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As is so frequently the case, it’s been a while since my last post, but I did want to continue the thought I had begun previously. Looking back over the direction I was heading, it now seems to me that what I was saying was starting to get needlessly general, so in this concluding post for Truth and Fiction, I’d like to bring it back to the basic question that might have occurred to anyone reading the previous section: Why Passover? In other words, given that we struggle constantly with the role of the miraculous in religion, why in particular does the story of Passover, and more specifically the moment of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, arouse most intensely these questions for us?
I think that to begin to answer this we have to acknowledge that though the Tanakh is filled with examples of G-d’s miraculous intervention in the affairs of humanity, the…what is the word I’m looking for here? The role, the tenor, the mood of the miraculous event is different from moment to moment in the text. Through most of Genesis the narrative has a very folkloric quality. G-d walks and talks with humanity. Angels pop up here and there, mostly as messengers, sometimes even to marry humans and have children with them. G-d gets angry at humanity and floods the whole world, and only a few generations later mankind gets together and tries to build a tower to heaven. What I’m getting at here is that there’s a mythic quality to much of Genesis that makes it feel much less urgent to strictly define in what sense the stories we’re reading should be regarded as “true.” Certainly there are people who persist in regarding the biblical account of creation, for example, as literally true in a historical sense, but for most of us it isn’t too difficult to regard the stories as metaphors and feel quite comfortable dealing with them at that level.
Not so in Exodus. By the end of Genesis, the narrative has already switched over to a more historical, “realistic” perspective, and with the opening of Exodus this transformation is complete. No longer are we operating in a folkloric mode in which a few larger-than-life figures loom large against a mostly empty background. Exodus opens in such a way as to signal loud and clear that now we are dealing with a much broader stage, in which the political and economic circumstances of nations have as big a role to play as the personalities of individuals:
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:8-10)
This semihistorical mode is an important part of what makes the Passover story so powerfully relevant in the lives of each generation that retells it. The ethnic tensions that drive the story, as well as the repression and consequent longing for freedom that spring from them, are as real and plausible to us now as they were thousands of years ago. That this relevance is powerful enough to transcend not only time, but also language and cultural identity, speaking meaningfully not only to Jews but to people throughout the world from a vast variety of different backgrounds and historical contexts, is testament to the story’s status as one of the foundational organizational narratives of the human species.
Nevertheless, it is precisely this historically plausible quality of the narrative that makes it seem so vitally important to determine how we are supposed to relate to the miraculous events which occur throughout, breaking forth like lightning against the cloudy sky of historical reality. Because if indeed Exodus starts out by constructing a plausible historical and political stage, it is only with the intention of ultimately destroying it. At its heart, the story of Exodus is about the miraculous power of G-d breaking in from outside the bounds of the seemingly solid cage of political reality in order to change it beyond all recognition.
It is this, I think, that we sense when we fixate on the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the question of whether it “actually happened” or not. When the sea parts and the people of Israel cross on dry land to escape their oppressors, something infinitely greater is at stake than the mere question of G-d’s ability or willingness to suspend the ordinary functioning of the laws of nature. Contained within this fantastic event is the thesis that there is a power within and behind the world utterly opposed to systems of repression, able to free us from the bonds of historical necessity that seem to dictate that the way of the world is the foot of the powerful upon the neck of the weak. My belief is that, subconsciously at least, when we ask about whether Moses really parted the Sea of Reeds, we’re not really inquiring about the simple factual matter, but about the radical thesis it communicates.
At the seder last night someone asked me, “So, did Moses really part the Red Sea?” Totally unprepared and not sure what to answer, all I could think of to say was, “Of course not, God did.” Kind of an evasive response, actually, but I was on the spot.
I’ve been getting these kinds of question a lot lately since it came out I’m going to be attending rabbinical school. The assumptions of knowledge and competency they imply can be disconcerting on occasion, but it does keep me on my toes. But it did occur to me later that this question, or some version of it, has been asked at every seder I’ve been to, and that made me wonder if that says something interesting about us and our relation to the holiday.
I mentioned this to my wife this morning, and what she said pretty much hits the nail on head, I think: “They want to know if they’ve been fooled by religion.” And don’t we all, really? This comment greatly reminded me of the way Emmanuel Levinas begins the preface to his great work on ethics, Totality and Infinity: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” Same question.
It’s a common question, in fact, a question that has been floating around like an angry hornet in the room ever since the advent of modernity. In fact, it may be precisely this question which constitutes the distinction between “we moderns” and the era that came before us. None of us can escape it, from the skeptic who’s been stung by the hornet one too many times to the fundamentalist whose attempts to ignore it invest every word and deed with a crazed intensity that his ancient forbears would never have recognized as their own. No one can sleep in a room with an angry wasp and none of us can feel totally comfortable with this question buzzing around.
I think the crux of this anxiety revolves around the diverging paths that Fact and Value have taken over the past several hundred years. This is a horribly oversimplified way of putting things, I know, but I would argue that whereas Fact and Value used to form two sides of a single concept known as Truth, the whole story of the past half millenium or so has been about the two breaking apart in uncomfortable and destabilizing ways and various more or less unsuccessful attempts to bring them back together.
More on this later. In the meantime, if anyone wants to weigh in, please post a comment here on my blog or Facebook. It would seriously make my day.