We Were Slaves in Egypt —

Or Not

I’M NOT RELIGIOUS, nor a believer, but I certainly am Jewish. I’m culturally Jewish, ethnically Jewish, or, as Tom Lehrer put it, “more to do with the delicatessen than the synagogue.” As a non-religious Jew, I am in the majority among Jewish people; according to a 2012 Gallup poll, only 38% of Jews worldwide characterize themselves as religious. But, like many non-religious people, I was raised with a certain amount of religion. We celebrated the major holidays, and occasionally attended services, in the company of relatives who were more religious than we were. I wasn’t forced to go to Hebrew school, but I was given the option. I tried it for a couple of years. My sister and brother stayed with it, and had their bat and bar mitzvahs, but it never meant anything to me. I found the stories of the Torah/Bible loathsome and witless. I found the whole concept of god utterly unconvincing. Worst of all was the embarrassing We are the chosen people chest-thumping.

I’m telling you all of this in order to emphasize that even I—a non-religious, non-spiritual non-believer, more to do with the delicatessen than the synagogue — even I was shocked and saddened when I learned that the Exodus from Egypt never happened, and the ancient Hebrews were not, in fact, slaves in Egypt.

I feel no investment in, or regard for, the Garden of Eden or my namesake’s boatload of wildlife. So why do I feel genuinely hurt by the knowledge that We were slaves in Egypt is just another myth? It’s not that I had ever accepted the Book of Exodus as an historical account. I didn’t “believe in” the parting of the Red Sea, or the Ten Plagues. But I had always accepted that the ancient Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, that they escaped from bondage and crossed the desert, as historical fact. Why? Because it’s the foundational story of Jewish identity? Because I heard it ritualistically repeated two nights a year from the ages of zero to eighteen?

I’m sure that’s part of it. But I think my emotional attachment to the Exodus story is also Hitler’s fault. To debunk the myth of Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrews sounds uncomfortably similar to Holocaust denial. Just the sound of my own voice saying “It didn’t really happen,” in reference to the oppression of a people, seems chilling and wrong.

Seems—but isn’t, because there’s a gigantic, crucial difference between the Exodus and the Holocaust: The Holocaust happened. There it is, in all of its heartbreaking agony, thoroughly documented, unimpeachably, horrifically real—so extensively recorded, so generous in its supply of awful artifacts, and so vividly remembered by its witnesses, that its deniers have no credibility outside their own deranged enclaves. Evidence for the Exodus, on the other hand, simply doesn’t exist. To compare the Exodus and the Holocaust is itself a kind of Holocaust denial. It treats these two stories equally, despite the obvious veracity of one and fraudulence of the other.

THE PASSOVER STORY can’t be defended as allegorical, because it’s told to children — in many ways it is for children — and it features heroes and villains who exist, as tribal and national identities, in our own world and time. Perhaps we can accept mythical tales of ancient Hebrew heroism as a sort of pep talk. But how can we conscionably persist in smearing an entire country with a crime that never took place?

My family’s seders, when I was a child, were fairly progressive. We carefully replaced “when all men are free” with “when all people are free.” We always skipped the story of the four sons, with its cruel depiction of stupid and wicked children. We did not skip the Ten Plagues, I’m sorry to say, but someone at the table was always sure to express reservations about celebrating the deaths of Egyptian children.

But even I, at this freewheeling lefty seder, definitely came away with the understanding that the Jews were good and the Egyptians were bad. I vividly remember being five or six years old, and hearing references to Egypt when my parents were listening to the news, and thinking that was scary — as though Dan Rather was earnestly reporting on the activities of Darth Vader.

Eventually, of course, I developed a more nuanced understanding of both mythological and current events. So how can I not feel a sense of outrage that every Passover, Jewish children are taught that Egypt equals evil? This is plainly happening, and it’s plainly wrong. How often have the same people who lead seders lamented the fact that some Muslims are taught to hate Jews? Bigotry is embedded in our origin myths. This is bad, because people take these things so seriously, but it is good to know: The premise of hate is fiction.

The very name of the Passover holiday is morally disgusting: The Hebrews were supposedly encouraged by god to smear lambs’ blood over their doors, so the angels who delivered death and disease to the Egyptians would “pass over” the chosen people. Isn’t that cute? These angels are the magical employees of an omnipresent, all-powerful deity, but apparently they would have just indiscriminately slaughtered everyone if Jews hadn’t marked their homes in blood, making it easy to tell who deserved to live and who didn’t. Let’s face it, this story is neither true nor good.

So should Passover be celebrated? Excuse me — observed? Not in my house. But is there a way for Jews who are alert to these concerns, yet would like to uphold the traditions of the holiday, to make it work? Progressive attempts to, if you’ll forgive me, leaven the story’s morality—for instance, by emphasizing that Pharaoh is evil, not the Egyptian people—are Band-Aids. Even specifying that the Exodus is a made-up story would have little effect on a child’s perception of what is inherently a good-versus-evil storyline.

But okay — let’s say you’re a somewhat religious Jewish person, and you’re not about to stop celebrating Passover. Please at least make it clear to everyone at your seder table that the whole thing is a lie. And for the sake of the children and the world, don’t say Egypt. Since it’s an imaginary story, pick an imaginary oppressor, one who a child will never encounter in the real world. God, for example. Rewrite the Exodus from Egypt as the Exodus from Faith: We were slaves, but now we’re free!

Or if you don’t like that idea, at least, for the love of all that is not holy, squelch the Haggadah’s relentless personalizing of the mythical suffering. The book wags a bony finger in children’s faces and says: Never forget that you were a slave! And now, we eat things that taste terrible to remind us that Egypt was terrible. And no bread for a week! You know why? Egypt, that’s why! Because we were slaves in Egypt!

No, we weren’t.

We should stop saying we were.