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Exodus Exegesis


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Op-Ed Columnist

Exodus Exegesis


Published: April 21, 2008

Every presidential campaign has to produce a stream of appropriate statements for religious holidays, patriotic commemorations, and the like. Campaigns don’t expect to win votes with these messages. They produce them because there’s a risk of giving offense to some group or other if they don’t.

And candidates do it because it looks presidential. After all, a substantial portion of any White House’s output consists of official messages recognizing various national milestones, group anniversaries and dignitaries’ birthdays.

So, last week, in the midst of the excitement over the pope’s visit, the Clinton, Obama and McCain campaigns found time to issue Passover greetings. They were of course staff-produced, and somewhat formulaic. Still, differences among formulaic statements can be revealing.

The Clinton statement is the most personal of the three. She claims she has “always been inspired by the enduring words of the Haggadah: ‘In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt.’ ” Indeed, she affirms, “I am deeply moved by this timeless cry to stand up to oppression, tyranny and discrimination — wherever they are found.”

Now let’s grant that as first lady and senator from New York, Hillary Clinton has probably experienced more Seders than your typical non-Jewish politician. It may therefore be true that she has been inspired by those words of the Haggadah.

The trouble is that, as so often in her campaign, her greater experience hasn’t given her anything interesting or distinctive to say. The lesson she draws from the story of Exodus is that “it’s through remembering the past that we become strong and effective advocates for all who suffer the indignity and pain of servitude and injustice.”

The sentiments are conventional. But Clinton does manage to convey the impression that she’ll “stand up” and “advocate” in a “strong and effective” way — unlike, presumably, her allegedly all-talk-but-no-action rival, Barack Obama.

Sure enough, the Obama statement is talkier than Clinton’s. For Obama, Passover is a learning experience: “The Seder, with all its rich traditions, has much to teach us all.” Indeed, “its emphasis on teaching children, and letting them demonstrate their knowledge through the traditional asking of questions, embodies the great Jewish traditions of family and education.”

Now, there’s truth to Obama’s emphasis on the Seder as a teaching moment for those involved. But he’s not satisfied with that. The whole country has to listen up.

After all, as Obama says, “American Jews have always played a vital role in our national conversation.” So, Obama urges, “let us continue to engage in dialogue, and to ask ourselves and each other how the Passover story challenges us to question the world as it is, and to seek a future that is more just and more peaceful for all.”

Hillary Clinton’s statement sounds as if it were written by a serious and slightly old-fashioned Reform rabbi, full of the spirit of earnest liberal advocacy. Obama’s message has the feel of a slightly New Age, somewhat hip, multicultural, dialogue-friendly, college-town pulpit.

Not John McCain. He understands Passover as a time for reflection about sacrifice: “As families gather together for Seders, members of the Jewish faith reflect upon the painful sacrifices made by their ancestors, the joys of freedom, and the triumph of inherent goodness over evil.”

Sacrifices for the sake of freedom, the triumph of good over evil — if John McCain was at a Seder this past weekend, he surely would have liked this passage: “In all ages they rise up against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

McCain’s statement is also the only one to mention current assaults on Jews. He asks us to reflect on three young Israelis — Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser — who were kidnapped in the summer of 2006 by Hamas and Hezbollah, and “who will celebrate this occasion, once again, in captivity.” McCain recalls his meetings with the families of two of these men in December 2006, reiterates his commitment to seek their swift release, and urges others to do the same.

So if Clinton’s Passover message is liberal, and Obama’s is multicultural, one might call McCain’s Zionist. There’s a clear choice of worldviews here — and not just for Jews, but for all Americans.

I might add that both Democratic campaigns missed an opportunity last week. They seem not to have noticed that the date of the first Seder, April 19, was also the 233rd anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. So, a few days before Pennsylvanians vote, the candidates could have commemorated not just the Exodus from Egypt but also “the shot heard round the world,” thus identifying themselves all at once with political liberation, religious freedom and — yes! — the right to bear arms.


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