Liberation is Up to Us: Understanding Our Ancestor’s Shortcomings Through the Lens of the Passover Story

In a recent Evolve essay, Rabbi James Greene argues that we have not done enough to confront the idea of Jewish chosenness in our generation. He suggests that we should declare that the belief that the Jews are the chosen people is a formerly useful ideology (or “loyal soldier”) that we have now outgrown.

This challenge is especially resonant to me as we approach Passover, possibly our oldest holiday, and arguably the one most closely connected to “chosenness.” The story we tell on Passover of the Exodus is a formative narrative that most Jews learn at a young age, often accompanied by an equally formative set of ethical lessons. Yet as I argued in an essay last year, the simplistic moral conversation many of us grow up with highlights the cruelty our biblical ancestors suffered without engagement with the cruelty they themselves would later commit. This conversation must be expanded to include more space for hard questions and ethical discussions.

So, in response to Rabbi Greene’s challenge, this year I am specifically critiquing the work of biblical scholar and rabbi, Richard Elliot Friedman, who describes his perception of the Exodus in his 2017 book, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters.[i] Friedman is currently a professor in bible studies at the University of Georgia and is also the author of the best-selling book Who Wrote the Bible? In brief, his argument about the Exodus is that while the basic traditional story is probably not true history (especially because he grants that the large Israelite population described in the Torah would have left behind more archaeological evidence), he claims that the Exodus was instead experienced by the comparably small Levite faction. For a condensed version of the argument, see this helpful interview with Friedman in Reform Judaism.

However, attempting to prove that the Exodus really happened is not Friedman’s only aim. He also argues that the Levites, having experienced bondage firsthand, became champions of a certain novel idea, which they taught to the Israelites, and by extension, the world. That idea is: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Friedman casts this notion — particularly expressed as the Torah enshrining equal civil protections for Israelites and foreigners — as a kind of revolutionary moral advance for which our ancestors deserve special credit. According to Friedman’s argument, the Torah is the first significant place in human history where we find the ethical commandment to treat the alien as equal to the citizen. He thus hails this supposed commitment to equal treatment as “one of the greatest gifts” of the Jewish people (Exodus, p. 212).

Unfortunately, I believe that his argument gives far too much credit to the text for this concept, when it is instead more deserving of criticism.

In the book, Friedman is predominantly concerned with defending his position from the argument that love your neighbor actually just means love your fellow Israelite.[ii] To his credit, Friedman does a good job combating that particular objection. However, there are a few much more pressing points with which I think Friedman fails to appropriately engage. I offer four such considerations below that contest the notion that the authors of the Torah (whoever they were) should be hailed as champions of equality. These are:

  • The basic lack of gender equality in the Torah.
  • The ongoing permissibility of slavery in the Torah.
  • The taking of foreign slaves in Leviticus 25.
  • The relative significance of immoral or outdated laws in the Torah weighed against its “positive” moral lessons.

Gender equality

The most glaring issue we would need to consider if we want to hold up the Torah as an ancient beacon of equality is the lack of gender equality in the text. Setting aside the treatment of foreigners, celebrating the Torah as a source for equal treatment sidesteps the most obvious fact that Jewish women (and all other women) were not treated as equal to men.

This is a simple point, requiring no further explanation, yet it is critical. How valuable can a message of equality truly be if half of a nation’s own people were considered lesser?

Slavery in the Torah

According to Friedman’s position, the Levites learned the cruelty of alienation and bondage, and thus taught the Israelites to be above such things. Except, as Friedman himself grants, the Torah permits slavery! He acknowledges this apologetically, writing, “The Bible does not abolish slavery. It limits it. It gives slaves rights, sometimes (not always) the same rights as free people.” (Exodus, p. 61). Friedman even includes a section in his book called, “Be nice to slaves.”

Now, as Friedman notes, there are some laws concerning slaves in the Torah that indeed appear to “protect” slaves from certain abuses. These laws are the subject of great debate in the field of biblical criticism, as they are sometimes interpreted as making slavery “more moral” than other forms in the ancient world, or as representing an incremental shift away from slavery altogether.

However, like many other skeptics today, I believe that it’s wrong to view the biblical laws on slavery through a charitable lens. These laws were not limits steering a people away from slavery; rather, they were merely regulations on the “lawful” treatment of human property. Such regulatory laws on slavery are not unique to the Torah. Other ancient law systems like the Code of Hammurabi also had regulations on slavery, and even U.S. law in the Antebellum South had some legal “protections” for slaves. But most of us today would never describe those laws as moral “limits” in a positive way.

Therefore, in my view, the mere presence and permissibility of slavery in the Torah (whether authored by the Levites or the entire nation of Israel) represents a failure to achieve what Friedman esteems. If even liberated slaves failed to abolish slavery, it largely invalidates the idea that they learned to treat others with kindness and equality.

