Michael Walzer on Passover’s Exodus Story


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Beginning Wednesday evening (April 8), Jews celebrate Passover, the annual retelling of their liberation story. We talked about the Exodus with philosopher Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Dr. MICHAEL WALZER (Professor, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ): The Exodus story isn’t a story of universal liberation. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt saves only the Israelites. But the idea is that this can be repeated, and it invites people to imitate it, to do it again.

The Haggadah that we read, the book of Passover prayers that we read on the night of the seder, is a story of divine deliverance, the hand of God against the Egyptians. But people insisted on finding human agency in it and retelling it as a story of liberation, from the House of Bondage to the Promised Land.

You marched across the desert to reach a place in which you could have a better life than you could have in Egypt. It’s going to be very slow because it takes a long time to erode, to overcome the slave mentality, and in fact Moses eventually decides, or God decides it will take a whole generation. It will take 40 years ’til there are people who were born in freedom.

They get there, and it doesn’t exactly flow with milk and honey, and freedom is hard work. This is a realistic account of how human beings move through periods of radical social change. The story was an inspiration for the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement was a great achievement for—a liberation for America.

But one of the things we’ve learned is that sometimes you need not only God’s help, you need help from your friends, from people—like the people in Darfur today. They can’t do it themselves. They can’t march themselves. They need help. Think of democratic dissidents in China.

The world is always radically imperfect and radically in need of improvement, and it is the task of each generation to retell this story and to try to make the world better.

ABERNETHY: Michael Walzer is the author of many books, among them EXODUS AND REVOLUTION.