Chagall, Elijah Touched By An Angel & Elijah Carried Off to Heaven
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to celebrate Passover (Pesach) without discomfort. Initially, the challenge was trying to reconcile historical and archeological knowledge I’d been studying with my Hebrew school education and my life experience at the seder table. I was deeply troubled by the gap between the archeological record and the fictions of Jewish tradition — unfortunately, in spite of the considerable efforts of both Christian and Jewish biblical scholars and archeologists, little positive evidence exists to support one of the central narratives of Jewish identity: the Passover Maggid, the retelling of the Passover story of Israelite liberation from slavery from Egypt. My discomfort increased along with the harsh Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories and continued (settler) abuse of Palestinian civilians.
This has been more than a slight predicament. Like most American Jewish children of the 1960’s, I’d seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. So I knew about Moses and the burning bush, his threats to Pharoh to “let my people go” before each of the ten plagues was inflicted on the Egyptians to persuade them of the superior power of the Israelite god, and how the Israelites baked their bread before it had risen in their haste to leave Egypt. And I’d watched the Red Sea part to enable the Israelites’ escape, and then engulf the Egyptian army. I knew the Passover story backwards and forwards Memories of Passover seders during my childhood were among my most powerful and positive. Year after year I’d sat at the seder table with family and friends to retell the Exodus narrative and eat matzoh (“unleavened bread”), the holiday’s primary symbol (of the hasty departure from Egypt). So as with most of the non-fundamentalist Jewish community, Passover was one of my most significant connections to Jewish identity.
I grew up with the Reform community’s familar gray Union Haggadah, but my lifelong passion for Jewish history and book culture had led me to create a respectable collection of facsimiles of medieval, early modern and modern haggadahs. The internet enabled me to acquire copies of the Birds Head Haggadah (13th c.), the Golden Haggadah and Kauffman Haggadah (14th c.), the Rylands Haggadah, Sarajevo Haggadah and Ashkenazi Haggadah (15th c.), the Copenhagen Haggadah and copies of early modern printed haggadahs (17th & 18th centuries) and modern examples like Arthur Szyk’s post-war haggadah, Shalom of Safed’s folk art haggadah, and Leonard Baskin’s distinctively-illustrated version (many images here). My collected haggadot were precious threads of contact with a Jewish past; their visible signs of seders from the distant past – wine stains, drops of wax, soiled page corners – offered me powerful contact with the continuity of a tradition dating to the second century of the common era. (Contrary to popular misunderstanding, both Jewish and Christian, the formal, haggadah-directed seder post-dates the life of Jesus and destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem).
Like other Jewish mothers, I’d carefully and lovingly prepared seders for my family and participated in seders with other families to insure transmission of Jewish identity to the children at table. I rehearsed the Four Questions with my sons, and prompted the children to tell The Story year after year. I began my own serious study of the archeology of the Exodus when my children were nearly grown, and was able to process the limited evidence in the context of more sophisticated conversations at the seder table. Texts such as Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence, ed. Frerichs, Lesko & Dever (1997) (a fine review here), and James K. Hoffmaier’s Israel in Egypt (1999) (available in preview here) offer the basics on the principal controversies involved in the debate – whether the Exodus happened, was there a substantial Israelite population in the region at the time, who built the pyramids, etc. (A similar controversy exists regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Nathan Golb’s, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (1996), which describes the scholarly and political suppression of evidence regarding the authorship of the scrolls).
