Thursday, August 06, 2009

Eli Matz on "The Invention of the Jewish People"

Passover Eve, 2009
Slaves We Were in Egypt: From Freedom to Slavery!
By Eli Matz

Passover eve, 2009, spring in New York, it is still a bit cool, but Passover stands at the gate and many Jews in New York City and its vicinity, my family and I among them, are getting ready to celebrate the holiday of liberation and freedom.

The holiday of Passover has always been a very important part of my Jewish inner intellectual development. I grew up in Israel as a typical Israeli, that is, a secular Israeli, in the Fifties and Sixties of the Twentieth Century. In our house we always celebrated the holiday of Passover in a family tradition that was imported from Russia and Poland, with foods reflecting our Ashkenazic Jewish roots: gefilte fish, knoedlich, chrain, “Matzot Rishon,” and other delicacies that my mom made, such as matzah layer cake with the matzah dipped in wine and covered in chocolate. I don’t think the “authentic” people who left Egypt in ancient times ever tasted gefilte fish. But this was the Twentieth Century, and so, that is how we celebrated the Passover, with four glasses of Israeli Carmel red sweet wine filling our cups throughout the Seder.

We celebrated the Passover holiday of liberation, especially in my youth, connected to the modern Israeli revolution and the political creation of the new reborn Israeli nation. My parents, who arrived in Israel in 1947 on the ship the Exodus, symbolically viewed the holiday of Passover as something larger than just the eating of Passover matzah. They, too, had come to the “Promised Land” to reclaim their lives after the Holocaust. The Passover holiday, more than anything else, gave them the opportunity to celebrate that newfound opportunity. Passover, the holiday of liberty, steeped in matzah and charoset, infused with wonderful spring weather and fabulous Israeli salads, all contributed to the happy holiday atmosphere, to the atmosphere of liberation from slavery, in the home and in the streets. I, of course, loved that event; I always asked the four questions and took a few sips from the Carmel wine -- and I did not get drunk!

The celebration of this spring holiday, “Chag HaAviv” as we called it then, ultimately left some deeper stirrings within me, urging me on to find a deeper meaning in the holiday and in Israeli life. My search led me to a serious unlayering of history; for this I wandered first to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, next to the University of Massachusetts, and then on to New York to Yeshiva University and to the Graduate Center of City University. Throughout the 1970’s decade, my studies pulled me in many different directions. As far as I am concerned, I studied quite a lot, although perhaps my teachers had other opinions about me.

I never seriously taught anywhere, I never received any academic positions, and ultimately I let go of my doctoral dissertation. Years went by, years of work in the office supply business in the city of New York. The office supply business did supply me with lots of pens, but it took many years before I could seriously start writing about all sorts of issues connected to the Holocaust, Israeli politics and Jewish culture. Ever since my childhood, I have always collected and read books. My home in Rishon Lezion in Israel was always full of books. Likewise in the United States throughout my years here I have bought and collected books. Over the past forty years my collection has focused on the history of Jews – primarily American Jews and Jewish Israelis. In the last few years, I have started meditating deeply on aspects of the Passover holiday, the historical holiday loaded with bricks, pyramids, cement and liberty. I have collected Passover haggadot from different places in the world. In addition, I have read historical, theological, anthropological and philosophical pieces on the Passover haggadah. They were all extremely interesting, but I felt that something was missing in them. Although I could not really figure out exactly what that was, I knew that what was missing had something to do with a broader concept of Jewish history and its sources. Then I found a book written a few years ago by a professor at Tel Aviv University, Shlomo Sand, titled, The Invention of the Jewish People. This book touched my heart and mind, and it solved some historical questions that had been bothering me for many years. I made contact with Sand, and once in awhile we converse over the telephone. I must admit that he is the one who awakened my suspicion that the Passover haggadah is not merely an instructional guideline for a meal in the style of the Greek or Roman fashion. But in it there is something historically deeper that is connected to our theological and anthropological Jewish life. I will try to explain some of that connection here.

Going back to Sand’s book for a moment, for me the deeper question would be, “How was Judaism invented?” The invention and origins of Judaism and the lifestyle of Jews is not an issue for Orthodox Jews; for those who believe, there is no issue with belief, and in no way am I trying to criticize their beliefs. That is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, I am trying to understand the starting point of our becoming Jews: What led to this phenomenon? Was it the belief in one G-d, or was it something else that at this moment is outside of our understanding?

I sought out historical material on that subject matter, and around two years ago I wrote a short essay on the Passover haggadah. The Passover haggadah is a very interesting historical/theological document that became the central piece of the holiday. From a cultural point of view, the Passover haggadah has been a center of activity involving writing and printing, music, painting and drawing, that Jews throughout the centuries have invested time and thought in. The historical exodus from Egypt predated any Passover haggadah, and there was definitely not a Passover haggadah in existence during the First and the Second Temple periods. Therefore, the question is, when and why did the Passover haggadah arrive as an instructional notebook and a theological guide, instituting our annual celebration of the exodus from slavery to freedom. The fact is, historically there is not a single archeological remnant nor any material in the Egyptian hieroglyphics that points to the story that is told in the Bible relating to this event. (One can go even further to say that there is hardly any archeological evidence of the kingdoms of David and Solomon in the history of Jews in ancient times, despite excavations that have been going on for more than 100 years in Israel and its vicinity). What we need to do is go beyond our focus on the Exodus event itself to a broader look at where the idea of this exodus from Egypt came from, and how the religious wise men of Judaism turned it into the central theme of Judaism. Attempts to understand how the Bible was written still create headaches and confusion for scholars, and to-date they do not put forth a single explanation and definitely not an agreed-upon conclusion. There are many theories and documents. I will try to define my own theory that offers some logical explanation based on our historical past. One must, of course, bear in mind that this is only an explanation and a theory, and not a final conclusion, of the subject matter.

