Despite all of the ways Western society has separated the spiritual pursuit from the material and deemed spirituality superior to physicality, the religious holiday of Pesach doesn’t. In fact, it is the physical liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt that starts them on their path toward the covenant and an even deeper spiritual connection to the divine. The Exodus story overflows with images, tales and situations in which: bodies are not ignored; nourishment, comfort and care is addressed spiritually as well as physically and the divine’s spiritual gift, so to speak, to the Israelites is not some other-worldly paradise but a this-worldly land flowing with milk and honey.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the story is perfect: it is replete with war, murder, militarism, forms of colonialism and other manifestations of patriarchal violence. Patriarchal influences encourage androcentric tellings of events and sexism as well. Three examples are the all-male priesthood, the tenth plague “death of the first-born” (of course the only first born that counts are boy children), and the over-the-top covenantal concern about women as menstruators, adulterers, untrustworthy and so on. These aspects are important to acknowledge and critique, but we cannot stop there. We must cherish the story for its insights as well.
Here is just one of the many insights. The Exodus illustrates in many diverse and varied experiences the truth that liberation must be embodied and that there is a strong interconnection between divinity and the world, taking the shape of what some might call panentheism. For example, in Exodus/Shemot 16, when the Israelites are hungry, the concerned and compassionate One offers manna and quail. T
he covenant between humanity and the Divine is just as concerned (if not more) with how the Israelites treat humans, animals and the environment as with how the Israelites relate to the divine. After the Israelites receive the covenant and progress toward the Promised Land, the divine presence remains close by guiding and protecting them, a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night (Numbers/Bamidbar 9).
Midrash describes Miriam the prophetess as being accompanied by a rolling rock that put forth fresh water while in the desert and therefore not just quenching human thirst but also supporting animals, flowers and other plants while the Israelites wandered.
Pesach has a long tradition of making our story not just a story of a day gone by, but a story of continuing relevance. Some traditional ways of making the story germane today include relating the story to reminders that human slavery and trafficking still exist today: we should take measures to stop this injustice. Likewise, just as we were strangers in a strange land, we should welcome as well as provide and care for the refugee and all types of “strangers.” Of course, in many Haggadot and in some family minhag (custom), there is space during the commemoration of the plagues for the remembrance of the suffering of the Egyptians as well.
Yet, perhaps that brief nod isn’t enough. The world is full of people killing people motivated out of jealousy, “honor” codes and other sexist ideologies, racist ideologies, issues of control, machismo, fundamentalist ideologies, homophobia and transphobia. An embodied liberation not only acknowledges those whose embodied existence is stolen from them, but also reminds us that both the ideologies that support murder and the murdering itself has to stop. While these injustices are extremely important to be reminded of year after year, there are also many other forms of injustice surrounding embodiment in our world. We can and should work toward all.
This year perhaps we may want to consider these two less obvious needs for embodied liberation:
- Bathrooms: This is a much larger issue than we at first might perceive. Not only are there impassioned pleas from the trans community in the United States and elsewhere for access to public spaces like bathrooms, but there are also billions of people around the world who lack access to this basic means of sanitation. The BBC just ran two pieces, one in March and one a few days ago, about access to toilets in India. This access includes issues of safety, sanitation, poverty, gendered cost. and much more. In addition, feminists have been rallying for years for parity in public facilities. In 2008, Judith Plaskow wrote a great piece in Crosscurrents entitled, “Embodiment, Elimination and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice,” in which she poses just as many good questions as she answers and provides insightful analysis as to why the issue of bathrooms is not just an issue for women or trans-people but an overall justice-seeking concern. “By addressing the multiple ways in which the inequalities of power that shape our social relations manifest themselves in the mundane but crucial issue of bathroom access, bathroom activists can forge a multi-identity collation that would do much to improve the quality of daily life, (61).”
- Water: There have been many campaigns seeking to provide access to clean, local water. We know how just providing daily clean, local water resources for people would eliminate the need for girls and women to walk long distances hauling the water. With considerably more time on their hands, these women and girls could have access to education, jobs, girlhood and other opportunities. In addition, while water is often seen as an issue of the South, with recent events like the pollution of water in Flint, Michigan, it is clear just how much access to clean, local water is or could be a global concern.
May Pesach remind us all about our mission to bring about the embodied liberation of all beings, including our planet.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses. She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.