The Haggada as a Work of Political Thought

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Senator Joseph Lieberman Discuss the Haggada’s Politics at Center for the Jewish Future Event

Hundreds of people gathered at Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus on Sunday, March 22, to hear a pre-Passover conversation with former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman on “The Haggada’s Politics: From 2,000 Years Ago to Today.” Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of YU’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, moderated the discussion.

In his introductory remarks, Rabbi Soloveichik highlighted the nature of the Haggada as a work of political Jewish thought. He also pointed out the Haggada’s deep attraction for America’s Founding Fathers. (Several suggested emblazoning Exodus scenes on the new Unites States seal, and Benjamin Franklin suggested the motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”)

Rabbi Sacks traced the widespread influence of the Exodus narrative to the proliferation of Bible study following the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press. According to Rabbi Sacks, Enlightenment philosophers—such as Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza—who forwarded ideas about freedom “were in dialogue with Tanach.”

Lieberman suggested that the Haggada’s appeal results from people’s “inherent desire” for freedom. “The story has become a standard, not only for personal conduct, but for freedom movements and individuals fighting for freedom throughout the world,” he said. Lieberman noted how the Exodus has served as inspiration for social movements like abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement, and also recounted how the mandate to remember that ‘we were once slaves in Egypt’ motivated him in part to go into public service. “There was some sense that I had to stand up for the other, for the stranger,” stated Lieberman, adding this perception influenced his stance on minority, women’s, and gay rights, in addition to foreign policy.

Similarly, Rabbi Sacks located the Haggada’s central intellectual and emotional power in its “radical, revolutionary, unprecedented idea that the Supreme Power intervenes in history to liberate the supremely powerless.”

However, Soloveichik noted that the Haggada’s message of freedom may be abused; many movements in history that have spoken in the name of liberty ended up devolving into corruption and tyranny. According to both Lieberman and Rabbi Sacks, the antidote to this danger is the message of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and viewed as the culmination of the Exodus. “The purpose of the Exodus was not simply freedom, because if you have freedom alone with nothing else, it can be chaotic or corrupt,” said Lieberman. “What we received at Sinai was our values, our mission statement, but also the centrality of the rule of law, the means by which we adopt a code of [ethical] behavior.”

“In the end, what Am Yisrael did at Sinai was accept God as their sovereign, which meant that for the first time you had a doctrine of the moral limits of power,” added Rabbi Sacks, who compared the English and American Revolutions (based on biblical teachings) to the French and Russian models (based on secular philosophy). “The English and American Revolutions, despite all their tensions, ended up with a great enhancement of human rights,” said Rabbi Sacks, whereas the French and Russian Revolutions “were dreams of utopia that ended as nightmares of hell.”

Rabbi Sacks and Lieberman also stressed the Exodus’s message that human beings have a responsibility to act as God’s partners on Earth—and emulate the divine intervention that put an end to the Israelites’ slavery. Moses himself could have lived a life of quiet comfort as an Egyptian prince or Midianite shepherd, said Rabbi Sacks, “but if you have a Jewish neshama [soul], you cannot walk away.” As an example, he recounted witnessing the passionate efforts of Holocaust survivors to raise awareness about other genocides, such as in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and help the victims.

For Lieberman, it is the divine element of the Exodus intervention that provides comfort. “God didn’t create the world and leave, and he didn’t make a covenant with Abraham and leave,” he said. “God continues to care and reenter history.”

Both Rabbi Sacks and Lieberman currently serve as YU faculty—Rabbi Sacks as the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought and Lieberman as the inaugural Joseph Lieberman Chair in Public Policy and Public Service. The event was hosted by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and the Abraham Arbesfeld Kollel Yom Rishon and Mille Arbesfeld Midreshet Yom Rishon, and was generously sponsored by Robyn and Shukie Grossman and family.

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