From Europe’s Rabbis, the Lessons of Exodus and Passover

shutterstock_246455317After sunset on Friday evening, the Jews of Europe whose lives are disparate and experiences multitudinous will find themselves, if only for a few hours, bound together by ritual and contemplation. 1.1 million members of the Diaspora will partake is what is considered the oldest continually practiced ritual in the Western world and retell one of the Western canon’s best known stories. At a time when many questions surround the fate of Europe’s Jewish communities, eJewish Philanthropy asked a number of European rabbis:

What can we draw or learn from the Passover holiday and the story of the Exodus that is relevant to European Jewry at the present time?

Here are their responses.

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The Pesach story, more than any other, remains the inexhaustible source of inspiration to all those who long for freedom. It taught that right was sovereign over might; that freedom and justice must belong to all, not some; that, under God, all human beings are equal; and that over all earthly power, the King of Kings, who hears the cry of the oppressed and who intervenes in history to liberate slaves. It took many centuries for this vision to become the shared property of liberal democracies of the West and beyond; and there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Freedom is a moral achievement, and without a constant effort of education it atrophies and must be fought for again. At a time of great danger and conflict in Europe and across the world, the lessons of Pesach have never been more relevant or more important.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, Emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom

The greatest challenge that Moshe faced was guiding the Jewish people to identify the problems that they faced. That life could be better than we have right now. We can change the present to have a better future. At the time of the Exodus, the decision after analyzing the situation was that the best option was to escape from Egypt to be free. We face the same challenge. Passover teaches us not that we need to always escape but that we need to face our real problems and find real solutions. Perhaps this time we need to stay to fight for a better Europe. But that is only possible when we face our real problems.
Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland

This year I feel we have developed a new and perhaps surprising approach to the idea of Exodus. Escaping oppression in Egypt remains our defining national narrative, but in the last few months, European Jews have proudly resisted voices telling us to pack our bags and leave for Israel.

When Jews were murdered in Paris and Copenhagen, we were faced with the grim reality of having to review our safety in 21st century Europe. But Jews have put down the firmest roots in post-war Europe. Jewish life flourishes and thrives here. We recognise those attacks were not directed at Jews alone, but European democracy as a whole, precisely because of our essential role within it. If the support and solidarity Jews received from each other, different faiths and the general public in the aftermath of those tragedies tell us anything, this Pesach, whilst remembering one exodus, we know we will not be embarking upon another.
Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, United Kingdom

For generations, the story of Exodus from Egyptian slavery has maintained the relevance of its message, pointing out the necessity to ‘exit’ specific life situations. It has inspired not only the Jews, but also other, quite different groups: the founding fathers of today’s United States, black civil rights activists in the 1960s, fighters against apartheid in South Africa, and many others. For us, the Jewish people living in 21st-century Europe, this story brilliantly explains our ups and downs throughout history. We should always remember who we are, what kind of identity we possess, and what it is we want to pass to future generations of European Jews. The challenge of Passover today is to remain the free men (bnei chorin) and having a strong Jewish self identity in a free and democratic society.
Stas Wojciechowicz, Ec Chaim Synagogue and Center for Progressive Judaism, Warsaw, Poland

The Jewish People was formed not only socially but also spiritually in ‘the iron cauldron’ of slavery in Egypt. Whether this is historically accurate may be open to debate, but not whether it is morally true. Amidst the bitter experience of slavery, injustice, indignity and contempt, the essential values of freedom, dignity, justice and compassion were learnt in the flesh and in the soul, enshrined in Jewish teachings and in the liturgy of every day and every festival.

Subsequent Jewish history, with its repeated traumas of expulsion, marginalisation and denigration, especially in Europe, has only heightened the sensitivity to these values. Today, when they are again under cruel attack, the story of our slavery and deliverance from Egypt spurs us to stand in their defence, for ourselves and for every group which is disenfranchised and the subject of prejudice, injustice and hatred.
Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism, United Kingdom

Where does the story end? I’m not talking about the mythic past of slavery or future redemption. I’m talking about us – when does our story end? Does the post-Second World War European story of hope end here? – Clearly not. The Jewish community has committed to staying put, to being part of creating something better. Even though we have been traumatised again. We must remain loyal to the heroic universal vision of ‘civilisation’. The Pesach story is emphatic: if the flames of oppression and hate still burn, the world cannot be civilised … yet. And with this universal vision to which we strive for all humankind, we are steadfast in support for our particular ideal – every human being is entitled to peace and freedom – but it is through the State of Israel we measure the world’s willingness to accept us as a people. Next year in Jerusalem, next year in a world redeemed.
Neil Janes, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London, United Kingdom