Ancient Egypt and Modern Germany
An Integrated Unit – Torah and History
This unit represents curricular integration on two levels:
1) On the content level, the unit compares two similar events in history that have implications regarding Jewish existence in foreign cultures. Students have the opportunity to extrapolate from one to the other, and to draw conclusions.
2) On the skills level, the unit demonstrates that the study of history includes a process of interpretation that is similar to parshanut of the Torah text. In this case, the study engages the students in a process of thinking that is integral to both disciplines.
In both the Biblical text and the historical narrative, the student encounters events that seem to follow a similar course of progression of oppression culminating in the killing of the Jews. Why did the oppressors choose the course that they did ? Was it calculated or did it evolve ? Among the Biblical commentators, we find two schools of thought that are parallel to two schools of thought found among historians of the holocaust, the intentionalists and the functionalists.
The unit raises issues of Jewish identity and the degree of Jewish integration and acculturation within the surrounding society.
I. The Egyptian Paradigm
The enslavement and oppression of the Jewish people is described in the Book of Shemot 1: 8-22:
ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ, עַל מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לא יָדַע, אֶת יוֹסֵף. ט וַיאמֶר, אֶל עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ. י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ: פֶּן יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ. יא וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה–אֶת פִּתם, וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס. יב וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרץ; וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. יג וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּפָרֶךְ. יד וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה, בְּחמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים, וּבְכָל עֲבֹדָה, בַּשָּׂדֶה–אֵת, כָּל עֲבֹדָתָם, אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם, בְּפָרֶךְ. טו וַיאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לַמְיַלְּדת הָעִבְרִית, אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאַחַת שִׁפְרָה, וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָה. טז וַיאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת הָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַל הָאָבְנָיִם: אִם בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אתוֹ, וְאִם בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה. יז וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדת, אֶת הָאֱלהִים, וְלא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם; וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת הַיְלָדִים. יח וַיִּקְרָא מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לַמְיַלְּדת, וַיּאמֶר לָהֶן, מַדּוּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה; וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת הַיְלָדִים. יט וַתאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעה, כִּי לא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִית הָעִבְרִית: כִּי חָיוֹת הֵנָּה, בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ. כ וַיֵּיטֶב אֱלהִים, לַמְיַלְּדת; וַיִּרֶב הָעָם וַיַּעַצְמוּ, מְאד. כא וַיְהִי, כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדת אֶת הָאֱלהִים; וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם, בָּתִּים. כב וַיְצַו פַּרְעה, לְכָל עַמּוֹ לֵאמר: כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְארָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ, וְכָל הַבַּת, תְּחַיּוּן.
1) The new king did not know Yosef. What was the position of the Jews in Egyptian society before the new king rose to power? What is significant about the fact that the new king did not know Yosef? How does he view the Jews?
2) The enslavement and oppression of the Jews by the king was a process that involved several steps culminating in the murder of the Jewish children. Identify the steps in this process:
Why, in your opinion, did the king go through this process instead of just killing, the male children immediately?
3) Motivation: The king begins by sharing the problem as he sees it with his people:
Behold the Children of Israel have become numerous and more powerful than us. Come let us deal wisely with them lest they multiply and it will happen when there is a war, they will join with our enemies and fight us and go up from the land. (Shemot 1: 9-10)
What is the problem that the king perceives according to the simple meaning of the text? The Ramban assumes that the problem is as stated in the text. Rashi, on the other hand, quotes from the Midrash: “Let us deal wisely with the savior of Israel.” The Midrash understands that the kings advisors had warned him that a child would be born who would take the Children of Israel out of Egypt. As we will see, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and the Ramban interpret the events differently based on the motivation that they ascribe to the king.
4) Let us look at the commentary of the Ramban:
הבה נתחמכה לו: לא ראה פרעה וחכמי יועציו להכותם בחרב, כי תהיה בגידה גדולה להכות חינם העם אשר באו בארץ במצוות המלך הראשון וגם אם הארץ לא יתנו רשות לעשות חמס כזה, כי עמהם הוא מתייעץ, ואף כי בני ישראל עם רב ועצום ויעשו עמהם מלחמה גדולה. אבל אמר שיעשה דרך חכמה שלא ירגישו ישראל כי באיבה יעשו בהם. ולכן הטיל בהם מס כי דרך הגרים בארץ להעלות מס למלך…. ואחרי כן צווה בסתר למילדות להרוג הזכרים…. ואחרי כן צווה לכל עמו כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכיהו אתם.
Come let us deal wisely: Pharaoh and his advisors did not see fit to slaughter them because it would be a great treachery to kill for no reason the people who had come to the country by order of the first king, because the people would not allow the king to perpetrate such violence, for he took counsel with them, and because the Children of Israel were numerous and powerful and would battle against them. But he said that it should be done shrewdly so that the Jews would not perceive that they were being treated with enmity. Therefore he first levied a tax on them because it was normal for strangers in a land to pay a tax to the king… And after that he ordered the midwives to kill the male children secretly…and after that he ordered all of the people to cast every child born into the river.
