A Jewish of Theology of Liberation Understanding Liberation Theologies I remember in 2008 when our country was on the verge of electing our first black president. I started hearing the phrase Liberation Theology. The phrase was associated with the then former minister of Barack Obama, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I remember many media reports condemning excerpts from Wright’s sermons where Wright appears to be angry, passionate and also appears to be condemning America. I’ve heard enough black preachers over the years that sound like Wright and I’ve been black long enough in America to understand the pain that Wright was expressing to his congregation.
What was obvious to me at the time was that white people were surprised by the rhetoric used by Wright. Many white people in this country imagined that if a white minister had said the things that Wright stated in those excerpt speeches, those ministers would be called racists and people would wonder about the character of the person running for the highest office in the country. I remember having conversations with white people who had never set foot in a black church, who had very few black friends and describing Trinity United Church of Christ, a church they had never been to, as a racist church because they assumed white people were not welcomed. Often these conversations would lead to me asking how many black people go to your church and explaining that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning when people are in church. If I were to guess I would assume that more black people have been to white churches than the other way around. The reason is because white people feel they don’t need to know about black culture. This was my introduction to Liberation Theology.
What I’ve learned this semester is that there are many liberation theologies. To name a few: Latin American, Black, feminist (including womanist) and many more. All of them respond to some form of oppression: poverty, social class, the oppression of people of color, the oppression of women and so on. It’s also important to know that liberation theologies are focused on the future and what can be done by individuals to bring about God’s salvation and how those that are disenfranchised in our society can be helped. (De La Torre, 46). Liberation theology is the theology of liberation, freedom that “recognizes that before we can do theology, we must do liberation” (De La Torre, 48). Liberation theologies seek to change society and be in solidarity with those who are oppressed.
Liberation theology begins with and emphasizes a concern for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. To do liberation theology one must be concerned with those in our society who are oppressed. Simply put, liberation theology is the belief that in the struggles of poor and oppressed people and their powerful and rich oppressors, God sides with the oppressed and marginalized against the oppressors.
Before I took this course I saw liberation theology as a tool used by black churches to help people in need and to create change. I thought liberation theology was based on the book of Exodus. I believed this because I knew American slaves saw themselves in the story of the Exodus. American slaves saw themselves as the Israelite slaves who cried out to God for freedom and were eventually freed and entered into the promised land. In my understanding of liberation theology Jesus was not in the picture.
It’s kind of funny now, I’m a Jew and of course Jesus would not be in any vision I would have of liberation theology. Crafting a Jewish Liberation theologyI have been tasked with creating a Jewish Liberation Theology. In crafting this paper I had two questions. Do Jews need a liberation theology? Are we as Jews liberated already? And after some soul searching my answer is yes to both. Jews do need a liberation theology because many in our community are oppressed and marginalized, especially the poor and people of color.
Jews in the United States are liberated. We live in a free society and the Jewish community does not have to worry about being deported like their ancestors who lived in Europe.All of the liberation theologies that I have studied this semester are rooted in some part to the Torah and do not appear to acknowledge the Jewish roots of liberation theology. I see the Torah especially the book of Exodus, as the original liberation theology text. So as far as I am concerned Jewish liberation theology is a concern of all people – not just Jews. It’s a theology that moves beyond one group because Jews live in an American society that marginalizes some and oppresses other. Within the Jewish community in the United States many have the privilege of wealth, class and whiteness and other do not.
The Torah is a fascinating story of the struggle of an enslaved people for their freedom. The slaves gain their freedom because God sides with the Israelite slaves over the oppressor, the Pharaoh. Then once the Israelites are free rules of behavior and laws are created for a new society and social system that underlie freedom for all people. As I started crafting a Jewish Liberation theology focusing mostly on the book of Exodus I realized that a liberation theology must start with an act of civil disobedience, an objection to the status quo.
In the book of Exodus the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, committed what I would call the first recorded act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The Torah says a “new King arose who did not know Joseph” (Exodus1:8). This Pharaoh did not like the increasing number of Israelites. He ordered the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill the Israelite male babies as they were born. The Midwives did not comply because they feared God over Pharaoh. Their act of civil disobedience shows us that the liberation of the Israelites begins not with divine intervention but with an act of civil disobedience. Then we learn from the text that the Israelites cried for help and God heard their cries. Moses encounters God for the first time in the form of a burning bush.
