As the sun set this evening, the Hebrew month of Nissan began. The moon is dark at the start of every new month. In two weeks’ time, it will be full, and Jewish congregations the world over will gather round our dining tables for the Pesach Seder, and recount the tale of the Exodus from Egypt.
I love Pesach, but each Pesach I am troubled by the role played by the central character – God. I’m not keen about what the Eternal One gets up to in the narrative recounted in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. I’m not happy with the focus on the role of God in the traditional Haggadah, to the exclusion of all the human players in that great drama – Miriam, Moses, Aaron – not to mention, the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who saved the baby boys from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree. On the one hand, the Exodus is about liberation from slavery; on the other hand, it seems more like a contest between two Patriarchal tyrants – God and Pharaoh – and we all know who wins and becomes ‘top God’ as it were: Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai, ‘Who is like you among the gods, Eternal One?’ The song that the newly-liberated slaves sang when they passed through the Sea of Reeds on dry land suggests that they certainly got the message.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the image of God conveyed in the Exodus narrative is of an all-powerful supreme Dictator, who brooks no challenge, and is prepared to kill and destroy to get His own way. After all, it is a very old story reflecting the totalitarian political structures of the ancient Near-East. But then, the Sages responsible for the development of Judaism after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, who created post-biblical Pesach observance, including the Seder and the Haggadah, maintained this image of the Eternal One – and, with very slight modifications, the same image has survived to this very day. As we read in the Aleynu prayer, written by the Sages, initially, as part of the liturgy for Rosh Ha-Shanah, God is melech malchey ha-m’lachim, ‘the king above the king of kings’ – and ‘the king of kings’ was the greatest Imperial tyrant of his time. Liberal Judaism may have made the translation more gender-inclusive, so like elsewhere in our liturgy, the word ‘King’ is substituted by the word, ‘Sovereign’, but we’ve not actually tackled the issue of the Eternal One’s supreme ‘Sovereignty’.
At this point, one or two of you may well be thinking, ‘what’s her problem, God simply is a Dictator – that’s the whole point of God: to be all-powerful and in control of everything’. But is that really what you think? Is that really what we think? Consider the implications in the context of the Exodus story: The slaves were liberated from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt to become the slaves of God. That is, indeed, what the text of the Torah tells us: Shalach et-ammi v’ya’avduni – ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me’. The story of liberation is not about liberation at all: Rather, it’s about how one tyrant gets toppled by another tyrant, who claims the enslaved people as His trophy. Am I going too far? Well, again, it wouldn’t matter so much if it was just an ancient story; it wouldn’t be a problem if Rabbinic Judaism had not preserved and promoted this image of God; and we could treat it as merely a curiosity if it were not for the fact most Jews today – including most Liberal Jews – remain enslaved, if not to God, then to this image of God.
I, for one, could not be a religious Jew and could certainly not be a rabbi if I thought about God in this way. So, most of the time – not only at Pesach – I find that I’m at odds with the God portrayed in the Torah, in the Bible, in much of rabbinic writing, and in much of the liturgy. And yet, I am a religious Jew – and a rabbi. How is this possible? Rather than address this question directly, let me share some of my personal history: I was not raised to be religious. My mother, brought up in an orthodox family in Highbury, North London, had rejected orthodoxy on the grounds that it hadn’t caught up with modernity and discriminated against women, but she liked the home rituals and songs associated with Shabbat and the festivals. My father, who came from a progressive background in Vienna, responded to the Sho’ah that destroyed the world he grew up in, by rejecting every manifestation of a particular identity – including Judaism – as tribal and potentially lethal. So, although my mother was more committed to Jewish life, they both saw Religion with a capital ‘R’ as highly dangerous. You can imagine how shocked they were when I told them that I’d decided to study for the Rabbinate! They both thought I’d lost my reason. They both imagined I’d start telling them what to do Jewishly-speaking. They also thought I’d misunderstood the Jewish education I’d received from them; that being Jewish was primarily about challenging oppression and making the world a better place.
