Exodus and Agitation: Moses the Organizer


Progressive Jews love Passover, and with good reason.

In retelling the Exodus story, secularized seders recall the freedom struggles of various oppressed groups: women, African-Americans, Tibetans, gays and lesbians, the working poor. We place oranges on the seder plates, add some spirituals to the songs we sing, and recall a time, mythical perhaps, when Jews as a community marched for freedom, peace, and justice. After four glasses of wine, I can’t tell if we are singing Had Gad Ya or the Socialist Internationale!

While we rightly celebrate the liberation that Passover preserves and portends, there’s someone we’ve too often forgot to toast: Moses. 

Surprisingly, Moses is not mentioned in the traditional Passover Haggadah. Generations of sages play down Moses lest it appear that Moses was superhuman or a Christ-like mediator between the human and the divine. The traditional liturgy reminds us that God took us out from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, but what about Moses’ hard work? Secular Jews de-emphasize the divine element and foreground the collective dimension, but we have not been sufficiently appreciating the role of the organizer.

Remembering Moses’ role in the Israelite freedom struggle is important to recall in our time. The Israelites did not simply spontaneously rise up against the Egyptians; they had to be mobilized. The Israelites did not just figure out effective collective forms of resistance; they had to be organized. The Israelites did not just instinctively throw off the pernicious practices of paganism; they had to be consciousized.

Growing up in Pharaoh’s court and throwing his lot in with the Israelite slaves, Moses is uniquely positioned to know how the elite structures work and to inspire the base. The pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky, in Rules for Radicals, made Moses the model for the shrewd organizer. Moses manipulates resources and evokes miracles. Moses’ bargaining skills are good enough to negotiate a settlement with an angry God. As Alinksy explains it, “Moses did not try to communicate with God in terms of mercy or justice, when God was angry and wanted to destroy the Jews; he moved in on a top value and outmaneuvered God.” Appealing to his reputation and his interests, Moses keeps the Israelite’s “Golden Calf affair” from scotching God’s Covenant.

Along with these cheeky re-readings of Moses, there is a serious dimension of Jewish life that warrants attention at the Passover seder, the role of the organizer in liberation movements. Progressives are rightly uncomfortable with placing too much emphasis on any one person. Movement leaders often fall into distinct leadership styles: hierarchical, authoritarian, or messianic. Both Karl Marx and Theodore Herzl were portrayed as modern Moseses, leading the downtrodden masses to the promised lands of Communism or Zionism. Though talented organizers, their leadership styles were less than democratic. There may be something positive to be said about charisma, but progressives prefer their politics without ego—a difficult needle to thread. Nevertheless, we can see in Jewish history the importance of organizers within the Jewish community helping to sustain the community’s integrity while being surrounded by hostile powers. For over 100 years now, as Jews aspired to be part of the nascent intellectual and political movements for freedom, secular Jews have stood out as exemplary organizers. A tradition of secular American Jewish organizers can be traced in these movements, from the tireless labor activists like Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman to Stanley Levinson, one of Martin Luther King’s advisors, to agitators like Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP. The list of such movement organizers would be long, and Jews should name and claim this tradition with pride.

Moses was no messiah, but he was a mensch. He was no great speechmaker—Aaron had to compensate for his speech impediment (Freud speculated Moses couldn’t speak Hebrew). Moses’ genius was in discerning an alternative national project and taking the steps needed to get there: challenging Pharaoh, leveraging God’s miracles, managing discontent. Moses was an insider and an expert who hit the system at its weak points.

Liberation doesn’t happen by accident; even the Exodus had to be organized. Too often the Exodus story is evoked solely as a romantic tale of a people’s struggle for freedom. Liberation comes at the end of a long process, in which hard-working organizers toil to create the material conditions for mass participation. In our times, they help clarify strategy, facilitate the meetings, cull together coalitions. High-profile organizers give speeches and sometimes become the face of a movement, yet the ones below the radar screen, through their behind the scenes perseverance, give ordinary people the opportunities to participate.

This season marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His last speech, delivered the night before his death, is permeated with references to Exodus: to the strategies of Pharaoh to keep the Israelites fighting among themselves; to himself as a sort of Moses who has “been to the mountaintop” and “seen the promised land.” The Exodus is a resounding motif in King’s life and speeches, even in the titles of his biographies. King was a reluctant leader, but one who helped coordinate the talent, the people, and the strategy to win concrete victories. This season we should acknowledge the day-to-day effort of organizers and agitators, those modern day Moseses sung and unsung.