40 Years, a Pregnant Pause. And then, a Birth or a Belch?

Rabbi Jeff Roth, co-founder of the Elat Chayyim spiritual retreat center and founder of Awakened Heart experiences in Jewish meditation,  teaches that the archetypal Biblical “forty” --  40 years in the wilderness, 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai -- is a pregnant pause. For, he points out, the real length of human pregnancy is not nine months but 40 weeks.

After 40 years, something new should be born. So in 1969, The Shalom Center  created the 40th-anniversary Interfaith Seder for the Earth. And in 1971, 40 years after I wrote The Bush is Burning, Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I published our new book  -- Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia. 

Both are far richer in understanding of Torah and of the world than I knew how to write 40 years ago. Both are deeply informed by feminist Judaism and eco-Judaism and by the deep and loving relationship between Phyllis and me --  none of which even existed 40 years ago. 

Both of them ascribe to modern pharaohs like Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Banking the planetary plagues of today -- like BP's oil blowout in the Gulf, so similar  to those ecological disasters that Pharaoh's arrogance and stubbornness brought upon his own country. 

And in Freedom Journeys we also broke the assumption that Exodus belongs to Jews alone, by inviting two Christians and one Muslim to assess the power of the Exodus story in the Gospels, the Quran, and the Black American freedom movement. 

Not everyone, it turns out, responds to this 40-year span by birthing newness. Indeed, exactly 40 years after Commentary magazine bitterly attacked the original Freedom Seder, it has just attacked the Freedom Seder –-- again!  Instead of a birth, it gives forth a belch.  What can we learn from this strange episode of the forty-year Commentary belch?

It erupts from one response to a harsh truth: We are all living through a world earthquake. Every aspect of our lives is shaking under foot and in our bellies – political, sexual, familial, intellectual, military, economic, ecological.

 Among us there are three basic responses to this earthquake:

• Some of us stagger along, helpless, falling, being clobbered, even dying as the planet trembles. 

Some of us look desperately for something immovable that we might be able to hang onto while the world shakes. These folks look to a photograph they carry in their heads from the “orderly” past. (The photo may in fact be fuzzy and untruthful, but better this past “certainty” than so much disorder in the present.)
 That immovable past has in it power structures of the soul, the psyche, and society: The patriarchal family.  Contempt for queers. America’s “manifest destiny” to control the world.  And, of course, a Judaism and a Passover as it was handed down to us, not
contaminated by a search for modern pharaohs or by listening seriously to other religious traditions – let alone to the always unfolding Voice of God.

• And then there is the third way of responding to the world-quake we are living through: Learning to dance in the earthquake. 

Renewing, transforming Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism.  Renewing, transforming, what it means to be an American, an Israeli, a Palestinian, an Egyptian, a French(wo)man. Not only transforming each community for the sake of its own future, but reshaping each so that all can connect with each other.
Connecting with each other in the social and political equivalent of an eco-system, in which all our cultures interbreathe in joyful diversity in order to transform the world into a joyful home for human beings and all our life-forms. 

It is hard to dance when the dance floor itself is shaking, changing shape, heaving up and lurching down. How to bring grace, music, joy into that dancing?

Hard – but that, it seems to me, is the life-giving response to the world we live in.
Commentary’s new attack on the Freedom Seder is a poster boy for trying to hang on to the “immovable” past in the midst of earthquake. 

The article itself is a  40-year belch, repeating an undigested past. 

And its message matches its medium. Even its “new” twists attack what is new -- the myriad of new  haggadot that were stirred into life by the Freedom Seder. Feminist haggadot, vegetarian haggadot, haggadot of spiritual self-examination to remove the self-swollen interior chametz (leavening or souring), meditative haggadot, gay-liberation haggadot, haggadot for use by families where some partners but not all are Jewish,  earth-healing haggadot. 

Its author, Michael Medved, is angry because I have often reported that what moved me to write the Freedom Seder was that in April 1968, I saw as if it were Pharaoh’s Army the US Army occupying Washington DC beginning the day after the assassination of Dr. King, and saw as oppressed people the thousands of Blacks jailed that week for violating the curfew imposed by an unelected government. 

He is also angry that I referred to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the 1830s as one form of liberation struggle. 

What he wrote was far less than a “half-truth.” For what he does not mention is that when I wrote the Freedom Seder, I absorbed my anger at Lyndon Johnson’s Army and the repression of Blacks into a deeper exploration of freedom.  

As the central spine of the Freedom Seder I wove a debate about violence and nonviolence --  the slave revolts, John Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and  the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on one side, Gandhi and King and Rabbi Tamaret on the other. What’s more, I affirmed that nonviolent resistance to oppression was a more worthy path.  Not a peep from Mr. Medved about this central teaching of the Freedom Seder.

His critique of the many Haggadot that were sparked by the Freedom Seder belched contempt for the upwelling of so many urgencies for Freedom, so many outcries of the heart against the top-down pharaohs of our day – political, economic, ecological, sexual, religious. 
He did not discuss the Interfaith Seder for the Earth or our new book Freedom Journeys, but it is clear he would have attacked them too. 

Obviously, this effort to recapture the past and impose it on the future is not the dancing-in-the-earthquake that I espouse.  And since it was an attack on my own work, my first response was anger. 

But I ask myself –-- what are the implications of the nonviolent resistance I celebrated in the original Freedom Seder, for responding to this attack? 

So I try to turn from anger at Commentary toward a compassion that sees the pathos of its yearning for certainty, for control, for an immovable place in the midst of quake. A place where it can control its own world, and in order to do that control, stamp out, or at least tamp down, these curls and curves of change. 

Suddenly, with a smile, I  feel compassion even for a belch, which after all is one of the body’s natural responses when it can’t digest the food it may have to eat.

Compassion – but not surrender. 

The Shalom Center is committed to learning and teaching how to dance in the earthquake. 

The Shalom Center is committed to learn and to teach a Judaism poised to work with other communities to transform the world.

L’chayyim!  – For the sake of life, all life.

For two videos that address how we move forward – “Let Our People Go!”  by Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents, with a sardonic graphic take on the pharaohs of our day, and my own thoughts “Beyond Passover –-- Toward a Transformative Judaism”  --  see our Home Page.

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