Friday, March 30, 2018

Freedom, slavery, xenophobia, paranoia, and Pesach

Around the holidays, I sometimes recycle old blogs and sometimes, if something occurs to me, I write new ones. This is a new one.

Our religious and cultural tradition gives us stories with timeless situations, predicaments that are endemic in the human condition. Though I do believe that economic development and rising standards of living has brought with it a decline in violence and general moral progress, certain aspects of human nature have not changed much. Problems faced by our ancient ancestors, and those who wrote stories about them, are very similar to those we face today, with subtle illuminating variations in context.

Joseph tells his brothers: come live in Egypt, there is ample food here because Egypt has vast storehouses that are full (thanks to his entrepreneurial vision). So the family relocates to Egypt the land of abundance. And, apparently the Egyptians (not to make a category mistake by conflating them with citizens of today’s Egypt) are ok with that – until after a few generations a Pharaoh arises who is paranoid. Cultural paranoia, xenophobia against the Jews now becomes dominant and they are enslaved. Pharaoh is afraid the Jews will multiply in numbers relative to the Egyptians and thus overwhelm them (physically, culturally?). And the rest is history.

Immigration, successful economic integration, multiplication – familiar themes. Few societies in history have been able to peacefully absorb a large influx of culturally different people. The two major exceptions of our time are the U.S. and Israel, which stand in stark contrast to much of Europe (for example France which faces tremendous internal cultural frictions). And today in America we are again being put to the test as our President and many of his supporters are troubled by paranoid xenophobic impulses.

The ultimate result of this is the loss of freedom in some way or another, and in the extreme could result in slavery and genocide.

Concerning which, what do the authors of the Hagadah mean when they bemoan slavery and extol freedom? Are they talking about the same notion of freedom that we are today? Yes and no. For one thing, slavery itself was not abolished with the exodus. Slavery is recognized as legitimate in the bible, and there are laws concerning the treatment of slaves by their owners. Similarly, from today’s perspective, women at that time could not be considered to be free.

Nevertheless, the Passover story has relevant things to say to us about freedom as we now understand it, particularly in relation to freedom for individuals regardless of ethnic, cultural characteristics.