The Passover Haggadah and the telling of the story of the exodus – factual history or religious myth and narrative?

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On Passover, we celebrate as Jews the exodus from Egypt representing the birth of the Jewish people. According to the Jewish tradition, Passover is the “time of our freedom” – when we celebrate the exodus in which our ancestors escaped out of slavery to freedom (perhaps the first mass slave escape in recorded history). The Passover Haggadah is an ancient text having its roots in the Talmudic period which we read on the first night of Passover in telling the story of the exodus in fulfillment of the Biblical command (Exodus 13, 8) – “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt”. The term Haggadah comes from the same root word of the verse meaning to tell.

From a literary point of view, there are two things in the Haggadah both connected to our telling the story of the exodus that stand out as very strange and demand explanation. First, Moses does not appear in the Haggadah. Without question, in the Biblical account of the exodus Moses is a central figure – and, yet, the Haggadah omits Moses in our telling the story of the exodus in the Haggadah. Second, the central passage of the Haggadah in which we actually tell the story of the exodus is a Biblical passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (26, 5-8). The Book of Deuteronomy is unique among the 5 Books of Moses. The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are told by an anonymous narrator, and characterized, for example, by such a statement as “God spoke to Moses…”. The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a speech of Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab prior to their entering the land of Israel, and the book opens by saying (Deuteronomy 1, 1) – “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel”. In his speech to the Israelites Moses recounts their history and presents them with laws that they are to observe in the land of Israel.

The verses from the Book of Deuteronomy (26, 5-8) that we read in the Haggadah in telling the story of the exodus are from a passage in which Moses is presenting the law of bringing first fruits of the field in which an Israelite living in the land of Israel is to bring the first fruits of the field to the priest at the Tabernacle (the place of God’s presence) as an expression of thankfulness. In expressing thankfulness, the Israelite tells of his history as an Israelite. What is strange here is that the Haggadah does not choose a passage from the Book of Exodus in which the story itself of the Exodus is narrated. Why does the Haggadah choose the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (26, 5-8) that is part of an expression of thankfulness of an Israelite living in the land of Israel who recounts his history as an Israelite? Why not choose a passage from the Book of Exodus that tells of the actual story of the exodus?

I want to suggest that the reason for both of these things is that the Haggadah is not intended to be a factual account of the exodus. If we are not concerned with factual history, then Moses (as a central figure in the story of the exodus) is not necessarily essential to mention. The passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (26, 5-8) that we read in the Haggadah in fulfillment of the Biblical command to tell the story of the exodus is not a factual account of history but a passage in which an Israelite living in the land of Israel is telling his own history as an expression of thankfulness. The very term Haggadah, which means story or narrative, implies that our telling of the story of the exodus is not meant to be a factual account but a telling of a story or narrative. I am purposely using the term narrative as a translation of Haggadah, as the term narrative is a central concept of the contemporary philosophic movement post-modernism.

Post-modernism is a movement that holds that we as human beings do not have access to absolute or objective truth, and that our subjective conceptions of truth are in effect narratives. For example, let’s assume we are dealing with a conflict between a husband and wife. There is a story here of what actually happened to lead to this conflict between husband and wife – yet, what actually happened is beyond the grasp of the husband and wife, and certainly beyond the grasp then of any human being. The husband and wife each have their own subjective version or narrative of what happened to lead to the conflict between them. A narrative is not the story itself of what happened, but a telling of the story.

From a sociological point of view, a widespread influence of post-modernism is the reluctance to make moral judgments in relation to competing narratives, and on a widespread basis there is a corresponding aspiration to maintain impartiality and neutrality in the face of competing narratives. In my mind, this approach of refraining from moral judgment and attempting to maintain impartiality in the face of competing narratives is a distortion of post-modernism. Let’s return to the example of the conflict between husband and wife. If the husband is physically and verbally abusive toward the wife, and if it is clear to us as bystanders that on the basis of our own subjective judgment that the narrative of the husband as to the cause of the conflict is based upon lies and untruths, or contradicts manifest facts, while the narrative of the wife does not appear to us to contradict manifest facts – can it be imagined that we should refrain from moral judgment as to who is the aggressor and who the victim in this situation, and can it be imagined that we should maintain impartiality in such a situation? To refrain from moral judgment and to maintain impartiality in such a situation is not impartiality at all but to aid and encourage the husband, as the aggressor, in being violent toward his wife, the victim. Moreover, we are entitled, or even obligated, to maintain our subjective judgment that the narrative of the husband as to the cause of the conflict, and which is a source of his violence toward his wife, is based upon lies and untruths.

