... 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.