Liberation Theology – for Jews

parshat shemot – shemot 1 -3

Join Geoffrey Stern broadcasting live from Jerusalem and recorded on Clubhouse on January 12th 2023. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so we what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel?

Sefairia Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  We host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Shemot. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel? Liberation Theology – for Jews


Well, welcome to Madlik. Rabbi Adam Mintz is actually traveling today, and I am broadcasting live from Yerushalayim, the holy city of Jerusalem, I’m actually looking out of my hotel window right now, and seeing the hills of Jerusalem. So as I said in the introduction, this is the beginning of the book of Exodus; of Shemot. And Exodus is the refrain of the Jewish people. It’s not simply another episode, you never say zaycher l’akedah, …. You don’t say when you do a commandment in remembrance of creation, in remembrance of the binding of Isaac even in remembrance of the giving of the Torah or the entering into the land. But in terms of zecher l’tziyat Mitzrayim. We all know it from the Haggadah, which obviously, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, but we have in mechilta d’Rabbi YishmaeliIt says that tefillin is zecher L’tziot mitzrayim to the outstretched arm. We have in Midrash Lech Tov  מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים. That even building and living in the sukkah is in remembrance of leaving the land of Egypt. Couldn’t say it better than Midrash lekach Tov שהרי כל המועדים על שום יציאת מצרים all of our iconic Jewish holidays, and many commandments are for remembrance of the leaving of Egypt, which leads us to ask the question, what is in fact, the message of leaving Egypt. And it also should not surprise us that we are not the only ones to recognize in the leaving of Egypt, something that becomes iconic to the Jewish people, and frankly, something that becomes almost a legacy, a gift to the world. I called the name of today’s episode liberation theology for Jews. The term liberation theology, as we shall learn shortly, was coined by the Catholic and Protestant churches of South America in their struggle to depose the ruling powers and to lead an uprising of the poor and the dispossessed. And clearly, they got their model from leaving Egypt. So, I think we stand on solid ground. When we say, what is this theology of the Exodus? What is this liberation theology? If we look in our parsha, it begins talking about God seeing hearing, feeling the suffering of his people, and even in there we start to see that this is not only a national story, but it is a universal story. In Exodus 2: 23, he says, God heard their moaning and God remembered the covenant. In Exodus 3: 7-10 It says God says, I am mindful of their suffering. He says, I have heard my people in Egypt and I’ve heard their outcry, because of their taskmasters I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, Come, therefore, I will send you (speaking to Moses), to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people, the Israelites from Egypt. And I think just based on these two passages, we can kind of see that on the one hand, the Exodus certainly has to do with a covenant that God had with a particular people. But there is also this universal “I heard there moaning”, וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹקִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם. And I think that is very much the basis of what makes this a universal story and a universal paradigm for liberation and revolution. Michael Walzer is a world-famous political scientist, and he wrote a whole book called Exodus and Revolution, saying how of all of the myths of all of the origin stories of a new nation, it is the Exodus story, whether for the African American, the black slaves, and Martin Luther King’s metaphor of I’ve been to the mountaintop, or, as I’ve mentioned before, the liberation theology of the South American peasants who uprose. The Exodus story, because it contains words as see the oppression, heard, the suffering is so universal. In Exodus 3; 16-18, it says, I will take you out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites and Hittites to a land flowing with milk and honey. So, it is not only seeing and hearing the oppression and the pain, it is also a redemption story. It is a repatriation story. It is a story of God working through history, to help the dispossessed and the alienated. He says, they will listen to you, meaning the people of Israel, and you shall go to the elders of Israel. And you shall say to them, God; the God of the Hebrews, became manifest to us now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness, to sacrifice to our God. So really in these three or four different paragraphs that are in our parsha, you get all of the ingredients that would make this such a powerful image, a powerful paradigm, and therefore easily understandable that Exodus and revolution have been so intertwined. So what exactly is this liberation theology? It is, in the words of its creators, and you’ll hear as I read some of them how really they nail to a large degree, what the Exodus means to us Jewish people. So I’m reading one, and Enrique Dussel, Exodus as a Paradigm in Liberation Theology The Exodus was the experience which created the consciousness of the people of Israel. The people formed in the structuring centre which determined its way of organizing time and space. Note that I am not saying simply that the Exodus is part of the contents of the consciousness of the people of Israel. If that were the case, the Exodus would be one item of information among others. More