Science does not describe reality, whether social or physical reality, in an objective way – and, scientific theories do not yield objective truth and knowledge. Scientists in constructing scientific theories and explanations choose certain facts, while ignoring others, and interpret those facts that are chosen to focus upon on the basis of a prior commitment to some model or way of understanding. For example, a psychoanalytic psychologist and a humanistic psychologist in studying the personality and behavior of a person will choose different facts to focus upon, and even regarding the same facts will understand those facts differently due to their prior commitment to a certain model of psychology (psychoanalytic or humanistic psychology). This two fold process of selection of facts and interpretation of the facts is characteristic of natural as well as social sciences. Scientific theories then do not give a factual or objective account of the nature of reality, whether social or physical, but a narrative (account) that serves to explain the nature of reality. Scientific theories in order to be valid accounts of reality must be based upon facts and not contradict facts – however, there may be differing accounts or narratives based upon facts that serve to explain the phenomenon under examination.

It is widely accepted in academic circles and on the basis of historical scholarship that there is no external evidence outside of the Bible indicating that the Biblical accounts prior to the time of David and Solomon are accounts of actual historical events and figures. The first clear evidence that exists that the Biblical accounts are recordings based upon actual historical events and figures is from the period of David and Solomon – and the Biblical accounts even after the period of David and Solomon are not factual accounts, but accounts colored by religious interpretation. This means that strictly speaking from the point of view of historical research the Biblical account of such an event as the exodus from Egypt is within the realm of legend until some evidence external to the Bible can be provided.

However, the Bible as the foundation of Judaism is not a historical document teaching factual history but a religious document. There is no term Judaism in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In the Talmudic literature the term for Judaism is Torah, the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah appears in the Bible, and is from a Hebrew root meaning instruction or guidance. The term Torah can refer in a specific sense to the 5 Books of Moses, which constitute a constitution of the Jewish people (as a source of legal, moral and spiritual guidance), and in a broader sense the term Torah can refer to Judaism.

According to the Jewish tradition there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – as to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Aggadah, which means story and is from the same root as the word Haggadah, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah.

Thus, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is not intended to be a factual and documentary account of history. The Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is a constitution of the Jewish people and source of legal, moral and spiritual guidance. The opening account of the Torah of the creation of the universe is not meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe but a religious myth (account) and narrative that is a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Rabbi Kook writes in regard to the creation story:

Concerning the opinions of modern, academic research, the majority of which contradict the plain meaning of the Torah, my opinion in this matter is that…even though there is no necessary truth reflected in such research, in any case we are not obligated at all to deny such research and to oppose it because it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred.  The essence is the internal, the internal explanations of the matters.

Rabbi Kook here is relating to the issue of creation and evolution. He argues that academic, scientific research is limited in that it doesn’t yield necessary truth. This is indeed true as academic research, based upon modern, scientific methodology, leads to probability and plausibility, and not to necessary or certain truth. More important, though, Rabbi Kook suggests that the essence of the Torah is not to record documentary, factual history – “it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred”. Rather, for Rabbi Kook, the essence of the Torah is to teach moral and spiritual truth – “the essence is the internal, the internal explanations of the matters”.

Rabbi Kook, who was a Jewish mystic, is expressing a mystical view here that there are different levels to the study of Torah. It is only on a superficial level that the Torah records stories and events (among other things). The essence of the Torah, for Rabbi Kook as a mystic, is what Rabbi Kook calls the internal, by which he means the deeper moral, spiritual and mystical teachings of the Torah. According to the position of Rabbi Kook it is implied that there may be factual inaccuracies in the Torah in that “it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred”. Thus, when we say in the Jewish tradition that the Torah is “a Torah of truth” this does not necessarily mean that each and every word is true from a factual point of view. Rather, the Torah is, for Rabbi Kook, a Torah of truth in a deeper moral and spiritual sense.

The Biblical story of Adam and Eve (like the opening Biblical account of the creation) is not meant to be a factual account but a religious myth (account) and narrative, which is a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Do we literally believe that a snake speaks, or that God speaks and wanders in the garden of Eden? So, too, the story of the exodus then is not meant to be a factual account of history (and this is especially true of such an account as the plagues that is a part of the story of the exodus and the Haggadah), but a religious myth (account) and narrative that is a source of moral and spiritual guidance.

Regarding the Haggadah then, the intent of the Haggadah itself is not that we are to give a factual account of the exodus in telling the story of the exodus. Rather, we are telling a story of the exodus – just as in the passage from Deuteronomy (26, 5-8) that we read in the Haggadah the Israelite in bringing first fruits of the field to the Sanctuary in expressing thankfulness is not giving a factual account of Israelite history but telling a story of his history as a part of the Israelite people in expressing his gratitude. Notice that what is essential here in the passage of Deuteronomy is the religious experience of thankfulness and the story that the Israelite tells of his history is only a means to express his thankfulness.

