The Haggadah as a Political Guide

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik delivered two public lectures at Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus on March 26, in a program titled “Pesach and the Future of Jewish Thought.” The event celebrated the publication of the Straus Center’s new volume, Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought (edited by Straus Center Assistant Director Dr. Stuart W. Halpern), and was presented in conjunction with Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), Abraham Arbesfeld Kollel Yom Rishon and Millie Arbesfeld Midreshet Yom Rishon.

In his lecture titled “The First Work of Political Thought: A New Approach to the Haggadah,” Soloveichik argued that the Haggadah “should be seen as the classic Jewish work of political thought,” with a central message about the existence of a universal truth and the “positive freedom” to make wise decisions and affect one’s own fate. This message, he said, can be seen in the Haggadah’s inclusion of two different narratives that ostensibly mark the beginning of the Exodus: the first, that “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out”; the second, that “our forefathers [before Abraham] were idolaters.”

Soloveichik explained that polytheistic Ancient Near Eastern societies believed in local deities, whose powers were limited to their own locales. Conversely, the theological legacy of the first Hebrew, Abraham - which was revolutionary for the ancient world - was a universal, ethical monotheism. The power of this theology is contained in Moses’s statement to Pharaoh that he represents “Elokei ha-Ivrim” (“the God of the Hebrews”). “When Pharoah says he believes a foreign deity has no power over him, Moses asserts that this is Elokei ha-Ivrim, and there is nowhere that is devoid of His presence,” said Soloveichik, suggesting that this awareness was also behind the decision of the God-fearing Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, to flout Pharoah’s command to murder male Israelite newborns.

“Intertwining with the notion of political freedom is the notion that there is one religious morality and theology that applies everywhere.” Additionally, Soloveichik pointed to Abraham as the first Ancient Near Easterner to believe he could affect, or choose, his own destiny. Soloveichik underscored the importance of keeping these lessons in mind in today’s world, where the notion of relative truth has gained rapid ground and where submission to tyranny is unfortunately still more prevalent than political freedom.

Sacks’s lecture, titled “A Guide for the Perplexed at Seder Night: How Maimonides Can Help Us Understand the Exodus,” argued that there is “profound truth” in both ‘naturalist’ and ‘supernaturalist’ view of the world. According to Sacks, these two approaches both seek to explain God’s greatness. The ‘supernaturalist’ approach sees God’s greatness in His ability to suspend the laws of nature and enact miracles, whereas the ‘naturalist’ approach (that of Maimonides) declares that God’s greatness is that He created the laws of nature. Sacks explained that the two approaches, manifested in different parts of the Haggadah, contain within them they ability to perform the two different mitzvot of the seder: recounting the story of the Exodus, and educating children. While the ‘supernaturalist’ approach, with its focus on the wonder of miracles, is well-suited for the education of children, the ‘naturalist’ approach is geared toward adults.

“The real miracle is, can we change ourselves?” said Sacks, who noted that Maimonides taught that God could change human beings to become perfect “but is resolved never to do so because then we would lose our freedom.”

“The adult story [of the Exodus] is God’s calling us to be role models for the world about what it means to be free,” said Sacks. Additionally, Sacks tied the narrative of freedom in Exodus to the account of creation in Genesis. The verse in which God resolves to make man in his own “likeness and image” (Gen. 1:26) is “the most politically incendiary sentence in history,” said Sacks, noting that the ancient world believed that only rulers reflected the deity’s image. Conversely, the Torah argues that “every human being has rights and freedom.” However, Sacks concluded: “Only when there is law can the powerful and powerless have the same rights.”

Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, Dean of the CJF, delivered the morning’s introductory remarks, noting the appropriateness of the program’s theme and location. “We don’t just anticipate a Jewish holiday; we prepare for it and embrace it,” said Glasser. “This is an experience that could really only happen at YU, which is dedicated to inspiring and uplifting the community.”

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