Sunday, April 09, 2017

Does It Matter If the Passover Story Is Literally True?

My opinion piece in today's LA Times.

You probably already know the Passover story: How Moses asked Pharoah to let his enslaved people leave Egypt, and how Moses’ god punished Pharaoh — bringing about the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons even as he passed over Jewish households. You might even know the ancillary tale of the Passover orange. How much truth is there in these stories? At synagogues this time of year, 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. Last Passover, as my family and I and the rest of the congregation waited for the 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 shake 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. My 10-year-old daughter, adopted from China at age 1, describes 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 such a god or not. I don’t think I would like the moral character 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 and necessarily involved the death of children. We’re really celebrating the struggle for 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 (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!” Heschel, inspired by the students but reluctant to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, used a tangerine instead.

The orange, then, is not a wild act of defiance, but 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 two stories of the orange, we learn the 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 also that only limited change is possible in 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 ours. 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 celebration, 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 the story of it compellingly enough to give our new values too the power of myth.


Revised and condensed from my blogpost Orange on the Seder Plate (Apr 27, 2016).


Anonymous said...

Thank you

howie berman said...

Would you entertain the idea that God grew more liberal and now is a Reformed Jew?

Rich said...

Thank you, you speak for me, too.

Unknown said...

Unusual that you disrespect your wife, myself and most importantly God Almighty by using small "g" throughout your foolish article. Foolish, in that even you and I when our names are listed are capitalized. Fortunately, God loves you in spite of your foolishness and is willing to forgive you if you will ask. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that who so ever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie, I hesitate to speculate about that, since I'm an atheistic-leaning agnostic!

Steve, I was using "god" not as a name but as a generic noun (e.g., I used the phrase "a god"). Zeus is another hypothetical god. I would capitalize "Yahweh".

William said...

One thing both the modern Reformed congregation and most modern "atheistic-leaning agnostic"s have in common is that they have lost the pre-19th century concept of death as a consequence of sin, with that sin not needing to be anything remotely felonious.

An ancient Hebrew might have seen man's mortality itself as a consequence of sin. Thus, God causing an earlier death was just a matter of His decision about timing, with very little to be seen in the least as culpable about that on His part.

Whereas the modern mind, and you, see the death of the firstborn at the original Passover as needing a far better excuse than Moses gave us.

Callan S. said...

The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but an imagined

Then that's not what actually happened?

chinaphil said...

Ironic that you have mythologized a story of you questioning the meaning of mythology (i.e. edited and altered it so that it can convey a truth more significant than the historical details to a wider audience).
To take the question seriously: Personally, I'm enough of a believer in a real world that I think it matters, as you suggest in the story; but at the same time skeptical enough about all knowledge that we currently possess wonder if there's really any difference between the stories that we tell and the "facts" that we know. Facebook told me the other day that new blood cells are not made in the bone marrow, as I've been taught my entire life, but in the lungs! At some point over the next century or so, presumably someone will work out what dark matter is, and presumably it will completely change the way we understand the universe. And our two-gender human society could easily vanish over a few generations. There comes a point where you just think, Torah stories are probably as good as anything.

Unknown said...

Read this op-ed piece in the L.A. Times and simply wanted to say two things to you, Eric.

We totally agree on the importance of truthfulness in terms, for me, of the entire Biblical narrative, both testaments.

We would disagree on the meaning of innocence with reference to God's just or unjust judgment on the people of Egypt during Israel's flight from that land. Careful reading of the Scriptures lays the groundwork and gives the reasoning for that judgment and to call its rightness into question is to 'overpower' the God of Israel with human thinking, your own, in this case. When we become judge and jury, we have taken for ourselves a role that belongs to God alone. It is, then, no wonder that we call into question not only that aspect of the Biblical narrative but anything else which we find unpalatable or not in accord with values to which we have subscribed and which are themselves at odds with those in the Book.

Maybe have another look?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

William -- yes, interesting point!

Callan -- right, it didn't actually happen that way.

Chinaphil -- Dang, I wouldn't go that far. I agree that we tend to know less than we think and our knowledge might radically change, but that's a pretty skeptical conclusion!

Mac -- I disagree about judging gods. I think that judging gods is entirely within our intellectual and moral rights. If there were a powerful god who created the world and tortured people for fun, for example, I don't think we should defer to that god's moral judgment. Instead we should regret being a world run by an evil divinity!