than an item of information, it is its structuring centre, in that it determines the integrating logic, the principle of organisation and interpretation of historical experience. That is why the Exodus does not persist as a secondary experience … It has come to be the paradigm for the interpretation of all space and all time. So truly this understanding where we begin Shemot just as we finish Bereshit by saying this was the formation of a nation. The Hebrew word for the book of Exodus is Shemot, which means names and what that means is we’re seeing the metamorphosis of names and tribes and individuals into a corporate whole, in that, too, is the story of the Exodus that is the paradigm of the Exodus, quoting another, Revd. Mathew N. Musyoki “the exodus is central within the Old Testament…the key to Israel’s understanding of both God and itself. It is repeatedly re-interpreted throughout the Bible,‟ making the hermeneutical possibilities of the exodus unique for liberation theology. Thus, its actual historical happening leaves serves liberationists as a model, done with a reading of the texts on the basis of present reality. Similarly, The Exodus…became the founding event not only for the course of Israelite history, but also, through its kerygmatic appropriation, for other oppressed communities. Hence, its foundational character is continually being reinforced through so many re-readings, a sure sign of its richness as a source. Hence this source is eminent to liberationists as a contact point.  Even when there is no reasonable ground exegetically it seems liberationists continue following this model. For instance, Croatto seems insistence by asserting that, “The creative and varied re-expression of the Exodus theme within the Bible indicates the pre-eminence of the meaning of the Exodus over the event, and this in return becomes a norm of interpretation for us.‟ Thus, Exodus can be imported to a given context, e.g. the poor, the sick and the oppressed.” So again, what we see is the fact that the exodus is referenced so many times, not only within our liturgy, but much more importantly, within our Bible itself, almost leads it to beg for interpretation, beg for reimagining. And that is what these theologians said, we are going to encounter some thinkers who felt that they maybe took too much of a license in exporting the Exodus paradigm to their own moments of repression, and revolt. But I think you can at this point, agree with these theologians, that the fact that the exodus was used and referenced so much throughout our Bible, it almost gives you that permission to do so. And in fact, one of the questions that we are going to explore today is, with all that saturation of messaging, what actually does the Exodus then become for the Jewish people and for the people of Israel. But let’s continue a little more in the history of liberation theology, as it surfaced, in the 20th century, in South America, it was involved with, with the Castro revolution, Castro compares himself to a Moses. In fact, some liberation theologians like Segundo Galilea actually prefer Moses as a model of the political leader over Jesus. So Moses is then taken to be this leader, who goes down and faces truth to power. And of course, this brings back that image of Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech of I’ve been to the mountaintop. And it’s important that it’s not one of pride in terms of his comparison to Moses or arrogance, he is comparing himself to that aspect of Moses, who doesn’t make it, who suffers with his people who is beaten up and scarred by the liberation. So really, you can understand that we, as readers of the Hebrew Bible can benefit from how other peoples have read it as well. So here’s where the story gets a little bit interesting. After the revolutions in South America, and they had a very strong Marxist bend to them, what happened was, in many cases, the people that took over were the new Pharaohs of the day. And when, in 1985, the Poles began their own exercise in self-determination. And as a very strongly Catholic country, they read their Old Testament as well. And they had a real problem because while they believed in the message and the relevance of the Exodus paradigm and story to theirs, they couldn’t help but note that they were trying to exercise themselves from the same Marxist forces that coined the term liberation theology. So they stopped using the word liberation, a fascinating insight into the history of ideas where the liberation which you could make a case was something that the theologians kind of took a little bit of liberty with, and projected on to the whole story of the Exodus, which was really, at its core, a story of redemption, if you want to look into a theological perspective, or one of being able to leave oppression, they, they took it to mean and overthrow and to re-build a society. So, the Poles came back and they started calling it redemption. And the church has followed suit, it made an interesting turn, it says this, and this is coming from the papal instructions in 1984, that started to deal with a Polish Pope, with the Pole’s revolution, and it says that is why the liberation of the Exodus cannot be reduced to a liberation, which is principally or exclusively political in nature, moreover it is significant that the term freedom is often replaced in Scripture, by the very closely related term redemption. So, in an interesting turn, in order to explain that, the, the secular antagonistically, atheistic Marxist regime that had promised happiness to everyone, and forced everyone to be “happy”. Now, their liberation became a someone else’s oppression. Now, the liberation theology started to take a little bit of a modification, in that it