Passover marks the birth of the Jewish people and the starting point for the shaping of its national and particular values, but the story of the Exodus has also inculcated basic universal values in the Western world: liberty, proper treatment of employees, the Sabbath rest, the obligation to love the stranger, and other humanist values that came from Judaism. These values remained Jewish even after Western thought adopted them.
And yet, in the past 150 years, and more so since the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, a split has formed in Judaism regarding these values. The non-Orthodox movements adopted them and turned them into a campaign to repair the world, while Orthodoxy in general abandoned some of them and stressed the ritual dimension, as well as insular and particularist concepts. This is a tragedy for both Orthodoxy and Israel, where the image of Judaism is largely dictated by Orthodoxy.
The Exodus is perceived in Jewish tradition as the foundational moment of the Jewish people. After years of slavery and a series of miracles, God took his people to freedom. Since then, Egypt and the Exodus have symbolized Jewish tradition, together with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the moment when the commitment was made between God and the Jewish people.
Meanwhile, this foundational moment constitutes a basis of values for religious and social obligations that are a vestigial memory of the Exodus. The Exodus is the foundation for the principle of liberty, freedom of choice and criticism of every person who enslaves another.
Emerging from slavery to freedom is the basis for laws on slavery in the Torah, which were advanced for their time. The foreignness of the Israelites in Egypt is the basis for the obligation to love the stranger; the Israelites’ hard labor is the basis for the Sabbath rest and other societal obligations.
Through Christianity, the Exodus became an asset of all Western culture. The emergence of the Israelites from slavery to freedom became a model for groups and peoples that aspired to freedom from a dictator or from colonialist slavery. The other values learned from the Exodus took a key place in Western humanist thought.
With the split in Judaism and the establishment of the non-Orthodox movements, by a fascinating trick of history, the humanist values in the Torah became a focus of religious thought and action by those groups. Societal struggles and efforts to repair the world are a central plank of the Reform and Conservative movements around the world. As a kind of reaction to those movements and the identification of humanist values with their Judaism, these movements' values are considered “Western values” by most of Orthodoxy – values that should be disregarded or marginalized.
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The stance on the expulsion of refugees from Israel is a fascinating test case. Since the government announced its intention to expedite the expulsion, a cry of protest has been heard in the non-Orthodox Jewish world; Reform and Conservative rabbis, especially in the United States but also in Israel, have signed petitions and letters to the prime minister to annul the decision. But most Orthodox rabbis have been silent.
Another example is the treatment of the Palestinians. Without reference to the political dimension, concern for their human rights belongs to the non-Orthodox rabbis and thinkers. Here too, most Orthodox rabbis don’t deal at all with the Jewish-values aspects of the ongoing negation of rights. The concept of repairing the world, which became so central in the non-Orthodox world, is almost nonexistent among the Orthodox.
This attitude of the Orthodox rabbis to Jewish values that were adopted by humanist thought, and these rabbis’ absence from the fight to protect human rights in Israel and abroad, are a tragedy for Judaism and the image of Israel as a Jewish state. This is also one reason for the apparent clash between the democratic and Jewish elements in Israel. If Judaism is a religion that only cares about rituals deriving from Jewish law, and human rights are necessarily bad Western values, the clash is inevitable.
The slavery in Egypt and the Exodus brought the world values that can serve as a common denominator – instead of a basis for dispute – to Jewish and humanist thinking. They can also make Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity more harmonious. Orthodox Judaism too should stress these Jewish values, and its leaders and spokespeople should become more significant players, not only on issues like Sabbath rest, but also on societal and moral questions that plague Israeli society.
Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State.