Sunday, April 19, 2009

"They emptied Egypt"

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of Reform Judaism. I am a huge fan of Reform Judaism, especially the early days of the first Pittsburgh Platform when Reform held out the promise of a radical recasting of Judaism, and I wish Rabbi Dreyfus only the best. That said, while reading a copy of her “Remarks Delivered at the CCAR Convention on February 28, 2009” I couldn’t help but shout out loud, “What the frak is this?!?”

In her commentary on the week’s Torah reading, Rabbi Dreyfus quotes Exodus 35:5, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” The gifts God wants are gold, silver, copper, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, linen, goat hair, red-died ram skins, acacia wood, lamp oil, and other precious oils and stones (Exodus 35:5-9).

A few sentences later Rabbi Dreyfus muses, “I sometimes wonder where the Israelites got all that stuff in the wilderness.” Is she kidding?

Rabbi Dreyfus needn’t wonder where these newly freed slaves got such wealth, all she has to do is read Torah: Broken with grief over the mass murder of thousands of innocent first-born Egyptians at the hands of the Israelite god, the people of Egypt beseech the Israelites to leave the country as quickly as possible for, they say, “We are dying!” (Exodus 12:33).

The Israelites grab their unleavened bread, bundle their few possessions on their shoulders (Exodus 12:34) and race out of Egypt. As they do so they “request” from the shattered Egyptians “silver vessels, gold vessels, and garments… they emptied Egypt” (Exodus 12:35-36). They emptied Egypt! In other words the Israelites used the death of the first born to extort the grieving Egyptians of their wealth. And all of this—the murder of the innocent and the sacking of Egypt—was sanctioned by God!

This is the second time the Israelites devastated Egypt. Joseph, as the Book of Genesis tells us, devised the scheme that stripped the people of Egypt of their ancestral lands, leading to a forced removal of the entire population from their farms to the cities where they were enslaved to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:20-22). The Pharaoh, his priests, and the Hebrews profited from this evil (Genesis 47:27); the latter’s enslavement at the hands of a new pharaoh was just the chickens coming home to roost.

Rather than wondering where the fleeing slaves got their riches, Rabbi Dreyfus could have used the text to explore the dark side of God and Jewish history. Instead she did as she was taught to do, she glossed over the Israelite extortion of Egypt with a cute wink to terror saying, “I picture them (the Israelites) carrying it (the extorted wealth of Egypt) in their backpacks, along with the granola bars and first aid kits and sunscreen for their forty-year hike in the Sinai.” It is just this kind of pabulum that drives thoughtful Jews out of the synagogue.

Why do we do this? We have this fantastic book filled with all the genius and genocidal madness of which humanity is prone, and we reduce it (and ourselves) to silliness. Why? Because we are victims of our own propaganda, insisting we are the suffering chosen who, while often failing to live up to the arcane ritual standards of our god, nevertheless hold the moral high ground when it comes to our fellow humans. We are so addicted to playing the hapless victim of inhumanity that we can no longer see that we have been, and in some cases still are, the perpetrators of inhumanity.

This is not a jab at Rabbi Dreyfus. This is a plea for a new kind of rabbinate; a rabbinate that is at least as honest about Torah as Torah is about herself; a rabbinate devoted to the prophetic call for righteousness and true spiritual renewal rather than the priestly obsession with ritual and the Disneyfication of Israel; a rabbinate that is unafraid to shine the healing light of truth in the dark corners of the Jewish soul; a rabbinate that can offer our people a way to spiritual greatness that honors the past without excusing or imitating it.

I wish Rabbi Dreyfus well, but if this is the Torah of our movement, there is little hope for the future. When Reform Judaism dies, and it will, we only have ourselves to blame.


Grégoire said...

I simultaneously hate and love the Exodus story.

As a little boy, this story (about the slaughter of all those little babies and kids, and the subsequent plunder of Egypt, and the drowning of all those soldiers) brought the glimmer of awareness that if there were such a god, he was not worthy of any of my attention.

Later on I took issue with the story for a different reason. Once the Israelites left, the narrative has them setting up their own bourgeoisie in Canaan.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that this is mythology and has no basis in historical fact: How much better it would have been to tell a story about the abolition of the ruling class, the liberation their Egyptian brothers and sisters (who were also enslaved, only in a different fashion), and the redistribution of the wealth to everyone.

"I wish Rabbi Dreyfus well, but if this is the Torah of our movement, there is little hope for the future. When Reform Judaism dies, and it will, we only have ourselves to blame."

Dying movements spawn new innovations; like a dead trunk in the forest with plants and flowers erupting from it. New movements are being born today, some of them more fit than the old. I don't have much faith, but this is something I hope for.

AaronHerschel said...

Nu? So? Of course God gets his cut of the swag. I imagine the Jews used the rest to build the Golden Calf.

Or no, wait. Here's a different reading. The murder of the firstborn, that's God's deal. The extortion is just a bonus the Jews came up with themselves. When God finds out, he's pissed, so he demands this completely worthless tabernacle be made out of all the plundered stuff, and then rubs it in the Jews faces by never staying in the thing, just hovering over in it in some miraculous cloud, which he makes the people chase around the desert for forty years. Suckers.