became a liberation to a redemption to and the focus was on the sense of maybe a spiritual redemption, maybe something more related to religious. And before we get into what the Jewish commentators, will say, we cannot if we are talking about liberation theology, not mentioned the struggle and successful fight for Soviet Jewry, where the banner was let my people go. So here it was the Jews themselves that stood up to the USSR to Mother Russia. And clearly, using the story of the Exodus, as a story of liberation, turned to Brezhnev and the Soviet regime, and said, Let my people go. So, it is a powerful political paradigm, that we as Jews, as readers of the Hebrew Bible, can only be proud of in terms of the solace and in terms of the motivation, and that light at the end of the tunnel that it has given and it will continue to give to people who are subjugated, to people who are alienated to people who are disenfranchised. But when you go to the Jewish commentaries, and I will start with, we’ve come across John D. Levinson, before profound thinker, an academician at Yale. And he has a monograph on Exodus and liberation. And he goes through all the texts, and while he certainly gives much, much respect, and enthusiasm for the way that our Exodus story has been used, he also tries to bring it back to its source. And of course, the key theme of Exodus is this sense of from slavery to freedom. The story of the Exodus, at the end of the day, is the story of emancipation of slaves. And what Levinson argues is that the truth be told that there are provisions within the Bible after Exodus after Sinai that provide for having slaves. He brings and I certainly suggest that you take a look at the Sefaria notes on today’s podcast. Because in his article, he shows how the exodus was used by both the abolitionists and by the slave-owners. To prove their case, the abolitionists would say that clearly the Bible is trying to limit slavery, you have to free your slaves after a certain amount of time, during the sabbatical year, you can’t work your slave. When you release your slave, you have to make sure that your slave has payment for the work that they have done. If a slave works hard, he can buy off his freedom. And so those that bring these arguments will say that it condones the institution of slavery as it was. But it is showing a direction in terms of where it should be, and severely limiting it. And of course, the slave-owners would say, yes, but don’t sleight-of-hand, pass over the fact that it condones slavery, it has jurisprudence for slavery the same way it has jurisprudence for marriage. And for other institutions, that means it recognizes it. So Levinson wishes to argue if you want to be really honest to the texts, you can say that the story is simply about freeing the slaves. And the direction that he goes is based on the key line that starts to appear in our parsha and gets developed more and more as the story progresses. And that is, in Exodus 3: 16 How God says, Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God. And you can say that their being diplomatic or strategic. They’re saying to Pharaoh, that they simply want to go into the desert to worship their god, they don’t want their freedom. Later, it says, In Exodus 5: 1, Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness. Maybe this is why we have so many references to the Haggim; the festivals and Yetziat Mitzraim. And then it gets to the punch line in Exodus 9: 1 and there it says, And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh and say to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go to worship me. שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי  And, of course, the important thing of the word וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי. And worship me is that EVeD, slave, and worship (serve), or in this case, do the holy service is the same word. And so John Levinson makes the argument that if you really want to be true to the text, you have to admit that we’re not talking about pure freedom, we are talking about taking away Pharaoh, an evil taskmaster, an evil slave owner, and replacing him with the ultimate Master, which is God. But it is not a freedom if you want to be true to the texts. You who could make the case. And I think that this is a case that if you want to make a larger message out of this, you can say, the term :This idea of liberation through a change of masters shows how misleading it is to summarize the exodus through the popular slogan, “Let My people go.” The full form of the challenge is actually sallab ‘et-‘ammi w[ya’abd3ni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  The term “liberty,” therefore, can indeed describe the result of redemption of the sort typified by the exodus, but only if some crucial semantic distinctions are maintained.’ One of the several meanings of “liberty” in Western thought is government by law rather than by a tyrant. If this is what we identify as the result of the exodus for Israel, then “liberty” and the process that produces it, “liberation,” are appropriate terms for the biblical process.” So as you can see, Levinson severely limits the extent of what this liberation is, but in doing so, he does make a profound case that I think because he is an academic scholar that you can really say is serious. And that is that whether the Jews were freed, or the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh, an evil, slave master, to serve God, the ultimate master, but ultimately, how do they serve that God, they serve that God by keeping His law. And at the end of the day, it is the laws, the book of laws of the Hebrew Bible. That is what ultimately provides the liberation in the Jewish mind. And I think he brings one kind