Why, according to the Ramban, did the king go through this process rather than killing the Jewish children immediately? Was the process planned out or did it evolve?
5) Ibn Ezra (Shemot 1: 13) suggests an interpretation that differs than that of the Ramban:
ויעבידו: רעות רבות חדש עליהם בראשונה לעשות מלאכתו. וכאשר ראה שלא חסר רבותם נתן רשות למצרים ולשריהם להעבידם יותר מחק העבדים וזהו בפרך… וכאשר ראה שלא יועיל זה אז קרא למיילדת שהן שרות על כל המיילדות וצוה להרוג כל הזכרים הילודים.
And they worked them: He initiated many evil decrees against them—at first to do his work. And then when he saw that their numbers did not decrease, he gave permission to the Egyptians and their ministers to work beyond the normal standards of slavery and that is the meaning of “בפרך”. ..And when he saw he saw that this was not effective, he called the midwives who were the coordinators of all the midwives and commanded them to kill the male children.
a. How does Ibn Ezra’s explanation of the process of oppressing the Jews differ from that of the Ramban?
b. What according to Ibn Ezra, was Pharoah’s motivation in persecuting the Jews?
6) In the final stage of the process, the king orders his people to the male children. Presumably this refers to the Jewish children. Rashi, however, explains that he even ordered them to kill the Egyptian children that were born on that day:
לכל עמו: אף עליהם גזר, יום שנולד משה אמרו לו אצטגניניו: היום נולד מושיען של ישראל ואין אנו יודעים אם ממצרים או מישראל.
To all of his people: Even on them he issued the decree, for on the day that Moshe was born his astrologers said to him: “Today the savior of Israel will be born and we don’t know if from the Egyptians or from the Children of Israel. a. Why would the king tell the Egyptians to kill their own children? How would you characterize the king’s behavior? b. Does Rashi’s opinion seem to agree with Ramban or Ibn Ezra?
II. The Nazi Oppression
Historical events are also open to interpretation. Let us look at a brief summary of the process that Hitler took leading up to the final solution in which the Jews were systematically murdered in death camps:
During the first part of the 20th century, the Jews were well integrated into German society. In 1933, Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. During his campaign and following his election, Hitler warned the German people of the dangers of the Jewish people to Germany. Jews began to be excluded and in 1933, the government organized a boycott of Jewish merchants. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, restricting the rights of the Jews in Germany. Many Jews tried to emigrate from Germany, but it was difficult for them to find countries to accept them. Even the United States was unprepared to accept Jewish immigrants and a ship full of refugees who sat on the shores of the United States in the S.S. St. Louis were refused entry. In 1938, the first major overt acts of violence were perpetrated against the Jews in the Krystallnacht pogrom. In 1939, the war broke out and Germany captured Poland and other Eastern European countries, placing a much larger number of Jews under their control. The process of ghettoization and deportations to concentration camps began. In 1940, Hitler proposed a plan to resettle the Jews in Madagascar, but it fell through. The oppression of the Jews continued and little opposition was heard from other countries or even from the world Jewish community. In 1942, the final solution, the systematic murder of the Jewish people began.
Hitler’s oppression of the Jews also involved a gradual process of implementation. Historians disagree as to why this approach was taken, what do you think?
Let us examine two theories relating to this question:
1)The Intentionalists – The intentionalists believe that Hitler had decided on the final solution early on. They point to a speech that Hitler delivered before the war in 1939:
One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the state, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their faces. Today I will once more he a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside of Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!
According to this primary source, what was Hitler’s motivation in oppressing the Jews?
If so, why, in your opinion, would Hitler have adopted this gradual approach to its implementation?
2)The Functionalists – The functionalists believe that Hitler did not always have in mind the final solution, but that the process evolved gradually. They point to the inconsistency of German policy including the proposal of the Madagascar plan in 1940 as proof of their position. The following report was submitted and approved with Hitler in 1940:
I hope completely to erase the concept of Jews through the possibility of a great emigration of all Jews to a colony in Africa or elsewhere… However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible.
According to this primary source, what was Hitler’s motivation in oppressing the Jews?
If so, what factors might have influenced the process to evolve differently?
Which of the commentators that we studied correspond to the functionalist approach and which correspond to the intentionalist approach?
Implications of these Theories – Questions for Discussion:
1. How might the German Jews have reacted differently to Hitler’s actions? Why didn’t they? What difference might it have made?
2. How might the nations of the world reacted differently to Hitler? What difference might it have made? Why didn’t they react differently?
3. How might the world Jewish community have reacted differently to Hitler? Why didn’t they? What difference might it have made?
4. Would it have made a difference if there had been a State of Israel then? How so?
5. How secure is the position of Jews in emancipated countries in which they have received full rights and enjoy a high level of acceptance? Could it happen in America?
6. What are the potential effects of integration with the non-Jewish society on readiness to perceive and act against anti-Semitic activities? How do American Jews react when there is conflict between the United States and Israel?
7. How do we react to the suffering of non-Jews in other parts of the world (i.e. Serbia, etc.)? Are these situations comparable or not?