Shemot 2021: Defining Ourselves With And Against

The process of schismogenesis, when two peoples define themselves against each other in increasingly extreme ways, is a core part of Jewish history and development. How have we benefited from it, and how have we been generative in ways that allow us to not only differ from our neighbors, but thrive in that difference?

This week’s Torah portion is the first of Shemot, the beginning of part two of the Bible’s Israelite epic. In it, the stage is set for the great Exodus by the Egyptian god-king Pharaoh deciding to oppress the Israelites. It’s not particularly clear from the text as to why - he merely fears they are having too many children, and will outpace the Egyptian population, and creates a story in his mind of their turning to join his enemies against him. We’re not given a hint here as to why he has this fear of the Israelites, but we have some clues from elsewhere that might help us.

Joseph earlier reveals to his family, the progenitors of the Israelites in our portion this week, that the Egyptians find shepherds such as them repugnant, and also that the Egyptians will not sit and eat with Hebrews at the same table. We also see later in our text that the Israelites sacrifice lambs as part of their sacred rites, while lambs were sacred and not to be sacrificed in Egyptian culture, leading Moses to  admit to Pharaoh that he knows these rituals are anathema to the Egyptians. These two cultures seem somehow destined to clash, but why?

In the recent groundbreaking anthropological and archaeological treatise “The Dawn of Everything,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, they recount that “the anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined the term ‘schismogenesis’ to describe people’s tendency to define themselves against one another. Imagine two people getting into an argument about some minor political disagreement but, after an hour, ending up taking positions so intransigent that they find themselves on completely opposite sides of some ideological divide. Bateson suggested such processes can become institutionalized on a cultural level as well." (p. 28)

Perhaps over the 400 years of the Israelites dwelling in the land of Egypt, their initial differences continued to be exacerbated, leading to the Pharaoh’s fear of the Israelites. Key to this, too, is the fact that this was all happening at the birth of the Israelite people. During these 400 years, the Israelites went from a family with 12 sons to thousands of individual Israelites of the varying tribes - this schismogenesis, then, is baked into them during their development, and is therefore key to our own identities. This led to the Israelites, and Jews today, viewing ourselves as being defined, and self-defining, against the hegemonic power we live under or near.  

This tendency, though, doesn’t go untroubled in the Hebrew Bible. When the Israelites ask for a king, in order to be like all the other nations who have kings, God warns them against it, and eventually capitulates after telling them the monarchy will be their downfall. Further, when King David says he wishes to build a Temple for God akin to the Temples of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples, God responds, “Did I ask for a house of cedar?” clearly indicating a preference for no Temple. Eventually, the Temple is built under direction of David’s son, Solomon, but designed by foreign builders, with foreign materials, constructed through forced Israelite labor.

This, then, shows that the schismogenesis of the Israelite people, the movement towards defining themselves specifically against the behaviors of their neighbors, was tempered by an impulse to also adopt the practices of their neighbors. We should also note that Israelite kings, unlike the neighboring kings, were not seen as Divine or gods in and of themselves, and in the place that other cultures’ temples would house a large idol of a god, the Israelite’s Temple had an empty throne. So, in mimicking their neighbors, they still snuck in a bit of schismogenesis to steer away from complete adoption of their neighbors’ beliefs.

This allowed them to fit into the wider frame of their cultural context, which led to their inclusion in the international scene in their time, while maintaining their particularity. And this capacity, to be schismogenic just enough, while also finding ways to maintain connection, I think, is the core of Jewish diasporic survival.

This same process took place at the founding of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, both of which were born as full movements in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. But this time, it was Christianity practicing this type of schismogenesis against what had become the more powerful of the two forces at the time, Rabbinic Judaism. We can see it baked into the story of Jesus in the book of Matthew, which itself mimics the story of Moses in themes and images, but opens Jesus up as a leader to the whole world, not just the people Israel.

Oh how the tides have changed! Obviously, today, we occupy a place in history where we feel the need to enact schismogenesis with regard to our Christian neighbors, whose hegemonic culture in America we have always wrestled with. The clearest example is the so-called “December dilemma” in Jewish circles, in which Christmas and its accoutrements' role in Jewish homes is hotly debated. Is a Christmas tree too far? Stockings? What about lights on the house? Will it confuse the kids? Frankly, I think far too much hubbub is made about this question. In fact, my grandmother, a first generation Ashkenazi immigrant from Poland, grew up with a Christmas tree with no issues.

But I think the desire to make the hubbub is important. We today still use schismogenesis to define our boundaries and our practices, and far more often than not for American Reform Jews, the primary foils to use are Christians. And, at the same time, we seek interfaith engagement, and inclusion in hegemonic Christian culture. I think rather than use this impulse to debate what aspects of Christmas are acceptable and which are not, we should focus on the more generative schismogenic responses to Christianity of American Jews.

Two examples:

Nittel Nacht isn’t a particularly American Jewish phenomenon, it goes back to the middle ages, but it is an excellent example of Jewish schismogenesis with regard to Christmas. Jewish communities would forbid studying Torah, and instead play games all night, enjoying themselves and marking Christmas eve with levity rather than the seriousness of their neighbors, and also avoiding any antisemitic attacks which were known to happen on occasion during the time. Today in America, some communities rent out large spaces, like the largest waterpark in the country at the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis, in order to celebrate Nittel Nacht together - a particular Jewish American way of observing what was originally a reaction to Christmas.

Another wonderful example is American Christmas music itself. From White Christmas to Silver Bells and so many more, much of the American Christmas canon was composed by Jews. Rather than simply turning their back and defining themselves against Christmas, like Nittel Nacht does, these Jews chose to take a step into Christmas, and in fact had a hand in turning Christmas itself into something more like a secular winter celebration than a Christian observance.

It gave them, and us, an entry to the American world by taking part in it in their own way. This type of schismogenesis - a participatory move into a foreign culture in order to make it more hospitable - is, in my opinion, the one that has allowed Jews to thrive in America and in other Diaspora locations in the past.

So let us, on this Christmas day, celebrate our capacity to do just this. Let us enjoy the day, however we choose to observe or not observe, be it with lights and trees, or Chinese food and movies. And may we all not only learn to define ourselves against the other, but to find ways to learn from and enjoy those different from us, while staying true to ourselves.