Sometimes when I teach about the origins of Judaism, I draw the distinction between “actual history” and “mythic history.”
The mythic history is what we are reading right now in the Torah cycle: the stories of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, who journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan. Their grandson Jacob moves the family down to Egypt after his son Joseph becomes an official in the Egyptian government. Their descendants become enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh until they are liberated by Moses, who leads the people first to Mount Sinai, where the Torah is revealed to them, and then on a 40-year journey through the wilderness until arriving at (or returning to) and conquering Canaan.
The actual history is different. In short, what we can know, is that a disparate set of tribes grew and consolidated in the region, eventually forming a kingdom. That kingdom split in two, the northern kingdom of Israel was then overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah held on until 586 BCE when it was overrun by the Babylonians. The population was exiled to Babylonia, and only allowed to return in 538 BCE when the Persians conquered the Babylonians. During exile, the people had collected a variety of texts and oral traditions into the Torah.
Which is true? They both are, and as Jews we embrace them both in their complexity. Both are ripe for study, interpretation, challenge, and meaning-making. The two are not at odds, they don’t cancel each other out, but rather they work together. Each narrative contains challenge and promise.
I think about this as we approach the American civil holiday of Thanksgiving. It too has a mythic history and an actual history.
The mythic history is tied up in the problematic story of a shared feast between colonialists and the indigenous residents of the land. Regardless of the events that underlie the story–even mythic history will have some actual history behind it–the story at best paints a false picture of that time and relations between people and at worst deliberately covers up genocide and violence. Thanksgiving is a time to therefore reckon with this history, challenge the narrative, and continue to write a new story.
The actual history of the national holiday is rooted in the Civil War. While states and presidents had declared days of thanksgiving, it was Abraham Lincoln who, after a very public lobbying campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, in 1863 set the foundation for an annual holiday. His proclamation reads in part:
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
This was delivered in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. In the wake of a destructive war, Lincoln is imploring the people not only to offer gratitude for all that is good, but to also focus on healing divisions and caring for those who have suffered and lost. Of course, this too can be examined and put into context of the complexity of the Civil War and its history.
So which is true? Again, they both are, and we embrace them both in their complexity. Taken together they form a narrative of our values and past in this country, and lay the foundation for interpretation and a different future. Here too each narrative contains challenge and promise.
As we sit around our tables, both the mythic history and actual history of Thanksgiving should be on our minds. As Jews, we are familiar with the practice of reading historical stories as a source for learning and growth. Indeed, those stories which challenge us, which upset us, which conflict with our values, are the greatest teachers. And holidays are important ways we connect with these stories and give us the opportunity–by setting aside times, by ordaining rituals and traditions–to examine, question, learn, and change.
For me, this year, I am very aware that we are seeing a rise in hate-filled violence and rhetoric, especially antisemitism. Classic tropes of anti-Jewish rhetoric are gaining new audiences and given new sanction. And we have seen how in general in our civic discourse division and hate speech has led to devastating physical violence against people and property.
This Thanksgiving, I am reminded once again that our country is no stranger to hatred, violence, dehumanization, and conquest. We must remember and reexamine the mythic narratives that this holiday perpetuates. And Thanksgiving reminds us that through that honest and critical reexamination, and through the commitment to gratitude and compassion and mutual responsibility as expressed by Lincoln, healing is possible.
The past, both mythic and actual, can give way to a new future.
Thanks for continuing the conversation!