Refracting History Through the Spiritual Experience of the Present
First Approach (Kuzari): Belief in the Miraculous Exodus Event as Essential
In The Kuzari, R. Yehudah HaLevi (1075-1141) states that Israel’s central beliefs are based upon the events of the exodus:
“I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who took the Israelites out of Egypt with signs and wonders…” (I:11).
HaLevi believed that this was the ultimate revelation of God in history. The faith of later generations depends upon the story of their ancestors who were present at the events of the exodus. As a result, the essence of a Jew’s existence is rooted in the security of past history, which, in turn, underwrites his future.
Second Approach (R. Nahman of Breslav): Pesach and the Exodus are not of Primary Concern
Nahman of Breslav’s (1772-1810) approach stands in opposition to that of R. Yehudah HaLevi; he grants the present moment a central place in the service of God. For this reason, in Likutei Moharan Tanina (74), R. Nahman deemphasizes the significance of Pesach in comparison with Purim. While not saying so explicitly, he deemphasizes the events of Passover as a memory of the past, and establishes Purim – representing the present, with its emphasis on surviving in the diaspora in a world where God is hidden – as the basis for the commandments.
For Rav Nahman, Purim represents that human beings determine the religious significance of their existence.
Third Approach: The Significance of the Exodus Doesn’t Lie in its Historicity
I believe that R. Nahman’s insight can be applied to the commemoration of the exodus as well. In Shemot (Exodus) 29:45–46, the Torah forges a link between the Exodus from Egypt and the indwelling of the shekhinah (Divine Presence):
I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel and I will be their God. They will know that I, the Lord, am their God, Who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I may dwell in their midst; I am the Lord, their God.
This passage teaches that knowledge of the actual past is not sufficient. Acknowledging the exodus is not a matter of understanding a distant historical truth, but is the reflection of a person’s present relationship with God. The feeling of God’s presence is something to be experienced now and influences our conceptions of past events. The simple experiences of everyday life that elicit our deep emotional responses are the very heart of religious consciousness. When our people’s history is reflected in them, its true depth becomes clear.
Experiential Faith in God and the Torah
In this third approach, we do not need to artificially mobilize historical truth as a fundamental datum, as R. Yehudah Halevi requires. Historical distance naturally generates a certain degree of alienation, whereas sensitivity to the presence of the divine in everyday life can serve as a bridge between our present and the stories of our past.
Conversely, unlike R. Nahman, we do not need to endorse a type of “conscious faith,” adopted by the individual in defiance of reality. The position of Rav Nahman prefigures existential philosophy, where the philosopher begins with a sense of disorientation in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. In existentialism, the individual must create meaning on his or her own; the world will not supply him or her with it.
My view, however, is a little different. I think that reality and human meaning making are in conversation with each other. Every person is the subject of his or her own narrative and our lives receive their meaning from the narrative we tell about ourselves. This narrative, in turn, is influenced by our experience of reality.
The Torah as a Form of Poetry
This view has important implications for how we understand our relationship to the Torah. As I see it, our relationship to Torah is not based on asserting its factual historicity—whether based on “proofs” (R. Yehuda HaLevi) or “assertion despite reason” (R. Nahman). Instead, each individual’s connection to scripture is based on the premise that the biblical narrative reflects an authentic religious experience that envelops some sort of reality and expresses it in a narrative and poetic fashion.
The Torah’s narrative is at its core, poetic; it loses its potency when forced to fit into a rubric of science or history. Poetry, music, art, and narratology do not contradict scientific fact; they live in parallel to it and envelop it.
My model reflects what can occur when we attune ourselves to the divine channels that allow us to envision the events that shaped the nation’s past in a religious manner. This is a more natural process, one that derives from present day religious feeling and refracting the perception of the past through this prism. Thus, can we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt from the standpoint of personal experience – As if we ourselves had left Egypt.
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March 26, 2015
April 7, 2020
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
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