Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders

Apropos Judaism's Culture of Death, last night I happened upon the furor created last February by 64-year-old professor and department head Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in Israel. Toaff "is among Israel's and the world's senior researchers in medieval Jewish communities and the Italian Jewish community" and the son of the retired chief rabbi of Italy.

Right: "A woodcut showing Jews performing a ritual to extract a Christian child's blood. These prints were popular in Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th Century." Source: Jerusalem Post.

Here are few excerpts from articles about the author and his controversial book:
An Israeli historian of Italian origin has revived "blood libel" in an historical study set to hit Italian bookstores on Thursday. Ariel Toaff ... claims that there is some historic truth in the accusation that for centuries provided incentives for pogroms against Jews throughout Europe.

Toaff's tome, Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, received high praise from another Italian Jewish historian, Sergio Luzzatto, in an article in the Corriere della Serra daily entitled "Those Bloody Passovers."

Luzzatto describes Toaff's work as a "magnificent book of history...Toaff holds that from 1100 to about 1500...several crucifixions of Christian children really happened, bringing about retaliations against entire Jewish communities - punitive massacres of men, women, children. Neither in Trent in 1475 nor in other areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages were Jews always innocent victims."

"A minority of fundamentalist Ashkenazis...carried out human sacrifices," Luzzatto continued.
--"Historian gives credence to blood libel" by Lisa
Palmieri-Billig in the Jerusalem Post. Feb. 7, 2007.

According to a new book by history professor Ariel Toaff, medieval Jews not only sacrificed Christian children, they also used their blood as an ingredient in baking matzo (unleavened bread). In Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, Toaff, son of Rabbi Elio Toaff, describes "the mutilation and crucification of a two-year-old boy to recreate Christ's execution at Pesach" near the northern Italian city of Trento.
--"Did Jews Drink Blood?" by Emil Steiner
in the Washington Post. Feb. 8, 2007.

In the book, Prof Toaff alleges the ritual killing was carried out by members of a fundamentalist group in reaction to the persecution of Jews.

The book describes the mutilation and crucifixion of a two-year-old boy to recreate Christ’s execution at Pesach ... The festival marks the fleeing of the Jews from Egypt and Prof Toaff says Christian blood was used for "magic and therapeutic practices".

In some cases the blood was mixed with dough to make azzimo, unleavened bread, eaten at Pesach. He says the acts took place in around the city of Trento in modern northern Italy, between the 11th and 14th centuries. ...

Italy’s senior rabbis, including Elio Toaff, issued a joint statement condemning the book. ...

Prof Toaff, who teaches mediaeval and Renaissance history at Bar Ilan University in Jerusalem, said the reaction was a "disgrace" as they had not read the book, which has yet to be published.

He emphasised the practice was confined to "a small group of fundamentalists."
--"Professor outrages Jews with book claim" by Andrew
M. Rosemarine in the Telegraph (UK). Feb. 9, 2007.

In an interview with Haaretz from Rome, Professor Ariel Toaff said he stood behind the contention of his book, "Pasque di Sangue," just published in Italy, that there is a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews. ...

"I tried to show that the Jewish world at that time was also violent, among other things because it had been hurt by Christian violence," the Bar-Ilan history professor said. Of course I do not claim that Judaism condones murder. But within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it," he said.

Toaff said he reached his conclusions after coming across testimony from the trial for the murder of a Christian child, Simon of Trento, in 1475, which in the past was believed to have been falsified. "I found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish] prayer book.

"Over many dozens of pages I proved the centrality of blood on Passover," Toaff said. "Based on many sermons, I concluded that blood was used, especially by Ashkenazi Jews, and that there was a belief in the special curative powers of children's blood. It turns out that among the remedies of Ashkenazi Jews were powders made of blood."
--"Bar-Ilan prof. defiant on blood libel book 'even if crucified' "
by Ofri Ilani in Ha'aretz. Feb. 12, 2007.

A week after its publication, Ariel Toaff has withdrawn his Pasque di sangue (in English: Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders) from circulation. Hopefully this will elegantly end an unfortunate episode. The book’s thesis is unambiguous: Jews crucified Christian children and used their blood ritually.
--"Blood Libel: Ariel Toaff's Perplexing Book" by Kenneth
Stow in History News Network. Feb. 19, 2007.

