Most Jews tend to think that everyone in the world thinks and acts as Jews do. That includes not only the content of the way that Jews understand and react to life, but the argumentative, and yet humorous, method we use to negotiate it. It will therefore be helpful to clarify the underlying assumptions of Jewish ethics by comparing them to those of Christianity and American secularism, the two other traditions that American Jews are likely to know, to show that that is not so. These comparisons are not intended to be invidious, aimed at denigrating either of those other systems of thought and action; they are rather designed to highlight the ways in which the Jewish tradition has something distinctive to say on the ethics of social issues.
Many traditions articulate their fundamental assertions about the nature of life in their central stories. That makes it easier for adherents to understand those affirmations, to remember them, and to apply them to daily life. So in the first chapter of my book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, I describe and compare the messages of the central American, Christian, and Jewish stories in detail. This week, as we are in the middle of celebrating Passover, the holiday devoted to the Exodus story more than any other, it is fitting that I summarize that comparison so that we can appreciate the ways in which the Jewish tradition’s perception of who we are and who we should strive to be, as articulated in the Exodus story, is in some ways similar to, and in other ways different from, the American and Christian perceptions. As I do so, think about the differing perceptions of the individual, the community, and the purpose of life in each of these three traditions.
Jesus dying on the cross and undergoing divine resurrection symbolizes significant truths for Christians. Human beings, like Jesus, are ultimately individuals who are burdened with Original Sin (Romans 5:12-21) as well as all the sins accumulated during life (Romans 2:17-24; 3:19-28). Our actions cannot atone for those sins, for, as Paul says in several of his letters in the New Testament, there is no salvation through works (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9 Titus 3:4-5). God, though, has through His mercy sent his Son to die for our sins and give us new life. The individual's ultimate purpose in life, then, is to believe in Jesus' intercession that promises eternal life. Individuals should also missionize to spread "the good news," for, in some versions of Christianity, believing in Jesus as Christ is the only way that people can be saved from their sins, while, according to other versions, that may not be the only way but it remains the most effective way. The community should support such individual faith and missionary work. In this life, individuals should also imitate the charitable actions of Jesus in their lives; as modern Evangelical Christians like to say, WWJD – What would Jesus do?
The American story of Revolution and Constitution emphasizes the individual as well. Courageous individuals, honored and virtually worshipped as hero figures, overcame all the odds in defeating the British and declaring their independence. They also devised a particularly wise form of government, with checks and balances, so that individuals would be given the best chance possible to enjoy their rights and to flourish. The story tells individuals to be resourceful and brave. It envisions the community as a pragmatic tool to protect individual rights and promote the general welfare. As such, the government is ever subject to criticism and change by the people themselves, and individuals may leave the community at any time -- unless, of course, they have committed a crime. At the same time, American ideology trusts law as the vehicle to fulfill the purposes of government. The ultimate purpose of life is for individuals to enjoy "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and, toward those ends, to change the world through exploration and technology -- very much along the lines of Franklin's and Jefferson's many inventions. Technological know-how, mastery over nature, and material success are very much part of the American dream.
In Judaism's Exodus-Sinai story, in contrast, we do not hear much about individuals; they seem to be glossed over in favor of the People Israel as a whole. We read, though, that Moses risks his life and position in order to save a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:12), thus indicating the inherent worth of each person regardless of status. Similarly, later Jewish tradition has us dampen our joy at the Israelites' release, quoting God as saying to the angels, "My children are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs?" (B. Megillah 10b) Since then, we diminish our cup of joy at the Seder table by extracting one drop of wine for each of the plagues that the Egyptians had to suffer. Non-Jews as well as Jews have inherent, divine worth.
Later Jewish tradition (B. Sotah 37a; Numbers Rabbah 13:9) credits Nahshon ben Aminadav with taking the first steps into the sea when all the other Israelites refused to do that lest they drown. Moreover, we hear of individuals who take leadership roles -- Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, and later Joshua and Caleb, together with their triumphs and failures. These stories, like American stories of the Founding Fathers, exalt people who take responsibility and model the qualities of good leadership. They also demonstrate the Jewish conviction that people have the freedom to act responsibly or to choose a less desirable path.
The emphasis in the story, though, is on God's covenantal relationship with the People Israel. We leave Egypt, we cross the sea, we stand at Sinai, and we march toward the Promised Land not as individuals, but as a group. Moreover, the Torah revealed at Sinai speaks to us as a community, and its punishments and rewards therefore are those that apply to a community -- rain or draught, victory or defeat in battle, etc. (E.g., Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 11:13-25; 28). God's Covenant is also with the People Israel as a whole, and the goal is to make them "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Thus later Jewish sources would have us see our own actions as individuals as adding to one side or the other of the scale by which God will judge the People Israel -- and, indeed, the entire world -- as a group (B. Kiddushin 40b; M.T. Laws of Repentance 3:2, 4). In this story, then, our identity as individuals is tightly intertwined with, and defined by, our membership in the People Israel.
The ultimate goal is the Promised Land, described in the Torah not only for its physical benefits as "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 16:14; Deuteronomy 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; etc.) but also as a holy land. Thus the land is God's gift (Genesis 15:7; 17:8; Exodus 3:7-8; Deuteronomy 1:8; 4:1; etc.) and yet God’s ongoing possession (Leviticus 25:23) and dwelling place (Deuteronomy 12:4; Jeremiah 7:7) and, as such, is holy, and God continues to watch over it (Deuteronomy 11:12). Therefore the Israelites had to be careful not to violate its holiness by defiling it through abhorrent acts (Leviticus 18:24-28). The Israelites, then, were to aspire to both physical and spiritual fulfillment, the goal of our own lives to this day. The prophet, Isaiah (2:2-4), later spells out this part of the story when he foretells that Jerusalem in the time to come would be both a place of physical safety and also a place of moral instruction for the whole world:
In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say: "Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths." For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Thus shall He judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.
The mission of the Jews, then, is nothing short of creating such a world in partnership with God, a world in which justice and peace will prevail. That is very different from a goal of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and it is also different from the goal of each individual’s salvation from Hell, from punishment for their sins.
It is this fundamental Jewish perception, embedded in the Exodus-Sinai story, that prompts Jews of all religious affiliations and none to be devoted fervently to tikkun olam, to fixing the world. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, "straits," probably because the Nile empties into the Mediterranean not as a single river, but in straits. Metaphorically, though, Passover represents our need to redeem people not only from physical slavery, but from slavery to other straits of life – oppression, poverty, illness, prejudice, etc.
Judaism is a very rich tradition and is certainly not limited to this goal, so Jews who see Judaism as consisting only of a devotion to social justice are missing much of what the Jewish tradition has to contribute to our lives, both individually and communally. Even so, repairing the world, liberating it from the narrow places of life, is at the heart of the Passover story and of the Jewish tradition as a whole.