Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Orange on the Seder Plate

... and celebrating the death of children?

"Does it matter if the story of the escape from Egypt is historically true?" Rabbi Suzanne Singer asked us, her congregants, on Saturday, at the Passover Seder dinner at Temple Beth El in Riverside.

We're a liberal Reform Judaism congregation. Everyone except me seemed to be shaking their heads, no, it doesn't matter. I was nodding, however. Yes, it does matter.

Rabbi Singer walked over to me with the microphone, "Okay, Eric, why does it matter?"

I say "we" are a Reform Judaism congregation, but let me be clear: I am not Jewish. My wife Pauline is. My teenage son Davy is. Davy even teaches at the religious school. My nine-year-old daughter Kate, adopted from China at age one, recently described herself as "half Jewish". We're members. We volunteer, attend some of the services. Sometimes I try to chant the chants, sometimes I don't. I always feel a little... ambiguous.

I hadn't been expecting to speak. I came out with some version of the following thought. If the story of Passover is literally true, then there's a miracle-working God. And it would matter if there were such a God. I don't think I would like the moral character of that God, a God who kills so many innocent Egyptians. I'm glad it's not literally true. It matters.

I find it interesting, I added, that we ("we"?) have this celebratory holiday about the death of children, contrary to the values of most of us now. It's interesting how we struggle to deal with that change in values while keeping the traditions of the holiday.

Passover, as you probably know, celebrates a story from Exodus. The Jews are slaves in Egypt. Moses and Aaron approach the Pharaoh and demand the release of their people. The Pharaoh refuses and God sends disaster after disaster upon the Egyptians. In the tenth and final plague, God sweeps through Egypt killing the firstborn son in every house, except the houses marked with the lamb's blood of the Jewish "Passover" sacrifice. In the traditional Haggadahs (i.e. scripts of how the ceremony is to be conducted), God's destruction of the Egyptians seems to be enthusiastically relished, the general tone being one of overflowing celebration for all the good things God (or G-d) has bestowed upon us: He didn't need to plague and torment our enemies and kill their firstborns, but he did, hooray!

(One does remove a bit of wine from one's glass for each of the ten plagues, which has been explained to me as reducing one's joy to recognize the Egyptians' suffering; but not all traditional haggadahs offer that explanation and the overall tone is cheery about the plagues.)

Temple Beth El uses a Reconstructionist Haggadah which is more reflective about the Egyptians' suffering and emphasizes the plight of the enslaved and oppressed everywhere throughout world history. The holiday is no longer understood as it once was. But still, we sing the happy songs.

Others in Temple Beth El spoke up in response to my comment: values change, ancient war sadly and necessarily involved the death of children too, we're really celebrating the struggle for freedom.... The rabbi asked if this answered my question, or if I had anything more to say. Davy whispered, "Dad, you don't have anything more to say." I took his cue and shut my trap.

The caterers arrived late. I was pleased to see that they put oranges upon the Seder plates this year. (It seems to be on and off in our congregation.) The traditional Seder plate has no orange: two bitter herbs (for the bitterness of slavery), charoset (sweet fruit and nuts as mortar for the storehouses of Egypt), parsley (dipped into salt water representing the tears of slavery), a roasted lamb bone (for the Passover sacrifice), and a hard boiled egg.

The first time I saw an orange on the Seder plate, I was told this story about it: A woman was studying to become a rabbi. An orthodox rabbi told her that a woman belongs on the bima (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate! When she became a rabbi, she put an orange on the plate.

A wonderful story! The orange on the Seder plate is wild, defiant, overturning the rules, the beginning of a new tradition to celebrate gender equality.

Does it matter if it's true?

The true story is more complicated. Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College. The students had written a story in which a young girl asks a rabbi what room there is for lesbians in Judaism, and the rabbi rises in anger, shouting, "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate!" Heschel, inspired by the story, but not wanting to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, put an orange on her family's Seder plate the next year.