As it happens, I didn’t just leave home and decide to become a rabbi. I spent ten years being an active socialist – a Marxist. As most of you will know, Karl Marx made short shrift of Religion: Thinking primarily of Christianity, he called it ‘the opiate of the masses’. So, ardent Marxist that I was during my under-graduate years at the London School of Economics, I was curious to investigate how it was that the Africans enslaved in the Americas, fed on Christianity by their slave-owners in the hope that it would make them quiescent and accepting of their servile fate, transformed the religion they received into a radical clarion call for liberation. Sitting in Karl Marx’s seat in what was the old British Library during the Academic Year 1976-1977, writing my under-graduate dissertation on ‘The Role of Religion in North American Slave Resistance in the Ante-bellum Period’ changed my life. I learnt many things during that process, but the most important lesson was that Religion is not simply an instrument of oppression; in the hands of the oppressed, it can become a source of empowerment and liberation. When the slaves read the Exodus story, they not only translated the narrative to their own lives, they also received the message that they must go free.
So that was my starting point: The oppressed must go free. That was the beginning of my religious education as a young adult: Religion wasn’t just what the Religious establishments of the different religions said it was – and it wasn’t just what anti-religious individuals and groups said it was. It also had the potential to be something else. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to study for the Rabbinate – to be involved in developing that potential for Religion to be a liberating force in our lives, and to discover a God who wasn’t a Dictator. But it took quite a while to discover a God who wasn’t a Dictator. Fortunately, my encounter with Feminism that began during the year after I left LSE, taught me that there was an alternative to Patriarchal ways of thinking and acting, but once I started on my path into active Jewish life, I was so busy studying Hebrew, getting acquainted with Jewish texts, and learning the prayers, and all the different blessings that I didn’t have time to think about God!
We don’t have the time to explore all those issues now, but as I completed my pre-ordination rabbinic studies, I was left with one big question that emerges out of Sho’ah Theology and is related to the Exodus story – and the way in which I have responded to that question has informed my way of thinking about God ever since. We ask: Where was God during those terrible twelve years, from 1933-1945, when six million of our people were murdered by the Nazis? We don’t ask: Where was God during the more than 200 years that our ancestors were enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt? This suggests that we are asking the wrong question altogether. According to Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Zichrono Livrachah, May his memory be for Blessing, one of my teachers, we should be asking not, ‘Where was God? – But rather, where was Man?’ He was right – our angst about the deeds perpetrated against our people should be directed against the perpetrators. But that’s not enough. That doesn’t address the problem of our ways of thinking about God, which lead us to say, ‘Where was God?’ in the first place. After all the assumption behind that question is that, whoever was responsible, God should have done something about it – and the assumptions behind that assumption, are manifold, principally – that God is an all-powerful Being and that this all-powerful Being intervenes in human affairs in general and the affairs of the Jewish people, in particular. It’s not surprising that we should think like that, of course – given the way in which God is portrayed in the Exodus narrative.
But perhaps, the problem is not so much the account of the Exodus in the Torah, but the way, following the early rabbis, we continue to read it. How would it be if each one of us really took the Haggadah seriously, and saw it as our obligation, ‘in every generation’ to imagine that we had personally come out of Egypt? How would it be if we imagined we were the black slaves in the Americas discovering the Exodus narrative? How would reading the story as if we were slaves – not free people – make a difference? Perhaps, if we read it from the slave’s perspective, desperate to be ‘free at last, free at last’, we would not be prepared to swap the oppressor that torments us for another tyrant – however benign. If we identify with the oppressed and long for liberation, God can only be the force in our lives that works for liberation. Once you know that freedom is possible, you cannot submit to any form of tyranny again.
So, rather than liberate us, the God portrayed in the Exodus story fails us – or rather we fail God. Is freedom so threatening that we have to turn our liberation from tyranny into acquiescence to the Divine? For Marcia Falk, a feminist liturgist working in the United States, God is not Melech Ha-olam, ‘King’ or ‘Sovereign’ of the Universe, high above us, but rather Eyn Chayyim, the Source of Life, who empowers us and works within us, and enables us to confront oppression. What difference might it make to our reading of the Exodus story if we acknowledged God, not as Sovereign of the Universe, but rather as the Source of Life? What difference might it make to our lives?
