By Rebecca Mather
Passover has always been my favorite holiday, because it combines three of my favorite aspects of Judaism: community, food, and social justice. While there are connections towards progressive ideologies in just about every Jewish holiday, Passover is one of the easiest outlets for conversations that address oppression through a Jewish lens. The Seder lends itself to facilitating conversations about inequality, whether through social justice-oriented Haggadot such as the Freedom Seder or a feminist dialogue around the inclusion of an orange on the Seder plate.
This focus on social justice is generally summed up when we declare that, “In each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” There are many aspects of this collective memory that I find meaningful and important – it’s a connector and community-builder for all Jews, and encourages us to honor our shared history. As Jews, we’re often reminded that we should fight against the oppression of others because we ourselves were once slaves in Egypt. In many ways, this is important – our collective memory as Jews is one that is full of oppression and violence, and fighting against the oppression of others is a natural and important reaction to our own history.
At the same time, there’s something about this narrative that I struggle with. Remembering our own history is important, and fighting against oppression and violence in any form is important, but I’m not so sure those values should be quite so interwoven. There are elements of oppression that I will never fully understand because I will never live them. I will never fully understand the extent of the oppression experienced by people of color in America because I am a white woman, and it would be incredibly dismissive towards communities of color to pretend that I could ever fully understand. But just because I can never fully understand the lived experience of those who face racism in America, it does not mean I shouldn’t actively fight against racist structures.
There is danger in only reacting to oppression when it fits into our collective memory of what we think oppression looks like. Jews have historically experienced oppression, and people of color have historically experienced oppression, and women have historically experienced oppression, and LGBTQ+ folks have historically experienced oppression, and every single one of those oppressive forces have manifested themselves in different ways. There are some forces of violence that I have experienced firsthand, and there are many that I haven’t, and would therefore never dream of pretending I could fully understand. What I do know is that I care about dismantling every manifestation of injustice, not because I too have experienced injustice, but because there is violence being inflicted on human beings and I care about human beings.
We also risk committing an act of erasure in assuming that every Jew has the same lived experience. I know that as a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, Ashkenazi Jewish woman I have a different experience of the world than many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, or black Jews, or gender queer Jews, and on and on. Our identities shape our experience with the world, and our identities are complicated and intersectional, which means our experiences with oppression are complicated and intersectional. When we try to create a singular Jewish narrative, it generally comes in the form of white, upper middle-class, Ashkenazi American men. That narrative is important, but it is also only one of thousands, and it’s a disservice to limit our understanding of such a complex and beautiful culture to something so narrow. Remembering our history is important, but it’s also important to remember that there is ultimately no one universal Jewish experience. While every Jew might tell the same story, say the same prayers, and sing many of the same songs at each of our respective Seders, our unique identities shape our relationships with Judaism, which shape our relationships with the world, which shape our interpretations of the story.
This idea of being an ally and caring about others’ struggles without appropriating that pain for myself has been a regular theme in my year with AVODAH. I work with some of the most vulnerable and exploited citizens of New Orleans, and as much as I might educate myself on the concrete facts of their situations, I know that I will never entirely understand their day-to-day struggles. There’s something tremendously important about being able to say, “I do not entirely understand the pain you’re experiencing and probably never will, but I still care and will do everything in my power to be an effective ally.” When we only care about the oppression we ourselves have experienced (or worse, assume we can fully understand systems of violence that we ourselves have never had to experience), we limit our scope of compassion.
Empathy is important, and despite my critiques, I still believe there’s a lot of power in our collective reminder that “we were slaves in Egypt.” For many Jews, the language of the Passover Seder might be an introduction to ideas of social justice and positive change, and that isn’t something I want to dismiss. What I do firmly believe, however, is that Jews as a collective need to challenge ourselves to care about the systems of oppression we don’t quite understand, just as much as those that are instantly recognizable.
Rebecca Mather is from Chicago, IL, attended Cornell College and is a Life Skills Project Coordinator at the NO/AIDS Task Force.
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