Nietzsche and Pesach: How the Exodus Ruined Everything
By Andrés Spokoiny
Frederick Nietzsche believed that the Egyptians were blond.
My apologies; I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning:
Despite what people sometimes claim, Frederick Nietzsche wasn’t an anti-Semite. To the contrary, he was strongly against the anti-Semitism that raged in Germany in his lifetime. He even said in his private correspondence that anti-Semites, his racist sister included, “should be shot.” (And you thought your family had issues…)
Yet, Nietzsche had a problem with Pesach. A big problem.
For the bespectacled professor, Jews, with their “revolt of the slaves,” had “subverted the natural order” and instituted a “morality of slaves” that is opposed to the “morality of the masters,” the latter being the natural and desired state of the world. That ushered in the “collective degeneration of man” that Nietzsche saw in his own time. The French Revolution, the American Revolution, and democracy as a whole were for Nietzsche direct results of the revolution of morality that the Jewish slaves started.
Nature is, for Nietzsche, the rule of power. The masters’ dominance is, therefore, natural, pure, and noble. Of course, Nietzsche also saw the historical masters as muscular Nordic blonds, even if they were Greek, Roman, or – in our case – Egyptian. He followed Thucydides who said that the proper order of the world is one in which “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Jews were guilty of having inverted that logic by dethroning strength as the ultimate source of good and evil, and therefore creating the morality of the weak. Slave morality is unnatural and incongruent with what he calls will-to-power, a natural, innate drive for domination. “It is the lack of nature, it is the utterly ghastly fact that anti-nature itself has received the highest honors as morality…” With artful guile, the slaves introduced unnatural notions such as pity, compassion, feeling, or caring, in order to subvert the natural, healthy, dominating instincts of the strong. The Exodus is a philosophy for losers. Even the notion of conscience is an invention of the Jewish slave. Conscience is the unnatural consequence of the slave’s manipulation, designed to reign in the strong. An entire moral system is built upon equality and kindness, and now “the blond masters” need to subject their power to law, ethics, and morality.
Wow. You see, clearly he wasn’t an anti-Semite, because I couldn’t have devised a better compliment to Jews and Judaism. Nietzsche was right: Judaism’s foundational act, the revolt of the slaves, declares that freedom for all, and not subjugation of the weak, is the natural order of the world; that an ideal society is based on kindness, not on strength; that every human being has an intrinsic an inalienable dignity, regardless of their place in society; that human conscience is a vital good that helps us discern right from wrong; and that we must indeed restrain our impulse to reign over others.
Sometimes we fail to realize how deep and transformative the message of Pesach really is, how central it is for the history of humanity. It took a Nietzsche to really grasp – and put in words – the magnitude of the Exodus. It’s not just about a group of slaves managing to extricate themselves from bondage; rather, it’s a transformation of the basic understanding of the nature of human being and society. A few chapters in a book achieved what armies couldn’t: “All the world’s efforts against the mighty, the holders of power, are negligible by comparison with what has been accomplished by the Jews – that priestly nation which eventually realized that the one method of effecting satisfaction on its tyrants was by means of a radical transvaluation of values.”
In other words, Pesach doesn’t just free us from Pharaoh, but establishes a new moral order – one in which a slave has the same intrinsic human value as a master, one in which right vanquishes might and kindness triumphs over power. After the Exodus the strong is not the one who subjugates the weak, but the one who cares for them. The Exodus transforms oppression from a natural necessity to an aberration.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Exodus is at the center of humanity’s long, winding march towards freedom. It is our sklavenrevolt (slave revolt) that allows Thomas Jefferson to say that it is “self-evident that all men are created equal.” It actually isn’t. Quite the opposite – we are constantly confronted with differences between people. The idea that ‘all men are created equal’ is one of the less self-evident ideas. It only becomes self-evident when you’ve already accepted the basic notions that the Exodus teaches, and the value system that it conveys.
But Jefferson is not alone. Jonathan Locke, who is widely considered the father of liberal democracy, quotes the Bible 850 times in his works about the “Social Contract,” and Martin Luther King, Jr. used biblical imagery and parallels to the Exodus countless times. It’s also not surprising that the Warsaw Ghetto revolt broke out during Pesach. The Exodus is the beacon that reminds us of our inherent dignity, of our inalienable humanity, of our capacity to discern good from bad and right from wrong.
The Exodus bequeaths us, and the world, three key pillars of Jewish ethics: a) Freedom; b) the intrinsic equality of all human beings; and d) the non-negotiable dignity of every individual.
Now, was Nietzsche too generous with us? Have we really achieved our mission of subverting the morals of power and replacing them with the morals of kindness, freedom, and equality?
Looking at the world around us, it’s easy to see that the herrenmoral (morality of the master) is alive and well. Nietzsche can relax: The lessons of our slave revolt may be self-evident for some, but for many, the notion of the intrinsic equality of all is as mystifying now as it was for the blond Egyptians. Human life continues to be appraised as cheap, and differences among people – which, for Judaism, are a manifestation of our Divine uniqueness – are still feared and suppressed. All over the world, the weak are abused, the losers are scorned, and self-interest towers over kindness. Many still believe in Stalin’s infamous saying, “The only real power comes out of a long rifle.”
Maybe what Nietzsche got wrong is that the slave revolt is not an event that changed everything in a flash, but a beginning, a first step in a long journey to a promised land of compassion, respect, and freedom. That momentous instant of cosmic chutzpah, in which the slave stood in front of the king and demanded, “Let my people go,” bestowed upon us a responsibility and a mission: to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” and work steadily and tirelessly towards a world in which the strong are just and the weak are secure; a world in which each and every human being can fulfill her unique potential and live a life of meaning and happiness; a world ruled by justice and not by power. Pesach tells us, loud and clear, that liberty is not the right to do what we like, but the power to do what we ought.
As the winter fades and the spring brings its promise of renewal, let us use this Pesach to usher in a spring of the soul and a rekindling of our commitment to the legacy of that slave revolt 3,500 years ago that launched a revolution of hope – one that no power in the world has ever managed to suppress.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.