other countries were much worse, and in the 1950s there was palpable gratitude to have survived the evil of World War II and the Holocaust.

    What freedom did the rabbi have in mind? Presumably what the Talmud meant when it linked the Hebrew d’ror (freedom) with another d’ror (a swallow). Said the Talmud: freedom is like a swallow which can fly where it wants and settle where it wants, without interference or coercion. The way I would have put it as a child was the ability to run, jump and play. In time I learnt that there was such a thing as free will, the application of choice, the ability to weigh up the options and freely choose between them.

    In the first instance freedom is the ability and right to be oneself and uphold one’s own ethos. In this sense freedom goes with tolerance. I have the right to choose and so do you. “Love your neighbour as yourself” – the Golden Rule of Leviticus 19:18, endorsed by the New Testament – implies, “I hate to be hurt; I hate to see you hurt. As I love and believe in myself, I also love and believe in you”. I say my way is the truth but you say yours is. I say my wisdom is better than yours, but you prefer your wisdom. A paradox.

    How can both be right? The old story speaks of the couple who come to the rabbi with a conflict. To the husband he says, “You’re right!” To the wife he says, “You’re right!” The rabbi’s wife says, “How can they both be right?” The rabbi says, “You’re also right!”

    Yet this tolerance is ambiguity, not ambivalence. Ambivalence says I can’t make up my mind: ambiguity says that truth has many faces. How can we both be right when all options cannot be equal? That’s God’s problem. Solomon Schechter said, “Leave a little to God!” Leaving nothing to God is arrogant: leaving too much to Him is abdication.

    Whatever Jewishness is – religion, ethnicity or culture – a Jew is entitled to the freedom to choose the aspects they want. Until the modern age – whatever way one defines modernity – Judaism knew of no such set of options. There was no Judaism-by-elimination that played down or rejected certain aspects and claimed Judaism was valid without them. Until the coming of modernity, Judaism was whatever amalgam it was.

    Now the options have changed. Believers have an ideology centred on doctrines and practices, while secularists manage without God and the synagogue.

    The debate rages: Is a Jew free to reject religion and still be a Jew? On the other hand, haven’t the believers curtailed their freedom by their religious creeds and commandments?

    They respond that they are actually practising freedom, that unbridled freedom can leave one lost. Freedom needs a goal and purpose. The discipline of religion gives it direction. Being free to choose God saves freedom from being aimless and confused. Norman Lamm says in The Royal Reach, “A moral act is authentic only if it issues out of a genuine freedom of choice … Spiritual life is useless where it is coerced”.

    There are dangers in freedom as well as blessings. Freedom is hard to handle. It can descend into boredom and loneliness. A French thinker writes about the culture of the picnic; the sort of freedom that sees life as a picnic can become aimless and a waste of time and energy. It can lead to mischief. While blithely using beautiful words like peace and freedom, it can bring new tyranny and bondage.

    In freedom you need the moral courage to make decisions – and some people prefer their chains. On the other hand, freedom starts before it arrives: Ludwig Boerne said, “To want to be free is to be free.”

    Externally, freedom is one of the ethical values which Judaism commends to the world. There is a view that Judaism and Christianity basically have the same ethical priorities called the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some years ago, in a keynote address to the International Council of Christians and Jews, I rather belittled this supposed joint tradition. Echoing Arthur A. Cohen’s book, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, but taking a somewhat different approach, I said no such thing exists, even though both religions (and Islam) have things in common.

    Their differences are stark. Theologically, they both believe in God but understand Him differently. They honour the Hebrew scriptures but vary in their interpretation. Indeed, Christianity was moulded by a post-Biblical amalgam that often bred non-Hebraic attitudes.

    The Jewish writer Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginzberg) said Judaism was more pragmatic, Christianity more other-worldly. Judaism neither adulated nor belittled wealth but believed material possessions were good if used wisely, while Christianity seemed to make a virtue of poverty. Judaism emphasised marriage and continuity, some Christian groups preferred celibacy and abstention.

    Judaism (as argued by Arthur Cohen) had a more historical view of events while Christianity was more apocalyptic. Judaism placed more store on community, Christianity on the individual soul. Judaism found atonement through personal effort, Christianity vicariously. Major differences concerned Jesus, the Divine commandments and the Messiah.

    I recall that Churchill said the British and Americans were two peoples divided by a common language. Yet Churchill was not entirely right, and the Judeo-Christian tradition not entirely wrong. Despite varying accents and emphases, Judaism and Christianity share a common emphasis on ethical quality, of which a major exemplar is freedom.

    What makes this ethical program distinctive is that these are not simply vague values which human society develops as a result of bitter experience but are the will of God. They are good because they are sourced in and validated by God. They are not simply valid because human trial and error leads to them but because they are vouched for by an authority beyond and above human society.

    Judaism and Christianity don’t always define freedom in the same words, they quote different sources, but they both have a general principle which they believe can save floundering man from the morass.

    Neither tradition can expect instant obedience but has to work through reasoned explanation. Others are free to turn a deaf ear and dismiss the religious voice as outmoded sermonising. On the other hand, religion has the freedom to continue to speak and to warn. The discourse ought to be decent and democratic without anyone muzzling or murdering those they disagree with. In a fair-minded world all should be able to speak and live without fear. Passover teaches freedom, not feardom (to coin a term).

    What a tragedy it is that we lack a fair-minded world community. The United Nations has been captured by anti-democratic stereotypes and has made the world worse. Freedom doesn’t authorise anyone to speak in slogans, automatically blurting out the mantras without first studying and acknowledging the facts, even if they hurt your own interests. Freedom means fairdom (to invent another word – why not?)

    What sort of freedom does Judaism advocate? It’s not as easy as saying Tory as against Labor, Republican and not Democrat. The question is not a party platform but a policy. Often it will not be which policy advocates freedom – they all seem to – but which is capable of achieving it with the least interference with people’s lives.

    Freedom must offer a practical determinant which depends on the circumstances whatever area we are talking about, political, economic, technological, medical, educational or other. This does not mean rabbis wielding a big stick, but rather helping to educate the community in the ethical approach whereby they can and should all freely choose and judge the right options, especially when it comes to immigration, security and social justice.

    Nero fiddled while Rome burned. That seems to be happening in many parts of the world. Populations are in thrall. People are on the move; no one knows where home is or what home should be like. No one is safe crossing a bridge or running in a marathon. Terrorism is stalking the streets. Errorism has overtaken the media. Like the ancients who wept at their tent doors when evil was abroad, there is a paralysis of decision.

    Peoples and governments should be freely but firmly saying, “Never Again!” but they’re scared to open their mouths. Rome is burning. Nero just weeps. It was all very well when St. Augustine said, “God, make me good – but not yet!” It’s too late for a “Not yet!”

    Passover with its message of freedom is too important to be diverted into a cosy family get-together. Freedom is too serious to be dismissed as mere motherhood. Heinrich Heine identified the link between them when he said, “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent”.

    That’s the level of discussion that should take place around the Jewish Passover table and wherever thinking people gather.

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