In the second story, the orange is not a wild act of defiance but already a compromise. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but only an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it's not true. From the two stories of the orange, we learn what I regard as the central lesson of Reform Judiasm, that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, that they change as our values change, but also that there's only so much change that is possible in a tradition-governed institution, which is necessarily a compromise between past and present. An orange can be considered, but not a crust of bread.

My daughter and I -- active in the temple but not quite Jewish, we too are oranges on the Seder plate, a new sort of thing in a congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure how much we belong or want to belong, at risk of rolling off.

In the car on the way home, my son scolded me: "How could you have said that, Dad? There are people in the congregation who take the Torah literally, very seriously. You should have seen how they were looking at you, with so much anger. If you'd said more, they would practically have been ready to lynch you."

Due to the seating arrangement, I had been facing away from most of the congregation, while Davy had been facing toward most of the congregation. I didn't see those faces. Was Davy telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

Today I celebrate the orange, that unstable mix of truth and myth, tradition and change.


Robin Rosenberg said...

Interesting thoughts. I do thank you for the story of the orange on the Seder plate; I think I will add it next year to mine! At any rate, I was raised as a Conservative Jew (but we seldom ever went to services) and am a Hebrew School Dropout. Nevertheless, I did join an independent synagogue (which has leanings toward Reform Judaism with extra Hebrew thrown in) and my girls became Bat Mitzvah. I'm still religiously ambivalent, but culturally I do identify as a Jew. (Ask Pauline about the vast quantity of Jews in P.G. County when we were growing up. Her home temple has been disbanded, btw.)

I do think that history matters. But rather than thinking of it as a celebration of a time of when masses of children were killed, I like to think of it as Yet Another Time when our ancestors overcame adversity and beat the system. Granted the means were barbaric, but...history can be an ugly thing. (Don't even get me started on the "why bad things happen to good people" discussion. This is why I consider myself agnostic.)

Anyway, there's always the adage that has come down through the generations: "We came, we fought, we won, let's eat." Works for almost all of the Jewish holidays.

Anonymous said...

Very cute. The traditional hagadah also puts emphasis on the existence of different perspectives on the seder/passover through the four sons. this year, one of the people at my seder was really excited to represent the "evil" son...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm all for the "let's eat" part. Since I teach regularly about genocide in history, it's hard for me not to think seriously about the more violent aspects of (almost all nations' and religions') cultural traditions.

summortus said...

I enjoyed this beautifully told story quite a bit, and I also thought of the following, relatively famous midrash about kriyat yam suf (the splitting of the sea):

Bavli Megillah 10b
...And R. Yochanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, And one came not near the other all the night? [Exod 14:20, of Pharoah and the Israelites separated the night before.] The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

Which I take to mean that once one dives a little deeper into the tradition, the ambivalence about celebration is already there.

Also, I think it's quite possible that in fact, the massive death of children in more is more literally true of contemporary wars than of ancient wars; pace quite a few triumphalists about modernity, there's not much evidence that the ancient Israelites ever did anything like, say, bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. I guess what I mean to say here is I'd be careful before thinking that celebrating the imaginary deaths of children and actually killing them are directly correlated, or causally related. In fact, the relationship between religious celebration and military practice may be better explained in terms of imaginative, symbolic expression or "catharsis" (used in the modern, non-Aristotelian sense) than in terms of "values" or actionable moral claims about the world. It'd be over-simple and probably false to say that ancients talked about killing their enemies' children and we really do it, but I'm not sure it's any more false than any number of more intuitive, superficially plausible narrative about moral progress.

Raffi Magarik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
G. Randolph Mayes said...

That's an interesting take Eric. Is your idea that since it is not literally true, we are at least free to retell the story in a way that is more in accord with our current values? Because if it's not that, isn't it actually more disturbing that we continue to celebrate an untrue story with those characteristics? If it were true, then at least we just wouldn't have much choice in the matter.