When Moses encounters God for the first time he says to God tell me your name and God responds with Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I am that I am or I will be what I will be. This phrase that is God’s name captures the essences of God. God is the mystery, the divine. God is whatever we discover God to be or wherever we can find the divine. Names are important and names have meaning. Names tell us who we are. As I’m writing this I can’t help but remember the Gloria Gaynor song I Am What I Am, which was the gay anthem for me and many other young gay people in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I’m smiling as I think about it because I remember being young and free on the dance floor shouting “I Am What I Am” This anthem told me it was ok for me to be me. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh to me sounds like a rallying cry. It’s God’s way of telling the Israelites I will be what you want me to be.
God is transcendent. This very name of God represents freedom for the Israelites telling them it’s a new day. Later in parsha Bo we are reminded that none of us are free unless all of us are free. As the Israelites struggle for freedom and plague after plague hurts Egypt, Pharaoh is willing to let some of the Israelites go free but Moses insist that none of them will go unless all of the Israelites can go. Moses wants freedom for all. He says “We will go with our young and our old, we will go with our sons and our daughters” (Exodus 10:9). In other words, Moses was not leaving anyone behind.
This is a universal message, a reminder that we are all created B’tzelem elohim, in the image of God and freedom is available to all who want to be free. We all know the song Let My People Go. A very famous song, but the next line from the Torah is missing in the song, God says “let my people go so they can worship me,” (Exodus 10:3). This phrase appears several times in the book of Exodus when Moses is struggling with the Pharaoh to gain freedom for the Israelites.
Freedom for the Israelites is connected to God. Once the Israelites leave Egypt, they have to accept God’s covenant and when they do the Torah says all the people answered as one, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Exodus 24:7).Throughout the Torah there is the message to not oppress the stranger because “You know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9). Lastly, we are commanded to retell the story of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom every year as we celebrate Passover. The Passover Seder is probably the most widely observed Jewish ritual. We as Jews are encouraged to participate in the seder as if we were there, thus ensuring that we will remember that we were strangers in Egypt and we will never forget that we were slaves in Egypt. By remembering the past we learn from it and we are creating a better future.
As a Jew and an African-American, I carry the memories of people who were once enslaved. The Torah reminds us to remember our history, by telling us that we were once slaves in Egypt, and to not oppress the stranger, but to befriend the stranger when they are in need. Jewish Liberation Will Free Our Souls When I converted to Judaism I was not searching for God, the meaning of life or a religion, at least not that I was aware.
I walked into a synagogue because my friend, the rabbi, invited me and I fell in love. I fell in love with the synagogue community and Judaism. Judaism gave me rituals, structure and a values system to live by. Since my conversion my life has direction, and I feel Judaism freed me and liberated me and gave me a purpose. I became an activist on issues I cared deeply about that were personal to me. I fought for same-sex marriage before it was fashionable to do so.
I became an advocate on issues such as HIV and AIDS and Judaism made me a better ally to the transgender community. I am a convert to Judaism, and because I converted, I did not inherit any of the trauma that many have in the Jewish community. The trauma that is associated with family members who lived through or died in the Holocaust, and the trauma associated with centuries of anti-semitism.
I am not without trauma. I have the trauma of being born black, gay and a woman in the United States. I see being Jewish as a gift I love Judaism and love being Jewish and I want to share that joy with others and I want to use Jewish theology to help those who are in need. A few years before I was even thinking about conversion, I participated in my first Passover seder. This was before I had even set foot in a synagogue. I didn’t know anything about the holiday. I remember sitting at the table listening, reading and seeing the Exodus story acted out. I recognized the story, but mainly from watching the movie The Ten Commandments.
That night, at that seder I learned that the Exodus and the movie The Ten Commandments is really a Jewish story. I imagine a theology that is Jewish but is designed to help all those who are in need. I believe the roots of a Jewish theology of liberation lie in the book of Exodus because the book of Exodus is a story of a people who cry out to God, God hears their cry and leads them out of bondage, then to freedom and finally to redemption. In the book of Exodus God sides with the oppressed against the powerful Pharaoh. I see Judaism in itself a theology of liberation. The book of Exodus and the Passover seder begin with the Israelites as slaves and we follow their story from slavery in Exodus to freedom and redemption.
This Jewish liberation theology is a universal liberation theology grounded in Jewish tradition. The Israelites were oppressed and enslaved by Pharaoh. Although Jews have a long history of being oppressed and marginalized, today Jews may no longer feel oppressed in modern society but oppression remains. There are still “Pharaohs,” oppressive governments. We still live in a world where people suffer from poverty. We have a responsibility to try to fight modern forms of oppression and marginalization.
If we celebrate our own liberation from slavery without working to empower and better the lives of those who are still oppressed, we are failing to live up to our responsibilities as Jews. We are obligated to not only celebrate our liberation but to also invite others to join with us in this celebration. Remembering our collective history as slaves should inform our actions today and we must strive for the liberation of all who are oppressed so that those who are suffering may know justice and freedom.