Emma Lazarus is coming to my seder.
In fact, she comes every year; the haggadah we use includes her famous sonnet, “The New Colossus.” I’ll read aloud the words she lent the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—and we’ll all feel good. We’ll feel good dissing the “brazen giant of Greek fame,” a stand-in for Pharoahs everywhere. We’ll be glad to bring the Exodus story home to our own “sea-washed, sunset gates.” And we’ll congratulate ourselves for universalizing the meaning of the Exodus, giving a “world-wide welcome” to exiles from everywhere.
A Night of Questions, the Reconstructionist haggadah that features readings from Lazarus alongside others from Abraham Lincoln and the political theorist Michael Walzer, reminds us that “Whoever expands upon the story of the Exodus is worthy of praise,” as the haggadah says. Emma Lazarus’s famous poem does just that, reviving the famous Passover exhortation “Let all who are hungry come and eat” and turning it into a tenet of American life.
When Lazarus—a wealthy New Yorker of Sephardic heritage—wrote those words in 1883, she had no idea that they would someday speak not only for the Statue, but also for the country. The statue lay in pieces in a warehouse in Paris; it would be three more years before it was transported to and assembled in New York. And America itself was under construction. Nativism was a more likely path than inclusiveness. It was only in 1903, 16 years after Lazarus’s death, that her friend Georgina Schuyler undertook to have her poem emblazoned on a bronze plaque to be affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty. Liberty’s torch was the pillar of fire that led the Israelites by night to America, a Promised Land.
Of course by 1924, the “Golden Door” had closed. The seas no longer parted for immigrants—including millions who might have eluded Hitler—and America had turned back on its own promise. But readers of the haggadah know that freedom is something to be renewed in every generation, not something given once for good.
Emma Lazarus knew what it means to live a double life, as American and as Jew. We are in exile and we are at home. We are slaves and we are free. We are bearers of a universal fire and guardians of our own particularity.
I feel the contradictions keenly at the pair of seders I attend. At the seder I lead—a gathering of friends who love Jews more than Judaism—I play the role of the wise child. My job is to ask the right questions that will help them to find as much meaning as matzo in a ritual that is largely alien to them. A week before the seder, I email each person a question that expands the seder outward to touch on human rights, sweatshop labor, the trafficking of women, and holes in the ozone layer. To some (the three therapists among us), I send questions that narrow the seder to the dimensions of the psyche: What is your personal Egypt, your narrow place?
At the other seder I attend, that of my learned brothers and sisters-in-law, I play the role of the child who barely knows how (or what) to ask. My siblings recount their most recent shiur, my Schechter-educated nieces take turns speedreading in Hebrew, and no one needs questions about climate change to tell them that why all this matters and just how deeply.
Or how widely. That the Exodus story has legs is not news. It’s been a quarter-century since Michael Walzer laid at the feet of the Exodus two distinct traditions of revolutionary politics (and yes, velvele, there are traditions of revolution). In one—for Walzer, the wrong one—we are ever waiting for the messiah. This type of revolution is other-worldly in that it entails a hope for change that exists in the imagination, in which there is perfect righteousness and justice. By contrast, the other tradition, the one Walzer prefers, teaches instead the necessity of taking action in the here and now of history, not dreaming about revolution, but marching toward righteousness and justice—proximal righteousness; rough justice. As he wrote in his 1985 book Exodus and Revolution:
So pharaonic oppression, deliverance, Sinai, and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The “door of hope” is still open; things are not what they might be—even when what they might be isn’t totally different from what they are. We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form:
—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
Walzer’s challenge to use the Exodus as a moral imperative is clearly a challenge to universalize it. But do we, in universalizing Exodus, and by extension the Passover story, lose it as a Jewish story?
In a 2001 talk called “Universalism and Jewish Values,” Walzer observed what Emma Lazarus already knew: Not all universalisms are the same. The universalism Walzer claims for Judaism, which he derives from both Biblical and Talmudic sources, is what he calls a “universalism of the weak.” For him, it is a “low-flying universalism,” the voice of the dispossessed. Of necessity, Walzer observes, Jews have always had to grant other nations their sovereignty and other peoples (within limits) their moral agency. Walzer makes us look back to Lazarus and ask, how Jewish is her universalism? Is it, too, a universalism of the weak? In other words, is Lazarus’s “golden door” also Hosea’s “door of hope”?
Yes and no. Lazarus’s sonnet, like her commitment to assist the Russian refugees, is indeed a Jewish vision; it came from a sense of herself, a fourth-generation American, as another in a long line of Jewish exiles. But her Jewish universalism, while it takes the part of the poor and wretched, is hardly “low-flying.” On the contrary, hers is a universalism from above, in which affluent, modern Jews welcome exiles not to a wilderness, but to developed, hospitable cities. And there are other differences. First, whereas the sources, according to Walzer, are preoccupied with the agency of “other nations,” Lazarus regards poor refugees as a nationless mass whose agency itself has been suppressed; presumably, it is only now to be realized. Second, her Exodus is presided over not by Moses but by “a mighty woman,” a “mother of exiles” who guides not with pillars of cloud and fire, but by the “imprisoned lightning” —electricity? technology?—of her raised torch.
Iniviting Emma Lazarus to our seder reminds us that we are Jews of latter days. Our immigrants don’t hanker after Egypt; they call their family on cellphones. In lieu of the revolutionary purges of the Levites, we have benevolent societies and welfare agencies. When we expand our seder to include “The New Colossus” we modernize and universalize, but as we do, weigh all that has changed for us as ethical Jews, alongside all that has not.
Esther Schor is a professor of English at Princeton University and a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine. She is the author of the Nextbook Press biography Emma Lazarus.