Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Does It Matter If the Passover Story Is Literally True?

[Originally published in the L.A. Times, April 9, 2017; revised version published as Chapter 25 of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures]

You probably already know the Passover story: how Moses asked Pharaoh to let his enslaved people leave Egypt, and how Moses’s god punished Pharaoh—killing the Egyptians’ firstborn sons while “passing over” the Jewish households. You might even know the new ancillary tale of the Passover orange. How much truth is there in these stories? At synagogues during Passover holiday, myth collides with fact, tradition with changing values. Negotiating this collision is the puzzle of modern religion.

Passover is a holiday of debate, reflection, and conversation. In 2016, as my family and I and the rest of the congregation waited for the Passover feast at our Reform Jewish temple, our rabbi prompted us: “Does it matter if the story of Passover isn’t literally true?”

Most people seemed to be shaking their heads. No, it doesn’t matter.

I was imagining the Egyptians’ sons. I am an outsider to the temple. My wife and teenage son are Jewish, but I am not. At the time, my nine-year-old daughter, adopted from China at age one, was describing herself as “half Jewish”.

I nodded my head. Yes, it does matter if the Passover story is literally true.

“Okay, Eric, why does it matter?” Rabbi Suzanne Singer handed me the microphone.

I hadn’t planned to speak. “It matters,” I said, “because if the story is literally true, then a god who works miracles really exists. It matters if there is a such a god or not. I don’t think I would like the ethics of that god, who kills innocent Egyptians. I’m glad there is no such god.

“It is odd,” I added, “that we have this holiday that celebrates the death of children, so contrary to our values now.”

The microphone went around, others in the temple responding to me. Values change, they said. Ancient war sadly but inevitably involved the death of children. We’re really celebrating the struggle of freedom for everyone....

Rabbi Singer asked if I had more to say in response. My son leaned toward me. “Dad, you don’t have anything more to say.” I took his cue and shut my mouth.

Then the Seder plates arrived with the oranges on them.

Seder plates have six labeled spots: two bitter herbs, charoset (a mix of fruit and nuts), parsley, a lamb bone, a boiled egg—each with symbolic value. There is no labeled spot for an orange.

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

A wonderful story—a modern, liberal story. More comfortable than the original Passover story for a liberal Reform Judaism congregation like ours, proud of our woman rabbi. The orange is an act of defiance, a symbol of a new tradition that celebrates gender equality.

Does it matter if it’s true?

Here’s what actually happened. Dartmouth Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College in Ohio. The students had written a story in which a girl asks a rabbi if there is room 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!” The next Passover, Heschel, inspired by the students but reluctant to put anything as unkosher as bread on the Seder plate, used a tangerine instead.

The orange, then, though still an act of defiance, is also already a compromise and modification. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it’s not true. From the story of the orange, we learn a central lesson of Reform Judaism: that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, changing as our values change—but that only limited change is possible within a tradition-governed institution. An orange, but not a crust of bread.

In a way, my daughter and I are also oranges: a new type of presence in a Jewish congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure we 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. I hadn’t seen those faces. Were they really so outraged? Was my son telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

In belonging to an old religion, we honor values that are no longer entirely our own. We celebrate events that no longer quite make sense. We can’t change the basic tale of Passover. But we can add liberal commentary to better recognize Egyptian suffering, and we can add a new celebration of equality.

Although the new tradition, the orange, is an unstable thing atop an older structure that resists change, we can work to ensure that it remains. It will remain only if we can speak its story compellingly enough to also give our new values the power of myth.



Dreidel: A Seemingly Foolish Game That Contains the Moral World in Miniature (, Dec. 22, 2019; also LA Times, Dec. 12, 2017 and Chapter 24 of A Theory of Jerks).

Birthday Cake and a Chapel (blog post April 21, 2018 and Chapter 36 of A Theory of Jerks

[image source]


Autumnal Harvest said...

Interesting synchronicity with your story. My seven-year old daughter really understood what was happening in the Passover story for the first time this year, and was so upset during the description of the 10 plagues that she left the Seder crying. I sat with her in her room, and comforted her by telling her that it was just a story, and didn't really happen. (Our family is Reform, although I myself am not Jewish.) Then we decided that since it didn't really happen, we could make up a better story, about how the Pharaoh just agreed to let the Jews leave. It was silly, but it made her feel better.

Long story short: my daughter agrees with you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, Autumnal! The first Seder I ever attended (in college) had an old haggadah that enthusiastically celebrated the death of the Egyptians, which I found to be really striking. The gentler Reform haggadahs water that down, which is of course in a way good but also takes some of the interesting historical bite out the tradition. (I have a similar feeling about the book of Joshua.)

Anonymous said...

I'd like to address one part of this post. I do see where you're coming from, but regardless it doesn't seem appropriate to say "I'm glad this god doesn't exist" at a Seder. I'm Jewish by birth and though not at all a believer I think there's value in the Jewish rituals and the connection they make people feel. So I can understand why people were upset at you.

It's one thing to be an atheist and criticise religious beliefs, and quite another to do so *at a ceremony of those religious beliefs*. It was an unkind and inappropriate thing to say in that setting. I think your son was right to be mortified.

Maybe you could say you were just being honest. But I don't think that's a good way to be honest. Since the virtues are as Aristotle said, the "golden mean" between vices, we can see that honesty is somewhere between being harmfully blunt and being deceitful. Using tact is part of being excellent at honesty. And saying "I'm glad this god isn't real" at a Seder is exceptionally tactless.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the frank comment, Anon. I can understand how it might seem or be tactless. I don't think I would have planned to say it but found myself drawn in when asked why it matters if the story is literally true. Perhaps I could have declined to answer the rabbi's query or concocted a tactful evasion on the spot. I was the wicked child that night!

Brad Rappaport said...

In order that there be a record of the facts, let it be noted that there is a tradition, universally observed, as far as I know, when reading in the Haggadah the litany of the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians, of using the little finger to remove ten drops of wine from the second glass. What troubles you troubles the Jews, as well. Perhaps you are aware of this; I do not mean to preach.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Brad, of course! Perhaps I should have explicitly mentioned that in the piece. Of course, it is only ten drops from four cups in an overall mood of celebration. There's lots of material in the Torah and historical books that is difficult to make sense of in a modern, liberal, humanitarian light. It is a constant compromise and negotiation between tradition and new, changing values.