The acquisition of foreigners as slaves in Leviticus 25

On the subject of slavery, there is a major passage in the holiness code (written by Levite authors, according to Friedman’s analysis) I think should be examined. This concerns the question of who the Israelites were to acquire as slaves. This text is Leviticus 25:45-47, which commands that slaves be taken from the surrounding nations, and not from within the Israelite nation (below per the JPS translation):

וְעַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִהְיוּ־לָ֑ךְ מֵאֵ֣ת הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם מֵהֶ֥ם תִּקְנ֖וּ עֶ֥בֶד וְאָמָֽה׃

Such male and female slaves as you may have — it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 

וְ֠גַ֠ם מִבְּנֵ֨י הַתּוֹשָׁבִ֜ים הַגָּרִ֤ים עִמָּכֶם֙ מֵהֶ֣ם תִּקְנ֔וּ וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹלִ֖ידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם וְהָי֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם לַֽאֲחֻזָּֽה׃

You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property.

וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֜ם לִבְנֵיכֶ֤ם אַחֲרֵיכֶם֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֲחֻזָּ֔ה לְעֹלָ֖ם בָּהֶ֣ם תַּעֲבֹ֑דוּ וּבְאַ֨חֵיכֶ֤ם בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אִ֣ישׁ בְּאָחִ֔יו לֹא־תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָֽרֶךְ

You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kin, no one shall rule ruthlessly over another.

This troubling text does not leave open much room for interpretation. Yet upon my reading, Friedman does not engage with it even one time in his book. Instead, he merely grants that there are some morally bad passages in the Torah, without naming specifics. For example, Friedman writes:

I would just add this caution: when people cherry-pick the most offensive passages in the Bible in order to show that it is bad, they have every right to point to those passages, but they should acknowledge that they are cherry-picking, and they should pay due recognition to the larger—vastly larger—ongoing attitude towards aliens and foreigners. In far more laws and cases, the principle of treatment of aliens is positive. (Exodus, p. 204)

But pointing out these verses in Leviticus 25 is not “cherry picking.” In fact, I would even reverse the charge and argue that Friedman is guilty of evading these passages, which contain a direct and explicit contradiction to his point. There are, as Friedman notes, many passages in the Torah which endorse “positive” treatment of foreigners. But per these passages in Leviticus 25, even the most charitable reading of the Torah simply does not support equal civic treatment of Israelites and foreigners.

Quantity argument

But what about Friedman’s point that the larger number of good passages should outweigh the number of bad ones?

Can one bad thing outweigh many good ones? To my way of thinking, the answer in many cases is actually yes. This is because some moral concerns are weightier than others. The holding of certain ideals or practices, like slave-ownership or murder, tend to outweigh minor positive morals.

To advance as a moral people and shed the improper consequences of the belief in chosenness, we must grapple more intimately with the flaws in our history.

Consider this on an individual level. A person can be morally good in many numerous but minor ways, while committing a small number of extremely immoral acts that invalidate the other good they do. Most of us would not say that a serial killer is a morally good person if, in addition to their murders, they donated to a dozen charities.

Next, consider this position from the broader perspective of a national legal charter. Imagine if a national law code were produced today that had the following positions similar to those in the Torah, for example (just naming a few):

  • Respect your father and mother
  • Do not steal
  • Do not murder
  • You can own human beings as slaves

Such a legal code would be rightly condemned by other nations today, and it would not matter in the slightest whether most — or even 99 percent! — of its positions were ethically sound. This is because just one egregiously bad moral position can indeed invalidate many good ones.

Therefore, much more must be done to proactively engage and correct immoral commandments. It is not sufficient to merely claim the good outweighs the bad or to sweep the bad under the rug.


I’ll end by noting that I do empathize with Professor Friedman’s optimism in reading the text. One could certainly argue that it is more productive to focus more on what our ancestors got right than wrong. As Friedman himself notes, “One does not need to deny what is troubling in order to pay respect to what is heartening.” (Exodus, p. 213)

But as much as I’d like to join him in reading the text this way, given the issues I raised above, I ultimately struggle to accept Friedman’s specific and very forceful argument that the Torah be hailed as a primary historical source of equal treatment (especially as a “gift” the Jews gave to the world). Reading the text in this aspirational way, as if it was ahead of its time, is exactly the type of “loyal soldier” (per Rabbi Greene) we need to let go.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan insisted that we must teach the next generation how to read these ancient texts with more honesty.

I believe that if we are to advance as a moral people and shed the improper consequences of the belief in chosenness, we must grapple more intimately with the flaws in our history. At present, those flaws are often hidden from Hebrew-school students in favor of a simplistic moral narrative. Per Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, we must teach the next generation how to read these ancient texts with more honesty. Therefore, we should be less eager to celebrate the supposed specialness or superiority of our ancestors and be more enthusiastic about making progress through clear-headed critique of the problematic aspects of the Torah. And that is just as true whether the Exodus has some genuine historical root (as Friedman argues), or if it is simply a long-cherished myth.

[i] The Exodus: How it happened and why it matters. HarperCollins, 2017.

[ii] Editor’s Note: See Victor Reinstein’s Evolve essay, Gam Zu ve-Gam Zu: Weeping With All Who Mourn. [Please link to Reinstein essay.]

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