A central theme of the Haggadah is the expression of thankfulness, as expressed in the singing of the song Dayenu (“it would have been enough”) in which we view our history as a cup half full rather than half empty out of an attitude of appreciation and gratitude, and not complaint. It is actually the attitude of appreciation and gratitude that allows for a religious and spiritual experience of redemption. There is a midrash (teaching) of the Talmudic rabbis, which is an elaboration upon the Biblical story of the great miracle of the crossing of the sea illustrating that a prior attitude of thankfulness is a necessary means in order to experience redemption.

According to the midrash, when the Israelites arrived at the sea, even after the waters parted, the Israelites were complaining and angry because of mud. The midrash is making clear that in order to experience a miracle or redemption one must first already have a positive attitude of thankfulness, and not a negative one of complaint. According to the midrash, the Israelites do not experience a miracle or redemption but only a problem of mud. The cause of the anger of the Israelites is not mud but their negative attitude of complaint. The mud that the Israelites see is a fact and reality; there is mud in life, and this is a reality. However, mud as a part of external reality is merely an influence upon us and does not determine our internal experience and feelings; rather, our attitude toward mud and toward external reality determines our internal experience and feelings. If we view mud as bad and a problem (making us dirty), we will experience negative feelings such as anger and upset; conversely, if we view mud not necessarily as good but as at least not so terrible (we can wash ourselves of the mud) we will be able to at least minimize if not eliminate negative feelings such as anger and upset.

Mud exists in external reality – and, the question is whether mud is desired reality or unwanted reality.  Pigs perhaps experience mud as desired reality; and, there are little children (maybe not all children but at least many children) who experience mud as desired reality (as fun), and it doesn’t bother them to get dirty. Most of us as adult human beings experience mud as unwanted reality, and thus as a natural response to such an unwanted reality we will feel negative feelings such as anger and upset. But, our response of anger and upset is not a direct response to the mud but to our attitude toward the mud.

If the Israelites according to the midrash perceive a problem in response to the mud out of an attitude of complaint, then they will indeed experience a problem to cross through the mud to escape to freedom; and, they will significantly increase their negative feelings of anger and upset in response to mud preventing them from experiencing redemption even should they overcome the problem and escape to freedom.  If, instead, they perceive a wonderful opportunity in response to the mud out of an attitude of thankfulness, then they will experience no problem in crossing through the mud to escape to freedom; and, they will significantly reduce their negative feelings of anger and upset in response to the mud allowing them to experience redemption. These two possibilities of opportunity (cup half full) and problem (cup half empty) are a matter of perspective, and problems and opportunities do not exist in external reality. Mud exists in external reality, and even if we experience mud as an unwanted reality, we nevertheless have the power as human beings to decide how we will view such unwanted reality and what our attitude will be regarding external reality – we have the power to decide whether we will perceive a wonderful opportunity (thankfulness) or a terrible problem (complaint).

People think mistakenly (in my eyes) that happiness is a response to events and situations in external reality – we experience an event or situation as good (desired reality), and then in response we feel happiness as if our happiness is a response to the event or situation rather than to our interpretation of the event or situation. Yet, in response to desired reality we will feel happiness only if our attitude toward that reality is a positive one of thankfulness, and not complaint. Even in response to unwanted reality, if we as human beings have a positive attitude of thankfulness rather than complaint, then we will experience happiness even while at the same time experiencing negative feelings such as fear, sadness or anger. Our happiness as human beings is a direct response not to events or situations in external reality but to our interpretation of, and attitude toward, those events and situations.

People speak of finding or pursuing happiness as if happiness is something external to us hiding under some unturned stone. Yet, happiness is not something external to us but an internal attitude toward life in which we view events and situations in external reality (especially unwanted reality) in a positive light as opportunities (a cup half full) and not problems (a cup half empty). Incidentally, in traditional Judaism we make blessings on a constant basis, and our traditional prayers are filled with blessings – we make blessings connected to food and eating, we make blessings upon seeing wonderful sights, and we even make a blessing upon going to the bathroom expressing thankfulness for our bodies that are viewed not as sinful but as a gift of God. I want to suggest that the reason for so many blessings is to help us shift our attitude from one of complaint in which we perceive curses and problems to one of appreciation and thankfulness in which we perceive blessings and opportunities. Indeed, the terms Jew and Judaism come from a root in Hebrew meaning thankfulness.

So, the central concern of the Haggadah is the religious and spiritual experience of redemption in telling the story (narrative) of the exodus of Egypt according to which our ancestors, the Israelites, escaped from slavery to freedom. It is simply not important whether this story actually occurred or not from a historical point of view – as the Haggadah, like the Torah, is not a historical document intending to teach us factual history and truth. Rather, the Haggadah, like the Torah, is a religious document that is a source of moral and spiritual guidance. The central concern of the Haggadah then is that we are to have a deep religious and spiritual experience of redemption, in telling the story of the exodus out of an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation, as if we ourselves have come out of Egypt – “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt”. The call of the Haggadah is for each of us to maintain a positive attitude of thankfulness and appreciation even in the face of our own troubles and difficulties.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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