What Do We Keep? What Do We Leave Behind?

By David J. Steiner

Upon departure from Egypt, unsure of the nature of the journey to the Promised Land, our forebears gathered together four things to take with them on their trek into the unknown. Obviously they brought matzah. We know this because we remind ourselves of this every year for a week in the spring. Matzah represented sustenance, which no society can do without, and the haste of our departure. They also brought reparations for their four hundred years of slavery. The net effect of deciding to shlep this gold and silver taken from the Egyptians was the ability to have resources to build a new society. However, resources can be used for all types of purposes. These were used for the golden calve and the traveling tabernacle. Moses brought the bones of Joseph, which represents both his promise to his ancestors and our recognition of the importance of history in creating the future. Lastly, there were the timbrels, which Miriam and the women used to dance in the celebration that occurred when the Jews reached safety on the other side of the sea. These musical instruments symbolize the importance of aesthetics and culture in any society. Could these freed slaves have moved faster without the extra weight of their cultural baggage? Probably, but freedom would have been pointless without it. The bottom line is that sustenance, assets, history and culture were the choices of our ancestors when they knew that they were going to leave one civilization to build another.

Fortunately, we don’t face this question in our day to day life, but certainly some of us have asked ourselves what we would grab if our home were suddenly engulfed in flames. What would you keep? What would you leave behind? What would you take if Nazis came to your door and gave you minutes to pack your bags and leave your existing world behind? In reality, it doesn’t take a fire or a Nazi to confront us with these choices. Every waking moment we make decisions about how we want to enter the future.

The missing piece in the story of our enslavement and eventual journey to freedom and sovereignty is what happened during the 400 years of slavery. It must have been a different experience for Joseph’s children and grandchildren, who tasted freedom and then had it plucked from their mouths than for the generations that were born into slavery. Would Jacob’s grandson, were he to escape slavery, ever complain about manna and favor the food and shelter of Egyptian bondage? Would he resist the brave leadership of Miriam, Moses and Aaron, who risked life and limb to free him? What was kept and what was left behind as the generations passed in Egypt is an important question for the modern Jew because every generation faces this challenge within a new context.

Since context always changes, we must use it to understand previous generations choices, just as we use it to make our own. In Abraham and Sarah’s time, people prayed to reified gods in the forms of statues, and Abraham had the good sense to revolt. As we learn from the Midrash Rabbah (38:13), he demonstrated how futile this belief was when he destroyed his father’s idols. Abraham’s response to context was rejection and replacement. He replaced multiple gods who inhabited manufactured idols with a single god who is ethical and intervenes when he perceives injustice.

Rabbi Akiva faced a different challenge under Roman occupation in the Land of Israel. Since the promises of Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s God were not being fulfilled, and the people were again losing sovereignty and faced the threat of eviction from their land, Akiva had to conceptualize God as mystical and only understood by scholars. This is why the Talmud (Menachot 29b) gives him the faculties necessary to interpret “crowns on the Holy letters [of Torah].” With this elevated comprehension of mysticism, also attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, rabbis were able to interpret Torah in a way that would trigger a revolt against Rome.

In his time, the Rambam replaced the previous generation’s anthropomorphic god with a god whose attributes could not be described. In Rambam’s world, there were different conflicts over the conception of God ranging from the Catholic trinity to the revelatory god of Mohammad. In that world, where the major discourse was defining God, Rambam chose to focus on what God expected of us, which is the primary focus of his Mishna Torah.

One of the unique things in the Jewish trajectory of describing God is that we did it in the same way the American Constitution is written. Instead of discarding prior renditions, Americans and Jews keep their amendments on the books and alter them by adding new ones. For example, the eighteenth amendment to the American Constitution prohibits the consumption of alcohol and the twenty-first amendment repeals that prohibition. In similar fashion, Rambam would have executed Karaites for rejecting the Oral Torah of the talmudic sages, but he felt completely comfortable replacing some of those same rabbi’s understandings with his own. Additionally, each system has multiple ways of assessing the compatibility of change with the prior systems. Not all changes were accepted by all Jews, and, just like in other cultures, some things met the test of time favorably and others didn’t.

What is common about all the trailblazers in Jewish history and collective memory is their belief in the advancement of the understanding of Torah. In many ways, they are the fan fiction writers in the book club that is Judaism. However, in our modern world a chasm seems to be splitting the club based on the question, “what came first, the book or its main character?”

The conservative approach, in many ways adopted by most denominations, Reform and Ultra Orthodox alike, is that the character preceded the book. The dispute among them is about which texts have authority and which can be referenced only when useful? “What Do We Keep? And What Do We Leave Behind?” They all believe in God but differ in their understanding of his character and expectations.

The growing majority approach is radically different. This group understands that what is kept and what is left behind is not strictly a function of belief or an expression of respect for the ancestors. Some see the religious texts much like they read Mark Twain. When they encounter words or ideas that aren’t appropriate in our time, they leave them as historical markers. Others are comfortable discarding the old in hopes of replacing it with less particular and more relevant ideas.

The common ground of all Jews is that identity is not only assumed by the individual. It is also ascribed. While we have control over which identities we assume, but we have no control over ascribed identity. When Jews or Judaism is described from the outside, there is no choice about what is kept or disregarded. Pharaoh was threatened by the Hebrews because they were a growing resident alien nation that he thought posed a threat to his power. Christianity was threatened by Judaism because they understood that it represented a threat to their conception of truth, and anti-Semites who use eugenics as the basis of their hate believe that Jewish identity is genetic or racial. In all forms, ascribed Jewish identity is real and shapes the Jewish experience in the world, regardless of what we choose to keep or disregard.

Assumed Jewish identity is different. First of all, assumed identity, in general, is fluid. At varying times we are professionals, friends, fans of our home teams, parents, children, spouses, members of a religious group and citizens, to name a few. Assumed identities can be changed, replaced, overlap and sometimes they contradict one another, but the individual is the ultimate arbiter of his or her assumed identity, even if the outside world disagrees.

The focus of Jewish assumed identity for some contemporary Jews is in the fight against those who hate us. They build monuments to the Holocaust and their banner reads, “Never again.” Others try to define Judaism solely as a religion. This always leads to a power struggle over the location of the fence that surrounds the set of beliefs and practices. Mitnagdim disagreed with Chassidim. Some Ultra Orthodox in Israel say that the Reform Jews are either sinners or not Jewish at all. For many Zionists, Jewishness is expressed through the collective behaviors of a nation-state. In the early days of Israel, ex-patriot Israelis were called yordim, which could have been replaced with “traitor” in English. Even Herzl’s famous opus was called The Jew State in German, which is more a description of the population than the character of the state.

Jews don’t have to assume their Jewishness to be thought of and treated as Jews, but when they assume a Jewish identity they have control over what that means to them. It could be based on nationalism, religious beliefs, historical inheritance, language, geography or other things, which bind them to our people. The bondedness of the Jews expressed in the Talmud (Shevuot 39a), Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other, in context, may have meant that we stand collectively before one god, but today it has different meaning. We are not only bound to those who believe like us, live with us, defend us or speak our language. For the future of our people, we will have to once again remake the walls around Torah, as prescribed in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) to attend to Jewish diversity and contemporary understandings of what we keep and what we leave behind, and just like in every generation, everything is open for our choosing.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a mediator and educator in Chicago.