New Teachings from Exodus: Berman & Waskow’s Freedom Journeys

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March 1, 2011

If a Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea but nobody told the story, Did it actually happen? —No. If no Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea, but we told the story for three thousand years, Did it actually happen? —Yes. Is it still happening? —Yes.

This contemporary koan opens Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia, a new book by Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman. Freedom Journeys is a midrashic reading of the Exodus, “rooted,” the authors explain, “in the feminist, eco-responsive, ‘panentheist,’ and peace-committed world-views that we share with many of our generation.” If that description excites you, this is a book you are likely to love.

Even if there is no historical evidence for the Exodus, argue Berman and Waskow, there is value in retelling and reexamining the story. Just as Shakespeare’s play Hamlet speaks to us on levels which might not be tapped by a factual history of Denmark, the story of the Exodus from the Narrow Place of mitzrayim resonates emotionally and spiritually regardless of its historical veracity. The story, the authors point out, is a shared one; it speaks to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as those involved in secular struggles for justice and freedom.

In every generation, says the Passover haggadah, we must regard ourselves as though we had been ourselves brought out from Egypt. But this generation, the authors argue, must take the story especially seriously. “According to the biblical tale, Pharaoh’s army impoverished and enslaved peoples at home and beyond its borders; his cruel and stubborn arrogance brought on his own country the ecological disasters that we call the ‘plagues,’” write Berman and Waskow. In their minds, the impoverishment of the world’s rainbow of species and the rigors of climate change are today’s plagues, brought upon us by our complicity with modern-day Pharaohs.

But this book intends not merely to describe, but also to prescribe. Even as biblical disasters may echo eerily in today’s news, the Exodus story also contains seeds of hope, and reconsidering that central narrative may spark us into new ways of moving toward liberation.

Freedom Journeys is organized into eight sections: leaving nomadic life and being squeezed into the Narrow Land; resisting enslavement, and Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush; the struggle against Pharaoh, culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea; the ragtag bunch of runaway slaves making their way to covenant at Sinai; the struggle to turn the insights of Sinai into workable community life; facing death, rebellion, and war; preparing to cross the Jordan into a new chapter; and looking across the millennia to see how this freedom story has been repeatedly transformed and is even now being renewed.

I’ve studied (and prayed and sung) with both Rabbi Waskow and Rabbi Berman. I know that they are each skilled at interpreting Torah texts in ways which reveal the deep spiraling patterns of descent for the sake of ascent, of constriction which can lead to new expansiveness. Even the tiniest details become opportunities for new interpretation. For instance, the way they interpret the Hebrew word “Mitzrayim,” Egypt. Noting that it matches the form of the Hebrew plural, they read it as a kind of twice-constrictedness, like the English colloquialism “between a rock and a hard place.”

Who else would use Robert Heinlein’s imaginary Martian term “grok” as a way of explaining the full meaning of the Hebrew “yodea,” usually rendered in English as “know”? If, like me, you are charmed by the notion of using a germinal SF classic to shed new light on the intricacies of Hebrew word-roots, then this book is probably a good fit for you. (By the same token, if that makes you roll your eyes, then you may not be in this book’s target audience.)

Contemporary social and political realities are married with Torah throughout this book.Waskow and Berman laughingly argue for the existence of an “international feminist conspiracy” in the collaboration between Moses’ sister and Pharaoh’s daughter. They write about “Brickmaker’s Union No. 1,” linking the hard labor of the Israelites in Egypt with the history of labor union organizing. Citing Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, they argue that the Exodus story’s central metaphor is one of birth. They ask how we might read the story differently if we thought in terms of “Mother Egypt” who birthed us into new life—and I find a resonance which changes how I respond to the unfolding protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak–about which Waskow has also written at some length on the Shalom Center blog.

Much of what’s in Freedom Journeys is familiar territory for me: how God’s ineffable Name relates to the breathing of all life, explorations of divinity and gender, the interpretation which notes that God instructs Moses to “come” to Pharaoh, which can only mean that God is already there, with Pharaoh, where Pharaoh is. The material on the importance of Shabbat echoes Waskow’s earlier work (Down to Earth Judaism in particular), and the material about gender, Torah, and taharah/tumah (terms usually rendered “purity” and “impurity”) is material I’ve heard Berman teach. But for many readers these ideas may be new; and even for those who’ve encountered these ideas before, this is a polished and well-crafted retelling.

In addition to Waskow and Berman’s own joint prose, the book features three essays by invited contributors: one on the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Gospels, one on the Exodus as it appears in the Qur’an, and one on Exodus as it manifests in and shapes African-American culture. All three are excellent. In one of the essays, African-American scholar Vincent Harding speaks in terms of our “joint ownership” of the Exodus story. I am moved by how these different takes on the story of the Exodus reflect both its universality and the particularities of how different communities have found strength and inspiration there.

Pharaoh, these authors argue, set the world out of balance with his hunger for power, and in response the Israelites emerged into freedom and covenant. Caesar’s hunger for power created the Roman Empire, and Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity—and eventually Islam—entered the world stage to set things back in balance. And today, write Berman and Waskow:

[I]t is Modernity, modern corporations, and the modern superstates that have brought unheard-of abundance, public health, successful science, and cultural interchange to large parts of the human race. They have encouraged transformations in the relationships of women and men; in family life and child rearing; in the transmission of information through mass media; in the sheer numbers of the human race—in every case, a boon to some; a curse to others.

And these same institutions have killed tens of millions of people in wars and genocides and have threatened the web of life upon the planet. As a result, many who have benefited and suffered from their doings have come to believe these institutions have, like Pharaoh and Caesar before them, overstepped the bounds of power, thrown the whole world into earthquake. And now we see some of these people struggling to shape new forms of community adequate to repair what they see as newly radical imbalance.

The rabbis who created the Passover haggadah, that great liturgical retelling of the Exodus story, were interested in the Jewish narrative of liberation alone. Today, Berman and Waskow argue, our story of liberation must be global, not merely national. And we must not only talk the talk of transforming our relationship with power, but also walk the walk. Freedom Journeys is an excellent resource for those who are interested in delving in to the Exodus story in new ways, and in using that story to spark new transformation in the years to come.

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