Posts Tagged ‘Passover’

PASSOVER AND PARADOX

Tonight, Jews observe the first night of Passover. Sunday, Christians celebrate Western Easter. Christians will declare, “He is risen.” For a week, Jews will forego eating anything risen—bread, bagels, cake. Calls will go out to unify Jews and Christians by following the commandment in Leviticus to love thy neighbor. There’s a paradox here. 

Linked as two of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism hold different theologies. Christians hail Jesus as the Messiah—the anointed one—who rose from the dead after being crucified by the Romans (or, as some Christians have it, the Jews). To Jews, Jesus was a fellow Jew, perhaps in the mold of the prophets. Christianity views Jesus as humanity’s savior from original sin. Judaism believes sin not to be inherent—humans possess good and evil inclinations, and must make choices. 

There’s nothing wrong with having different beliefs. History hasn’t always agreed. I write in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, that Christianity saw itself as the universalistic religion of a particularistic God. Universalistic: the only true religion. Souls could be saved only by accepting Jesus. Particularistic: God will damn nonbelievers to hellfire. Not all Christians still believe this. Many do. 

Judaism is the particularistic religion of a universalistic God. Particularistic: Only must follow the Torah’s commandments. Universalistic: God created us all. Monotheists who follow a few basic universal moral principles will share the World to Come—whatever it is—equally with Jews. 

Condemning Jews as Christ-killers, the early Christian West decided to let Jews live to endure exile and whatever punishments Christendom chose to inflict. The infamous blood libel arose: Jews mix Christian children’s blood into their Passover matzahs. This despite the Torah’s strict prohibition against consuming blood. What resulted? Read James Carroll’s frightening Constantine’s Sword.

Has America outgrown historic Christian animus towards Jews? Many millions of Americans embrace Jews as fellow citizens. But we’re hardly there. Witness, among others, Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism rears its head in such statements as those by the arch-conservative Ann Coulter. In 2007, she told Jewish talk show host Donny Deutsch, “We just want Jews to be perfected.” Deutsch asked if all Americans should be Christian. Coulter answered, “Yes.” 

Paradoxes also abound within Judaism. In the Diaspora, we conclude our Seder (home dinner service) with “Next Year in Jerusalem.” On May 9th, Israel celebrates its 71st anniversary, but as many Jews live outside Israel as in. “Next Year in Jerusalem” may now represent a yearning not to return to the land—beyond visits—but to Judaism and its values. For decades, North American synagogue involvement has declined among non-Orthodox Jews. 

Paradoxes abound within Israel. From bondage in Egypt through the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon, Israel consisted of 12 confederated then united tribes. Modern Israel is home to at least as many political parties, and the Jewish world to many more religious and cultural streams and sub-streams. In effect, we’re still wandering in a wilderness, this one consisting of questions: How do we gain peace and security? Achieve unity while respecting diversity? Survive a seductive secular culture?

From my perspective, paradoxes cast a shadow of uneasiness over Passover and Easter. Yet what better time to recommit to respecting the integrity of every human being.

To all observing Passover, Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday). To all celebrating Easter, may you find renewed joy and love. To everyone: Peace be upon you.

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JEWS BY CHOICE

The legendary comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The Groucho persona was highly individual. But isolation offers little to the soul. In that regard, some people join one particular “club” that accepts—but doesn’t seek—members.

Last week, a young man named Collin went before a three-person beit din—a Jewish religious court. As his mentor, I was part of that beit din. Colin answered questions regarding his desire and readiness to convert. Then he immersed himself three times in the mikva (ritual pool). He emerged as a Jew.

For over a year, Collin studied Judaism at my San Francisco synagogue, Sherith Israel. He was all in—enthusiastic and committed. He took our introduction to Judaism class. He learned to read Hebrew. He attended Shabbat services and Torah study. Two Torah study groups. We chatted over coffee every other week before Friday-night services. We discussed his challenges and progress, and a wide variety of topics from kosher eating to Israel to Jewish life (my own) in New York. He became part of “the guys’” coffee group. (A young woman who recently converted joins us occasionally.)

Why would a young man—why would anyone—cast his lot with the Jewish people? Make no mistake. Judaism is a “club” I want to belong to. I’ve found great meaning and stability in living Jewishly. But let’s face it. We Jews have had a difficult history in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear after the Holocaust. It has simmered and periodically flared up in Europe, and come to a boil in the Middle East.

Moreover, while Jews welcomes converts, we don’t proselytize. (We stopped when Rome made that a capital offense in the late fourth century.) Still, some people explore Judaism at Sherith Israel and elsewhere. A few engage intellectually. Many are non-Jews with Jewish partners. Of those, some pursue conversion. Others don’t but wish to build and maintain Jewish homes and families.

Then there are people like Collin, who is single. They discover that the Jewish soul matches their own. Many say they’ve always felt Jewish. Maybe it’s the breadth and depth of our traditions. Maybe it’s the fact that questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. And that within Reform Judaism, each individual explores observance in his or her own way.

The Tanhuma—a collection of stories and wisdom—states: “Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” After all, the Israelites witnessed God’s power through incredible displays of thunder and lightning, as well as the shaking of the mountain. The convert did not, yet still accepts God’s commandments.

