Monday, April 02, 2007

A Reflection on Passover

The Jewish Passover begins today, April 2. According to the National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01, 67% of American Jews "Hold/attend a Passover seder." The only "indicator of Jewish connection" to achieve a higher result was "Light Chanukah candles" (72%). Writing in "The Kosher and Halal Food Laws," J.M. Regenstein et al. claim Ninety-two percent of American Jews celebrate Passover in some way."

The image at right is from the "Golden Haggadah" in the British Library. It "was created in Spain during the 1300s, for a wealthy Jewish family in Barcelona." A haggadah is a liturgical guide book used during the Jewish Passover. As described by the British Library: "This image shows several scenes from Passover. On the right in a domed room, the angel of death is swinging his sword at a man in bed. On the left the Pharaoh and Queen are mourning the death of their first born son. Below is a funeral scene with six men carrying a firstborn's coffin."

A Reflection on Passover (Pesah)

The book of Exodus, just before the first passover occurs, records that Pharaoh was ready to let the Israelites leave Egypt "But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart and he would not agree to let them go" (Exod. 10:27).1 The idea that it is God and not Pharaoh who is hardening Pharaoh's heart is repeated several times throughout the account, including at the beginning (Exod. 7:3). Somewhat later, the Lord tells Moses to have the Israelites "borrow" gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, all of whom were "disposed ... favorably" towards the Israelites (Exod. 11:2-3).

Next, Moses describes to the Israelites how the Lord says that He "will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again." (Exod. 11:4-6; emphasis added). It is important to note that God is not perpetrating this mass killing in order to free the Israelites. No, according to scripture, it is merely an opportunity to show off the "marvels" of God as he frees the Israelites (Exod. 11:9).

On the appointed night, "the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh ... to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon ... there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Exod. 12:29-30). But the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites and none of them were killed. This is the event that is commemorated every year in the Jewish liturgical calendar as Passover.

According to Aaron J. Tapper ("Towards a Jewish Theology of Nonviolence," Tikkun, March-April 2005) "in traditional homes" Jews recite a prayer known as the Shfokh Chamatkha during the Passover seder:
Pour out Your fury against the nations who do not know You and upon the regions where they do not invoke Your name because they devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out Your wrath on them and may Your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai.
I wonder if the apparent ability of so many Jews to rationalize the ethnic cleansing and killing--even genocide2--of Palestinians may be linked to the rationalization and celebration of the massacre of innocents that is an important part of Judaism in the form of Passover. Not to mention that, according to scripture, the land of Canaan was obtained through mass slaughter and later Solomon's Temple was built by the slave labor of the survivors of that genocide (I Kings 9:15-22a). There are numerous and hoary Jewish apologetics for the repulsive aspects of Passover but I find them to be unpersuasive rationalizations of what should simply be repudiated and jettisoned rather than 'redeemed.'3

It is typically argued that Passover is a celebration of liberation from slavery but the very word refers to the passing over of "the Destroyer" (Exod. 12:23) on his way to kill "all the first-born in the land of Egypt." The word Passover, as it is used in scripture, is meaningless without this mass killing.

It matters not whether the massacre of innocents at the heart of Passover is mythical or symbolic; in fact, it may arguably be worse if one thinks myths of the massacre of innocents are fit material for religious instruction or tradition, especially for children (see Exod. 12:26-27 and the Mah Nishtanah in any Passover Haggadah). Of course, the mass killing at the heart of Passover is mentioned at Passover Seders but a bit of spilled wine hardly seems an adequate treatment. Frankly, it is by no means clear that the spilled wine necessarily betokens compassion for the suffering of the Egyptians.

Some reading this will reflexively point the accusing finger at violence in the Christian and Muslim traditions and to such critiques I say, fair enough, but any violence in those traditions does not excuse or ameliorate violence and its rationalization and celebration in the Jewish tradition. So, let's just reflect on Judaism for a while, okay?

1 All quotes above are from the Jewish Publication Society's 1985 Tanakh translation.
2 Here's an excerpt from "Palestine Should Sue Israel for Genocide before the International Court of Justice" by Francis A. Boyle, JD, PhD:
For at least the past fifty years, the Israeli government and its predecessors-in-law--the Zionist Agencies and Forces--have ruthlessly implemented a systematic and comprehensive military, political, and economic campaign with the intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnical and racial group known as the Palestinian People. This Zionist/Israeli campaign has consisted of killing members of the Palestinian People in violation of Genocide Convention Article II(a). This Zionist/Israeli campaign has also caused serious bodily and mental harm to the Palestinian People in violation of Genocide Convention Article II(b). This Zionist/Israeli campaign has also deliberately inflicted on the Palestinian People conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in substantial part in violation of Article II(c) of the Genocide Convention.
3 While not explicitly discussing Passover, in "A Problem With Jewish Moral Education," Jacob Pinnolis argues "In those cases [where God calls for genocide], Jewish educators in liberal schools must be willing to say that what God has asked is wrong." I ask: What, then, of a holiday centered on a mytho-historical event where God has killed innocents for show?

See also: Paschal Greetings by Israel Adam Shamir

Last revised: 04/25/2007

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