In Their Interpretations of the Exodus Story, a Great Rabbi and His Great-Grandson Offered Two Opposing Conceptions of Jewish History

April 7, 2020 | David Curwin
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In Genesis 15—a passage cited in the Haggadah—God tells Abraham that his descendants will be “strangers in a land not their own,” where they will be enslaved and oppressed. The great 20th-century sage Joseph B. Soloveitchik, noting that this passage says nothing about Egypt, imagined an alternative version of the biblical narrative where this exile is instead in the land of Haran, where according to Genesis Jacob spends many of his years working for his father-in-law. In this reading, Jacob’s own actions, and those of his sons, led to the Egyptian exile; if events had gone differently, God would have led the Israelites out of Haran and immediately into a messianic era.

David Curwin points out that this approach directly contradicts an interpretation of the Haggadah given by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s great-grandfather and namesake, the renowned 19th-century talmudic scholar Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, who cites as a prooftext the Haggadah’s peculiar exegesis of the verse “On that day, you must tell your child, ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt.’”

The elder Soloveitchik claims that despite the simple assumption that we eat matzah because of the events of the Exodus, the essence of the commandment is the opposite: we left Egypt because of the pre-existing commandment of matzah, [conceived of by God prior to creation]. He adds that we should not tell our children that “Because I left Egypt, I perform this commandment,” but rather the opposite: “Because of these commandments, the Exodus from Egypt came about.”

These two varying approaches to Jewish history, argues Curwin, manifest themselves in the younger Soloveitchik’s embrace of Zionism.

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