With Passover beginning this evening, it’s worth noting again that the Jewish people has survived many tragedies—slavery in Egypt being the first. Existential threats still exist. Yet some people outside our tradition find Judaism deeply meaningful. Their choices teach us born Jews a lesson. As Larry Raphael, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, says, “In America we are all Jews by choice.” A free society offers us the option to drop out—even if doing so is somewhat illusory. Jews who come from outside our tradition demonstrate the value of choosing Judaism. And the courage involved in making that choice.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re celebrating Pesach: Chag sameach!

The blog will take a holiday next week (April 29).

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PASSOVER AND TRUTH

Passover begins Monday night. Most Jews—including many who maintain no other religious practice—will attend a Seder to hear and help tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Some Seder participants will view the Exodus story as historic truth. Others will dismiss the story as fantasy yet engage in the meal and companionship. Still others at Seders will value the story but understand the Exodus in a different way.

I mention this because inevitably at this season, some Jews question whether the Exodus ever took place. We have no archaeological evidence. If proof existed that the Exodus story is a hoax, they wonder, would Judaism collapse?

For those to whom religion claims legitimacy only if the Hebrew Bible—or by extension the Christian Bible or Qu’ran—is literally true, the answer is self-evident. Prove the Exodus bogus and Judaism, even if practiced minimally, must be abandoned. Without facts, religion must sink beneath spiritual quicksand.

These folks exist on the cusp between the pre-critical and critical stages of religious belief, using the terminology of the late Rabbi Michael Signer. They might like to believe the literal truth of the Torah but maintain serious doubts. Some almost seem eager to call Judaism’s bluff and make their exit.

Signer, however, points to a third stage of belief—post-critical. Literal belief no longer carries much weight. Religion isn’t about facts—whether God spoke to Moses at a burning bush, struck Egypt with ten plagues or parted the waters of the Reed Sea. Post-critical Jews seek Truth with a capital “T.” Facts become irrelevant, although no one can prove that the Exodus did not take place. (Richard Elliot Friedman offers textual proof of the Exodus by a single, small group of Egyptians in the current Reform Judaism magazine. His thesis varies from the biblical account.)

Bearing a capital “T,” Truth reveals enduring insights about human nature rather than historical events. Biblical stories and all the commandments serve as springboards for discussion and speculation. The study of Torah, which includes Talmud and all other Jewish texts—note, interestingly, the “T” words—has involved questioning and, yes, arguing for 2,000 years. Jewish tradition has never promoted easy answers.

Granted, if the Exodus could be proved to never have happened, many Jews—and perhaps of necessity, Christians and Muslims, too—might be faced with difficult choices. But I suspect that most Jews who undertake religious practice would not be deterred from studying and worshipping as they do. The Truths presented by the Hebrew Bible bear our attention regardless of their historicity. As the late Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote in his commentary on Job, the Torah represents the mythos of the Jewish people. As such, it teaches us a great deal about the human condition, and is worth our study and reverence.

So if you are celebrating Passover, may the concluding words of the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” inspire you as you need to be inspired—to make aliyah to Israel, to visit, or just as important, to experience the figurative coming home of the soul as you draw nearer to Truths that remain eternal.

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WHY THIS NIGHT?

The first night of Passover (Pesach) arrives tonight, March 25. (I write this post now because I was in Phoenix over the weekend.) Of great note, with the exception of Chanukah (the Christmas influence) more Jews attend some sort of Seder than observe any other holiday, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur included. Why?

Why indeed. And so I share with you a poem that comprises the first page of the Haggadah I put together some years ago and just revised—Haggadah Shel She’elot, Haggadah of Questions. The Haggadah is the “telling” of the Passover story. But in Jewish tradition, asking is just as important. So whether or not you observe Passover, you may find this of interest. Because when a small minority hangs on to its identity and observances for 3,200 years (dating back to the first Pesach) and more, questions must be asked.

WHY THIS NIGHT?

Why this night? And why this year

Just like last year?

All that tsuris with Pharaoh.

The plagues. The deaths of the firstborn yet.

That was thirty-two hundred years ago.

 

Why this table? This Seder plate?

The shank bone and the greens and the egg and the maror

And the charoset.

All this matzah, too. A whole week of matzah.

Seven or eight days—whichever you observe.

Not to mention the wine. Five cups yet,

Including one for Elijah.

 
And just who is Elijah anyway?

Do we really expect him to walk through the door?

He’s got a lot of doors to walk through

On this night.

Face it. Millions of Jews are doing the same thing

All around the world.

 

And why are there Jews anyway?

Isn’t it just an accident of birth?

Some say, “Hey, I’m a Jew, sure,

But I’m not Jewish.”

What’s the difference?

And what do they gain by

Turning their backs on the past?

And what do they lose?

 

And what’s to lose if we make this night

Like all other nights?

On all other nights, we’re just like

Everyone else.

Isn’t that what we want?

Although when you think of it, everyone else

Is never just like us.

For all of you sitting down at a Seder tonight and tomorrow night, Chag Sameach—Happy Holiday (literally “Festival”). For all of you celebrating Easter this Sunday, Happy Easter. And for all of you who have or create other traditions—Shavuah tov—have a good week.

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