Ten years ago, I set about devising three ‘compelling commitments’ that I see at the heart of active Jewish engagement – each embracing both the particular preoccupations of Jewish life and our universal responsibilities. Interestingly, the commitment about ‘God’ has proved to be the most challenging to those with whom I have shared my ideas – including my rabbinic colleagues. And so it has been that since I gave my first session on ‘Compelling Commitments’ at Limmud, British Jewry’s annual five-day winter learning fest, in December 2002, in response to peoples issues and questions, I have modified the text of the ‘God’ commitment – and also moved it from number one to number three. But this is not the end of the story: Following Liberal Judaism’s publication of Compelling Commitments in the form of a booklet in December 2007, once again the ‘God’ commitment provoked the most controversy: Some felt it should be number one again; others, that it shouldn’t be there at all!
In my view, it is impossible to delete God from the picture of Jewish life. But that doesn’t mean that one is forced to subscribe to traditional conceptions of the Divine. So, what difference might it make if, instead of focusing on belief – and non-belief – in God, we spoke of a commitment to Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, ‘The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One’, in these terms:
The commitment to explore the meaning of existence, to journey, to search and to listen out for the voice of the Eternal, who calls each Jew to become part of Am Yisrael, the people who ‘struggle with God’, and to strive to sanctify Life each day through our actions and our relationships.
The commitment to acknowledge that the Eternal is One, and to work together with all the peoples of the world to recognise the essential unity of existence in all its diversity.
This formulation, which also emerges out of the Torah, expresses an alternative discourse about God. This alternative discourse has somehow lost out to the dominant motif of the interventionist, Divine Warrior of the Exodus narrative that was later compounded by the sages of the Mishnah and G’mara, and transmuted into normative Jewish belief as expressed in the Aleynu’s image of ‘the King above the King of Kings.’
The God we glimpse in Moses’ encounter at the ‘Burning Bush’, for example, is essentially intangible: Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh; Moses wants to know the name of the unfathomable presence that has stopped him in his tracks, and he receives a lesson in theology: ‘I am that I am/I will be what I will be’. But more than that, as Gabriel Josipovici observes, Eh’yeh, sounding barely consonantal, is little more than pure breath – try saying it! Moses cannot capture God; neither can we. Even more telling, this mysterious meeting takes place, literally, ‘in the back of beyond’: not even in the wilderness; achar ha-midbar – ‘behind the wilderness’. Can the Torah do more to let us know that God is ineffable?
It is not only that the Divine is a mystery; like Moses shepherding his father-in-law’s ‘behind the wilderness’, whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, each one of us is called to apprehend that mystery. Another Torah tale conveys a similar message: When Jacob flees from his brother Esau after stealing Esau’s blessing as the first-born son, he alights on an unnamed place as the sun is setting, and beds down for the night, using a stone as a pillow. It’s a familiar story. In the morning after his dream of Divine messengers ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth, Jacob sets up the stone as a pillar, exclaiming, ‘God was in this place and I did not know it’, and names the place Beit-El, ‘House of God’. Did Jacob just happen to stumble upon the ‘House of God’? Perhaps, alternatively, the narrative is teaching us that God is in every place, wherever we find ourselves; we just have to notice.
We can debate endlessly about whether God exists or not; we can be believers, atheists or agnostics. But the apprehension of the ineffable is not an intellectual exercise; it is an endless challenge – a challenge encapsulated in the simple imperatives, Sh’ma! ‘Listen!’ R’eih! ‘See!’ – and dramatised most poignantly in Jacob’s night-time struggle with an unknown ‘man’ on the eve of his reunion with Esau. In the midst of that enigmatic encounter Jacob is renamed Yisra’el, ‘One who struggles with God’. It is because the generations of the people Yisra’el have continued to engage in such struggles that we are here today. As we celebrate the new moon of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish year, and prepare for the festival of Pesach, may each one of us resolve to struggle with God, to ‘see’ and to ‘listen’, and to allow the force of that struggle to empower us to work for the liberation of the oppressed in every place. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Congregation Beit Shalom, Barcelona
23rd March 2012– Erev Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5772
 Exodus 15:11
 Siddur Lev Chadash, ULPS, London, 1995, p.520
 Exodus 9:1b
 Marcia Falk,The Book of Blessing, Harper, San Francisco, 1996.
 Compelling Commmitments. A New Approach to Living as a Liberal Jew. Liberal Judaism, London, 2007.
 Deuteronomy 6: 4
 Compelling Commmitments, p.12
 Exodus 3:14
 The Book of God, Yale University Press, 1988, p.74)
 Exodus 3:1.
 Genesis 28:10-11.
 ibid. 28:12-19
 Genesis 32:25-32.