Passover People: A Conversation with Rachel Friedman

(note: Rachel Friedman is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley – previously she double majored in theology and Arabic studies at Georgetown University. She specializes in classical Arabic literature and Islamic Studies, particularly classical debates about the inimitability (iʿjāz) of the Qurʾān. Her other academic interests include the intersection of theology and literature in the classical Arab world, both in the Islamic and Andalusi Jewish realms, and historical adaptations of classical Arabic poetic conventions into the Hebrew poetic system. Rachel writes this from her standpoint as a Jew.)

Tasi Perkins: March 31 this year will be both Western Christainity’s Easter Sunday and Judaism’s 6th-7th days of Passover – we might use the confluence of these two high holidays to explore a theological theme which might unite them. There is a strong tradition in Christian theology to describe Sunday as both the first and the eighth day of the week – the first because in Genesis 1 that is the day in which God began creating the heavens and the earth; the eighth because Jesus rose from the dead, according to the gospel of Matthew the women went to anoint Jesus’ corpse “after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Mt 28.1). Because Easter Sunday was both the first day of the week according to the ancient Hebrew calendar and also the day after the Sabbath day, Christian theologies in the patristic era referred to the Lord’s Day as the eighth day of the week. Christian people are those who live perpetually in the resurrection of Jesus. Baptismal fonts, the vessels in which new Christians are initiated into the community, are typically octagonal to symbolize that the baptismal candidate is entering the eternal Sabbath, the endless eighth day of the week. I wonder if Judaism might see deliverance similarly to the way Christianity sees resurrection, and if therefore there might be a sense that in the Jewish life every day is Passover because every day straddles bondage and deliverance.

Rachel Friedman: The Exodus is one of the formative events in the Jewish experience, and this move from slavery to freedom is indeed integral to Jewish memory and practice. To quote the Haggadah, “In every generation a Jew should see herself/himself as though she/he personally has been freed from Egypt.” Every day is a post-deliverance day that holds the collective memory of past slavery. This understanding of the difference between slavery and freedom allows for a deep appreciation of freedom. As in your example of baptismal fonts that symbolize the eighth day, Jewish tradition has frequent reminders of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt to freedom. For instance, the daily morning worship service includes blessings thanking God for freedom. Judaism insists that its followers do not forget the slavery that their ancestors underwent. These reminders also serve as reminders of how lucky Jews are to live as free people. In that these rituals are observed throughout the year, I agree with your idea of Jewish life being, in one sense, a perpetual Passover. However, I also want to emphasize that Judaism has a strong sense of the importance of differentiating between holidays so that observing these traditions does not become simply a product of habit. One of the central themes in the liturgy recited at the end of Sabbath tells of how God distinguished “between the holy and the common” (quoting Lev 10:10). In a similar vein, Jewish tradition discourages the consumption of matzoh for a couple of weeks prior to Passover so that when Jews eat it at the Passover seder, they experience it anew, and the story it represents remains fresh in their minds.

TP: Your point about contrasting fasts and feasts has notable parallels in the Christian tradition, none more stark than having the Triduum (Maundy Thursday-Good Friday-Holy Saturday) immediately precede Easter – the most somber fast precedes the most ecstatic feast. But at the same time, there are certain “Easter” dimensions of Christian life which transcend the liturgical calendar. Christians are, in a sense, “Easter people” (at least in theory). Because  fighting tempts soldiers to fight on the Sabbath, Seventh Day Adventists will not participate in wars. The historic “peace churches” (Brethren, Quakers, Mennonites) extend this principle to their whole lives: because they are “Easter people” they refuse all military service. Do you think this risks conflating the sacred and profane, and therefore breaking the spirit of Leviticus 10:10? To put it another way, is there some soil on which Moses ought to wear his sandals because it is non-holy? Would he have greater sanctity for the ground surrounding the burning bush if he treated other land as disenchanted? Should Christians be bound by Qoheleth’s dictum that there is, “a time to love, and a time to hate / a time for war, and a time for peace?” (Ecc 3:8), or can they say that the Christ event subsumes wartime and “hate-time?” I am curious whether you think there is a Jewish correlate (either historical or theological) to this question.

RF: Would you say that at least for some Christians, living in this eighth day means that work does not exist in the same way it did before Jesus was resurrected? In other words, according to Christian eighth-day theology, if the current era is one of constant “Shabbat,” does it follow that there is no (need to) “work” – in whatever sense this term is understood? On a related note, does Jesus’ death and resurrection change the nature of the division between sacred and profane, thus removing or altering the distinction between sacred and profane in the world? Perhaps this question will help determine how applicable Leviticus 10:10 is to the Christian life. The experience of being delivered into freedom is a constitutive component of Judaism, one of several intertwined components. It is integral to Jewish thought in key ways; for example, according to tradition, Jews have accepted the Law in freedom, as a freed people, and this definitive choice could not have been made in a state of slavery to a foreign ruler’s laws. In this way, Jewish life has traditionally been contingent on living in a post-deliverance era, and perhaps in this sense there is an analogy between the Jewish idea of deliverance and the Christian idea of resurrection.

TP: There are a number of Christian responses to your question. Some Christians hold to a fully realized eschatology (the Kingdom of God is fully present either in the Church or since the Christ event) and would claim that every dimension of life is somehow transformed by redemption. Others hold that the Kingdom has not yet come, that this world is still fallen and under the dominion of the forces of chaos. Probably the majority position in Protestant history has been a third option – following Martin Luther, many have asserted that the “the Kingdom is here but not yet.” This is called “partially realized” eschatology and seems to indicate that the sacred and profane cohabitate in this “in-between” age. Very few theologies that manage to survive dismiss the need for labor, obedience, and the other concepts which we associate with “work,” yet most have some way of reckoning work as somehow imbued with Christ’s presence. Luther famously celebrated the distinctive character of Christian labor when he described the most earthy of chores: “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.” My final (though anachronistic) question to you is: Does the concept of “work” mean something different once the Egyptian taskmaster is no longer lord over the people?

RF: Yes. Slavery in Egypt meant being forced to live according to a foreign ruler’s values and laws, and not having the opportunity to make choices. Moreover, the work performed as slaves in this condition only went toward the pharaoh’s own projects and functioned within an oppressive system. Midrash tells us God did not want a generation that was used to thinking with a slave mentality to enter the Promised Land, which is why the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. The subsequent generations were born in freedom, so they did not have an inherent sense of being unable to make decisions, but rather could choose what work to do and how to do it. Post-Exodus work, done within the framework of choosing God’s Law, means both more rights and more responsibilities, which are defined within the framework of the free acceptance of the mitzvot (commandments) and the responsibility to accept the consequences associated with this choice. God wanted the Israelites freed from Pharaoh so that they could serve God (Ex 8:1), and the communal decision to live by God’s Law means that the when and the how of the work undertaken is different from work as it was under pharaoh’s rule.

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