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Feel free to reflect, and choose moral path



A rabbi was asked by one of his students why G-d created atheists. The rabbi responded, “G-d created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all, the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he’s not doing so because of some religious teaching. He doesn’t believe that G-d commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he doesn’t believe in G-d at all so his actions are based on his sense of morality. Look at the kindness he bestows on others simply because he feels it’s right. When someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say, ‘I pray that G-d will help you.’ Instead, for that moment, you should become an atheist. Imagine there’s no G-d who can help, and say, ‘I’ll help you.’”

This profound lesson, from Martin Buber in his book, Tales of the Hasidim, teaches us that in place of a fundamentalist literal reading which so dominates orthodoxy at present, namely that we conduct ourselves by virtue of a literal reading of the text, we should accept the burden of human agency and be guided by our sense of morality and what’s right.

Pesach is the focal festival in which we are told to place ourselves in a position as if we had been liberated from slavery. It thus demands that we search in an existential manner for what the festival means for us in the here and now. Inspired by a tradition that talks at its best to the human condition, how can we attain greater levels of freedom for ourselves, for our community, and for the world? The tradition isn’t about pilpul – arcane Talmudic debate – or a ritual incantation of the haggadah. Instead, it should concentrate our minds on what freedom in the third decade of the 21st century should mean. Like Buber’s atheist, we’re required to make decisions for ourselves shaped by our application of the tradition to the contemporary world in which we live.

What this tells us is that ritual isn’t there as an end in itself, but rather serves as an inspiration for us to engage individually with the inner significance of the festival so that it can enrich our lives and the lives of those affected by us and our conduct.

In short, we read in the haggadah that in every generation, it’s incumbent upon a person to see himself or herself as if he or she was liberated from slavery. We must ask what we’re required to achieve with our newly gained freedom? Surely it’s not simply the concept of negative liberty, as articulated by Isaiah Berlin. It’s not freedom from but rather freedom to choose that matters most. That’s freedom to choose a moral life, freedom to choose the idea that we have an obligation to construct a world when all will be free, not just simply a select group of us.

During apartheid, the vicious practices perpetrated by the Egyptians against the children of Israel reflected within the modern context on the oppressive conduct of the apartheid regime towards the majority of South Africans.

It wasn’t possible to celebrate a festival of freedom without reflecting on the very conditions in which we as South African Jewry were located – albeit that much of the establishment did exactly the opposite.

And that must be so in every generation. The festival should be located within the context in which the seder is conducted. The ritual should stimulate a re-examination, to see our world in the best possible moral light.

To be sure, throughout the generations, the precarious nature of Jewish life meant that a primary concern was to ensure freedom for our own community. But when we start the seder itself and speak of the bread of slavery and affliction and that anyone who is hungry should come and eat and anyone who is in need should come and partake in the Pesach sacrifice, we make a far more universal claim. That’s that freedom is indivisible.

We didn’t have it when we were slaves, and this necessitates that we must demand it for ourselves in every generation as well as for those who, like us, are denied their freedom.

The tragedy is that all too often, the gaze of the festival has become myopic and imbued with a rigid application of ritual and a good dose of xenophobia in which we fail to lift our gaze to see the broader consequences. This makes this so important a period within our calendar to stimulate us to be better participants in the development of all of humanity.

  • Judge Dennis Davis is an honorary professor of law at the University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, and University of the Western Cape.

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