Entering the Spiritual Seder Bubble
When in chutz la-aretz (outside of Israel) on Shabbat, walking through busy thoroughfares to shul, surrounded by traffic and shops carrying on with business as usual, Shabbat for me is a bubble of holy territory, the day that Hashem rested from His labor of creating the world, so that I may follow suit.
Now I know that a transcendent God does not labor, and certainly doesn’t get tired on any particular day and need a rest. Even when transposing this image to a metaphysical plane, the picture makes no sense. I could easily switch off and view the reality around me with a secular eye and blow the picture apart. But maintaining my bubble of spirituality preserves for me a world of images, laws, customs, and associations that fill my world with a sense of holiness.
The Yom Kippur Experience: Simulating Death
On Yom Kippur, I withdraw from the entanglements of life, cease eating and drinking, follow the lead of my shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) who has donned his burial raiment, and confess my sins in anticipation of my final confrontation with my Maker. Is there truly a particular point in time, a specific Day of Judgment, in which God reviews His book-keeping, and weighs up my deeds to see if I am sealed for life or for death, or suspended until the gates of repentance are sealed? Again, this image is theologically indefensible. But the simulation of my death works powerfully in order to give meaning to my life now.
The Pesach Experience
Perhaps the example of Pesach is somewhat different, because here the traditional account is challenged not only metaphysically but even historically. The problem is not only whether God has a mighty hand and interferes in history at specific points in time, but whether the miraculous plagues actually took place as described, whether there really was an exodus, or even a historical Moses – in other words, claims that could in principle be empirically verified or denied.
I’ve come to terms with the notion that we may never know how factually reliable the story of the escape from Egypt actually is. In fact, I’m not even sure whether the biblical account of the exodus was ever intended as a bona fide attempt at reporting history. It may well be that the original account already reflects the influence of prevailing conventions as to how tales of origin should be written, or perhaps the lack of a clear distinction between myth and systematic history in ancient times.
Of course, I also realize that the faith of the overwhelming majority of my fellow Jews over the centuries has been accompanied by a literal understanding of this account. Nevertheless, its ultimate importance in my eyes has very little to do with its literal meaning, but rather with the traditions, values, moral messages, way of looking at the world, etc. that this account has engendered.
Treasuring the Bubble of Sacred History
When talking history, the truth of my statements is based on where they come from. When talking religion, their truth is based on where they lead to. In re-telling the story of the exodus, I treasure the opportunity to unite with the endlessly rich layers of meaning that generations of my people have found in reciting the Haggada on seder night. I deliberately enter the bubble of sacred history in order to capture a truth and significance that no history book will ever provide.
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March 25, 2015
October 23, 2020
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
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