Gilad Nir said...

Thank you Eric - this is beautifully written. Similar questions came to my mind this Passover. I am a father of a three year old and for the first time in my life I realized how terribly unjust the story of the plagues, and in particular the tenth plague, is. In our Seder, we ended up glossing over that part of the story, but as we were reading through the rest we noticed something (which you omit from your short version of the narrative ) which makes the tenth plague seem somewhat less disproportionate, and which introduces the kind of symmetry that you would expect to find in myths. I mean the fact that, according to the story, just prior to Moses's arrival, Pharaoh had decreed that ALL hebrew boys are to be thrown into the river upon birth. So on this background, the tenth plague can be taken to exemplify the biblical idea of justice -- justice understood in terms of an eye for an eye. Though perhaps that's not an idea of justice at all...
I still think your main point holds. The hebrew god, being omnipotent, did not have to inflict ANY harm on anyone, especially not all those innocent Egyptians outside of the royal court; in fact the myth tells us that god "hardened Pharaoh's heart", meaning he encouraged Pharaoh to refuse letting the Hebrews go, despite the plagues, in order to eventually bring maximum destruction upon the Egyptians. Like you, I still feel these parts of the passover tradition consist in celebrating revenge and suffering.
Although I am by no means religious I love the holiday tradition and all the rituals associated with it -- and I normally do not have the reform attitude of reinventing those traditions to fit contemporary morals. I enjoy the ritual, let us say, purely for its aesthetic value. In this case, however, given that one of the functions of the ritual is to educate the young ones, I just could not take the aesthetic point of view.
We chose to spend part of our Seder telling the children about Harriet Tubmann and the struggle against modern slavery. There was no vengeful god in that story.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks!

Anon Apr 27 08:11: Yes, the diversity of perspectives and the encouragement of questions is one of the wonderful things about the holiday, including the capacity to appreciate the "evil" son who rejects or challenges the tradition.

summortus/Raffi: Sorry about the delay in posting. After some serious problems last year, I had to change my comments policy to requiring pre-approval. I agree that there is already some ambivalence about the death of children in the tradition. The tradition is so manifold and multi-voiced! I think there must be a strain of that from the very start.

On genocide: Although I disagree with the moral triumphalism of some stories of moral historical progress, such as Steven Pinker's, I do think it's pretty clear from the historical record that there has been a trend in the West, over the centuries and millennia, toward at least more *outward* show of concern for the civilian members of outgroups. Reading the book of Joshua, for example, it's hard for me not to stand amazed at what seems like a frank celebration of genocide. Although the stories there are not historically accurate, or are perhaps a very distorted view of history, the fact remains that the people who wrote it and passed it down through the generations -- like the people who wrote the traditional Passover Haggadah -- seemed mostly untroubled by the narrative.

It is true that we still stand by inactively in the face of massive genocide (Rwanda 1994) and engage in military policies that klll civilians (drone attacks), but I do think it matters that there is at least an *outward* show of condemnation and regret. I don't think that outward show is entirely phony. So I do think there has been progress -- similar to the progress of what Pinker calls the "rights revolutions": women's rights, worker's rights, gay rights, ethnic rights, children's rights, rights for disabled people, etc. How permanent the progress is and how deep it runs remains to be seen. Contra Pinker, I'm not impressed that it has been 70 years since World War II and the Holocaust. Seventy years seems not as long to me as it seems to him, I guess.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Randy: I don't think we are entirely free to retell the story. We are constrained by the traditions of the holiday. To rewrite it entirely to accord with our current values would be like leavened bread on the Seder plate. We add new elements, tweak it around, use a Reconstructionist Haggadah, but it remains, like the orange, a compromise between the traditional forms and the current values. At least, that's my thought!