The crystallization of the Biblical story of the exodus is, according to many researchers, a product of the Persian period of Jewish history. This period starts around 550 BCE, at the beginning of the Persian conquest of the Middle East, and ends with the Greek conquest of the Middle East around 325 BCE. This 225-year span includes the time period when Ezra the Scribe acted on behalf of his Persian superiors to reestablish Judaism in Judea, and there is common historical agreement that he played a major role in the theological formation of Judaism. But there is something additional to explain about the Persian period. In my mind, the most critical element here is the return to the land of Israel of Ezra the Scribe, Nehemiah the governor, and other Jewish officials. The Persians, who ruled a huge empire at that time, may well have signified the central cause for the drastic change in Judaism, even though many historical documents of that period are still not available. For I believe that the Persians, who at that time were fighting against the Egyptians, the Greeks, and other cultural and political groups in the Middle East, brought the Jews, their allies, back to Jerusalem and the kingdom of “Yehud” as a strategic necessity in their endless wars with the Egyptians. The Biblical story of Egypt that was set down as historical material in the Persian period is full of negative narrative towards ancient Egypt. As a matter of fact, the Bible describes Egypt as the place of all evil. It can thus be theorized that the Biblical writing, in its crystallization of a negative Egyptian narrative, was an attempt to help the Jews of the period of Ezra the Scribe to integrate into the Persian Empire. The imaginary building of pyramids and the mythical story of the exodus from Egypt serve to shape a Jewish ethos that can fit well if we consider Jewish survival in the Persian period. A critical message could be extracted from the Bible and the story of the exodus emphatically depicting an attribute of the ancient “Hebrew People” that would not permit anybody to make them slaves, despite the fact that two-thirds of the ancient world lived in slavery as a way of life. This was a revolutionary idea: the idea of “freedom,” and especially the freedom to worship one’s own G-d, was fundamental, deep and enlightened. This concept of freedom is what later on shapes the Passover haggadah into a political declaration of independence of Jews, many many years before any other ethnic group ever thought about it. The Persian period is, then, the one that brought us the Bible, which thus can be understood to be a revolutionary call challenging all the established ideas of ancient times. Positioning their G-d as the only One who guards His nation, the Hebrews, leads them from slavery to freedom as an act of G-d, gives them G-d’s Torah and rules, and combines this with the covenant of the “Promised Land” where His nation can worship Him and establish a way of life, is an astonishing concept. It sounds fantastic, if only it happened that way.

Moving from the Biblical writings, the writing of the Passover haggadah as an instructional document was carried out in the ninth century in Babylonia, 2000 years after the supposed event of the exodus. However, at this time it was the Arab Moslems who were the ruling party, and this rendition of the Biblical story was an attempt by Saadia Gaon to crystallize the haggadah. The haggadah starts with a historical absurdity in Aramaic. The HaLachma Anya prayer says: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Historically it is well known that Ancient Egypt, up through the end of the Roman period, was known as the “breadbasket” of the world. I guess the rabbis thought of it differently. Beginning the haggadah with the HaLachma Anya in the Aramaic language may at first glance appear to be strange; however, looking deeper it may also be telling, because the Persians used Aramaic as their lingua franca, or their administrative language. The theory developed by historian Shlomo Sand that the Jews were never really expelled from Palestine by the Romans after the fall of the Second Temple is especially interesting because it has the intellectual elements to stand up in a deep conversation on the subject of Jewish and general history. After a period of “long exile” (galut aruka), that means after the survival of Judaism as a religion of certain people -- and the cause of survival of Judaism is the fact that this group of people, the Jews, were able to proselytize other groups of people -- we arrived with a great “mazal tov” to the Israeli celebration of liberty and independence in 1948. Ben Gurion, the Socialist who established “Medinat Yisrael,” the Israeli State, as “hamamlachtiut” (the kingdom) via a rabbinical recipe of a crystallized theology that took 2000 years to develop, did not understand the principle of new nationalities and the sovereignty of new emerging nations, including his own Israeli nation that erupted in 1948. All this political business of mamlachtiut (a kingdom) did not function well in 1948, and it is not functioning well in 2009. But we will get to that in a moment. To religious Israeli Jewish groups such as “Gush Emunim” and other staunch believers in the right to the “Promised Land,” the arrival of the Messiah has been seen as just around the corner (apropos, the concept of the Messiah is a Persian idea). Indeed, all groups of Jews, in their attempt to return to the “Promised Land,” did not have a historical, geographical or political understanding of the region. The effort to survive amidst this void of understanding led to the 1967 war, that resulted in a victory in the battle but a total defeat in the war. Ultimately, this war caused the total breakdown of political common sense that even Ben Gurion with his mamlachtiut could not have predicted.

And here we arrive at the year 2009, the period of the rebirth of the modern Israeli nation, or as the Israelis call it lately, the “State of the Jewish People.” A new government of secular Jews sees the future of Israel as an extension of anachronistic religious beliefs with the “Promised Land” as part of its politics -- totally irresponsible politics without wisdom signifying the return to slavery and the escape from reality and liberation. Where Natanyahu and Lieberman, the two wise men of Israeli politics, will lead us is predictable….It is not going to be to liberty and freedom.