For some, the implications of the absence of archeological evidence (NYTimes article, 4.3.07) prompted a crisis of faith and/or identity. Many responded with the traditional “mantra” that the “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence,” so the fact that archeologists have never found evidence of Israelite life in the Sinai does not mean they (we) were not there. Rabbi David Wolpe succinctly stated, and answered, the problem – at least for rabbis:
Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true. As a scholar who took me to task in print told me privately over lunch, “Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publicly.” In other words, tell the truth, but not when too many people will be listening. […] There are three primary reasons this is important to talk about: 1. A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history. [… ] 2. Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. […] 3. Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. … The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us
My concerns about the absence of evidence of the Exodus have to do neither with faith or identity – my Jewish identity comes from my relationship to a human community tradition of considerable duration, even if not as aged or well-documented as some would like to believe. No, my issues with Passover are entirely parental and political: how to tell the story of Passover responsibly, in a manner consistent with reality (and evidence) rather than community fiction, and how to teach my children to relate to the modern state of Israel in light of the evidence (after all, I ask them to use evidence carefully in all other aspects of their lives).
I cannot ignore the archeological record (or lack of it), and therefore I am unable ethically to make claims to territory on the other side of the world on the basis of such a narrative, even a treasured narrative. Israel’s 40+ year abuse of Palestinians (and its own indigineous Arabs) so challenges me that I redouble my effort to draw universal meaning from the traditions associated with Passover.
The Exodus as a metaphor – and the extensive history of Passover observance – speak volumes to me about Jewish experience of living in the world, about a history of anti-Semitism, and Jewish response to it. I can connect to Passover tradition as a creative response to the challenges of persecution since late antiquity. And it is this meaning I have tried to share with my family, and which I sought to explore as I prepared for the holiday this year.
So I’ve begun a rather ambitious new project, a (tikkun) “knitted seder” … As I researched the iconographical tradition of the familiar ritual symbols of the holiday, I was inspired to use this tikkunknitting project as the point of departure for a broader exploration of the ways in which holiday traditions and meanings are created.
I’ve begun with the tradition of Elijah’s Cup. With the continued conflict in Israel-Palestine, it seems appropriate to initiate a tikkunknitting project with Elijah’s Cup, the material expression of hope for an age of peace.
As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes eloquently (source), Elijah is a complex figure in Jewish tradition, raising challenging questions about the role of criticism and nature of leadership. Describing the rituals of Elijah’s cup at seder, Rabbi Burton Vizotsky observed in his Pesach message to Americans for Peace Now, “Reject Hate, Embrace Hope, Recommit to Peace!,”
Traditionally, we fill this cup to welcome the Prophet Elijah, who heralds the start of the Messianic era. For centuries, we have recited Psalm 79:6-7: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know you and on the kingdoms that do not call upon Your name. They have devoured Jacob and made desolate his dwellings.”
In the Middle Ages, Jews invoked this fantasy of divine retribution as a poultice for the wounds inflicted during our long history. This bitterness was understandable, if unproductive. Now we live in a time that we are ostensibly free, yet the nations who actually invoke God’s name continue to desolate one another. God’s Holy Land is riven by terror and revenge. Jacob’s forbears, Isaac and Ishmael, remain gripped in the medieval mind-set. Despair makes us yearn for the arrival of Elijah.
We cannot bear to wait any longer. We cannot endure endless war. Elijah seems but a faint hope, not a solution. Tonight, we open the door to our neighbors, to dwelling with one another in quiet and shared delight. As we open the door we raise our fourth cup in a toast to the fresh breeze of renewed commitment, to the rejection of hate, to embracing hope, and to the hard work of making peace. And, we raise our glasses to life. We pray this “LeChaim,” will bring us the longed-for redemption. Let this be the way we welcome Elijah.
When my family opens the door at the end of seder this year, we will look hopefully to the virtual arrival of the prophet Elijah and the real fulfillment of the prophecy of peace – for all peoples, but with special hope for Jewish commitment to an end of the Israeli occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories and its concomittant abuse of Palestinian people, and end to the cycle of violenc, and the arrival of Jewish commitment to a just peace between Israel’s Jews and her many Arab neighbors.
More information about the pattern for this knitted Elijah’s cup will be available when it is added to my collection of knitted Judaica and Patterns for Peacebuilders to support co-existence and peace-building efforts taking place between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
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