Gilad: Yes, I agree with all that. There is a kind of symmetry in the killing of the firstborn and the Pharaoh's killing of all the Jewish boys. I think you agree with me that this doesn't *dramatically* change the moral significance of a miraculous God's choosing to kill Egyptian children in the way he does, although it gives it some rhyme, some semblance of justice if one accepts "punish the sons for the sins of the fathers" and/or "punish the people for the sins of their leader" as a standard of justice. On Tubman: A myth for 21st century values! I haven't studied the history of Tubman, but I feel the temptation to elevate her character and enhance the significance of her particular role, to create a locus for celebration. (To be clear: this isn't *any* knock on Tubman, simply a thought about a temptation in my own mind to try to turn her into as much of a superhero as I can.)

Raffi Magarik said...

A) If you wouldn't mind deleting my second comment, and it wouldn't be much trouble, I'd appreciate that, as it looks silly right now. I obviously understand the need to moderate.

B) I guess the point I was trying to make is that I'm not sure it's at all an "at least"—i.e., that societies that talk more about their aversion to child-murder actually do kill fewer children, or vica-versa, such that change in narrative is progress. In particular, when humanitarian intervention is the *ideology* supporting a half-century American imperial violence, I think "hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue" is pretty hollow. That is, I think the outward show of condemnation and regret may not check or curb our own violence (in, e.g. Sudan or Iraq), but actually justify, legitimate, and help realize it. And on the flip-side, I am not at all sure that reading the Book of Joshua, one has a right to be triumphalist about their bad narratives. It seems to me the major problem with bad narratives/celebrations would be if they led to bad practices. But I think that linkage is one that would have to be argued for, and at least prima-facie, my sense is that a lot of moderns presuppose it on the basis of Whiggish prejudice. Think about parallels to say, representations of violence in popular culture and actual rates of gun violence: the Japanese watch far more violent movies than we do, but as Americans, condemning them for it would be very silly. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, since it's been nearly six months since I read it, but I think Montaigne on cannibals has a few useful points here too.

Raffi Magarik said...

Influential on my thinking on this question has been "Forms of brutality: Towards a historical sociology of violence" by Sinisa Malesevic, which lays out the case to think that Pinker's not just pollyannish but has things exactly reversed.

Unknown said...

History (of anything) is new beginnings...that we Have and May Carry on new beginnings through Seder, Religion, Philosophy and meta-physics...

Callan S. said...

Probably philosophising about the right things if you get your own son to do a role reversal and become the father censuring you, as the son, about the rebellious things you said.

Nice turn around on the lesbian anecdote - though it seems more plausible that someone argued with someone. And indeed the fact of it (that you state) does involve someone arguing with someone. Even the fact of that you state might have finer grain details to it than you have said - but does it matter? There, now my potato is on top! lol! ;)

This might be a bit close to the bone though : Really, lynching? That's something to think about in regard to religion.

Then again I know a guy who gets angry when I suggest the Boss from the metal gear video games let the original Snake win the fight against her and kill her (she had a mission to complete by dying). Like I detect genuine anger - so it doesn't have to be religion. Or recognised religion, anyway, for fists to clench.

howie berman said...

It's more than about religion and stories.
Yahweh is a war god par excellance
In the Kaddish we wail "Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts" Holiness and horribleness are glued together at the hip.
On Yom Kippur he wields the Gordian knot of life and death- maybe not war, but he kills his own peeps
Setting an example for Milton he evicts our grandparents out of Eden- and then there's Purim- death to the killers, to quote Ariel Sharon
Which brings us to Israel v America and Reform Judaism, which is a grey speck of dust in Israel
Israel is the spiritual center of momentum and gravity for Judaism and Yahweh is a living God a War God
It's not just Joshua it's Sharon, Barak, Netanyahu and Rabin
It's Golani and Tzanchanim It's not just Rocks from the Western Wall it's meting out justice to rock hurling Palestinians
Yahweh is as big a war monger as any God in the region
His hands are drenched with blood
and he's our God our boy and he soils our name, Hashem does