of interesting example. And that example is, again, from law. If you remember, I mentioned a little bit earlier, that one of the things that he promised the Jewish people is that when you leave, Exodus 3: 21 says, and I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. This occurs at least five times in the biblical narrative. And one wonders, what is the meaning of this? They were getting their freedom? Why is it so important that they were given the wealth of Egypt and what Levinson does, following a great theologian named David Daube, is saying here they are following the law of freeing a slave, when one frees a slave, as I said a little bit before one is required to provision that slave. So here, too, this fits very neatly into Levinson’s concept, that redemption and liberation in the Jewish sense of the Hebrew Bible is much more, I would say, pedestrian, much more limited, but nonetheless profound, and that is it is the law. And to give an example of that, we are saying to Pharaoh, you had to release these slaves, you had to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible, and you did not. And therefore God is releasing them, taking them to worship Him וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי, and he is provisioning them. This serves as an amazing segue into the thinker that I want to finish with and leave you with. And that is a thinker whose liberation theology if you will, is, as as fascinating today as it’s ever been. The name of the thinker was Yeshayahu Leibowitz, you might have heard of his sister Nechama Leibowitz, who are taught Old, Old Testament studies at the Hebrew University. But Yeshayahu Leibowitz was known as being a firebrand; a thinker, who shocked a who loved to shock. And he was a firebrand, a maverick who marched to his own drumbeat.  And he was particularly struck by the Six Day War. And he was particularly struck by the fact that the in a sense, the people of Israel were making of the victory of the Six Day War into something that was miraculous, and something that was eschatological, was messianic, and he felt that by doing that we’re actually engaging in idol worship. And he issued a bunch of articles. The first one was published (prior to Passover 1971) in Jeshurun, which is a synagogue in Jerusalem, which had the intelligentsia of the religious Zionist movement there. And he wrote a number of articles. One of them was actually called the Dis-Kotel. He said, When we have a Kotel, we will make it into a Diss-Kotel. He was very much against this celebration and worship of place. He thought that was very un-Jewish. And what he wrote about was that in fact, the Passover was an incomplete redemption first and foremost. And along with Levinson, he says that the key to the Redemption was to keep the law (to accept the Ol Malchut Shamayim… the yoke of God’s kingship) everything in Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s philosophy of Judaism was that we are a legal community, and that we achieve perfection and we worship God by keeping his laws, the dalet amot of Halacha, the four cubits of the Law. And that is ultimately along with Levinson What Let my people go to serve Thee is all about. And he said that all of those commentators and thinkers, whether they are Rav Kook, or whoever, who were trying to imbibe both the war and the victory of the Six Day the occupation of our territories to make that into this grand scheme of redemption. We’re not reading history and a God into our history. But we’re actually repudiating the whole message of the Exodus. And he too brings an example from the law. His holiday was Hanukkah, because on Hanukkah, we, the Jewish people stood up for their keeping of the Law. And he says, and this is built out in the law that says on Passover, you can only read half of the Hallel prayer, whereas on Hanukkah, you read the full Hallel. So again, it’s a trivial example. But both him and Levinson are looking at Jewish thinkers who see the book of the Torah as a book of rules, and use those rules to limit these theological flourishes. And these messianic tendencies, which they see more as idolatry than the true religion that was a given to us by Moses, and experienced with the Exodus. So it’s a fascinating read on what the message of the exodus is. And I think one that deserves further study.  I’ve listened to some podcasts written recently with the election of the new government in Israel. And one of the most interesting thinkers to listen to is someone named Yossi Klein Halevi, who is at the Shalem Center, and he’s a very open-minded liberal thinker, but he used to be a student of Maer Kahana. And he says, If you want to understand this new government, you should read a book called 40 Years by Maer Kahana. And I encourage all of you to do it. And you’ll see literally that he is saying everything that this new government is saying and what I would like to suggest today is, if you would like to see the flip side of what alternative philosophy; a Jewish philosophy would be, to that which is being espoused by what Yeshayahu Leibowitz would be calling these religious Zionists who have lost their way. is Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And maybe we will have an opportunity to explore more of his writings and to learn from him at least, who really wrote them at the time of the Six Day War, but literally was able to prophesize a time when land, occupation and Messianism  were more important. So with that, I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom. And we’ll see you all next week with Rabbi Adam Mintz back. Thank you so much.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Shemot episode: Moses – Reluctant Magician

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