[Members of the Israeli Knesset (MKs)] on Monday demanded that the state examine ways in which it could prosecute Professor Ariel Toaff ...

Speaking at a discussion of the book and its ramifications held at the Knesset Education Committee, MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) said the thought "there are valid reasons to prosecute the author of the book," and called to "put him to trial over historical truth and the Jewish people's reputation."

MK Arieh Eldad (National Union), who initiated the discussion, said that Toaff "has made himself an accomplice to modern blood libels." Eldad added that the state must ensure that for such publications, "the punishment will exceed the benefit."

Most of the discussion's participants used the meeting to attack the "new historians" who criticize Israel policy throughout its existence ? this despite the fact that Toaff does not address Israel's policy at all in his book.
--"MKs demand the author of blood libel book be prosecuted"
by Ofri Ilani and Adi Schwartz in Ha'aretz. Feb. 26, 2007.
The second to the last excerpt is the only one written by a trained historian (according to his bio, Stow is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of Haifa) and it is curious for two reasons. First, scholars usually at least pay lip service to academic freedom and having the book withdrawn from publication hardly seems consistent with that and, yet, Stow is unabashedly pleased with the decision.

Second, in his critique of Toaff's book, Stow writes:
The reader is equally to accept as true the tale of a Christian boy allegedly murdered by Jews in 415, although the sole teller is the Church historian, Socrates, no more reliable than his counterpart who wrote that during the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 611 C.E., the Jews murdered 50,000 Christians.
This is, apparently, a reference to the account of the 10th century Egyptian Christian historian, Eutychius, of a massacre that actually took place in 614. But, surely, Stow must know that Eutychius' account is very credible. His colleague Elliott Horowitz, Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, discusses the historiography of the massacre at length in his book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (pp. 228-247).

Horowitz notes that the massacre of Christian children, women, and men by Jews was documented in several 7th century sources. Also, referring to three non-Jewish, 19th century historians, Horowitz writes: "Both in citing that number [90,000 dead], the highest offered by any Byzantine chronicler, and in speaking openly of Jewish vengeance against the Christians of Jerusalem, they were matched by two of the greatest Jewish scholars of the nineteenth centuray, Saloman Munk and Heinrich Graetz ..."

So, how can Stow not know that accounts of the murder of tens of thousands (the lowest death toll cited by Horowitz is 30,000 by Michael Avi-Yonah) of Christians by Jews in Jerusalem during the Perisan conquest are completely credible? Perhaps, Stow is hoping that his readers have simply been conditioned to unthinkingly reject any suggestion of Jews killing non-Jews as patently untrue and, worse, "anti-Semitic." Certainly, that is the underlying tone of much of the criticism of Toaff. I've never seen Toaff's book and, now, probably never will, so, I make no claims about his scholarship or his conclusions but it's hard not to wonder if the real issue is not about historical truth but about protecting received notions of Jewish innocence and victimhood.

Bar-Ilan University's statement seems telling in this regard:
Following a preliminary investigation into the circumstances surrounding the publication of Prof. Ariel Toaff's book in Italy, Bar-Ilan University is expressing great anger and extreme displeasure at Prof. Ariel Toaff, for his lack of sensitivity in publishing his book about blood libels in Italy. His choice of a private publishing firm in Italy, the book's provocative title and the interpretations given by the media to its contents, have offended the sensitivities of Jews around the world and harmed the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Christians.

Bar-Ilan University strongly condemns and repudiates what is seemingly implied by Toaff's book and by reports in the media concerning its contents, as if there is a basis for the blood libels that led to the murder of millions of innocent Jews.

Bar-Ilan University's executive leadership and academic faculty have consistently condemned any attempt to justify the terrible blood libels against the Jews. Prof. Toaff should have demonstrated greater sensitivity and caution in his handling of the book and its publication, in a manner that would have prevented the distorted and offensive reports and interpretations.
The university's web site provides no evidence of any substantive scholarly critique in the "preliminary investigation" or elsewhere.

I have created the table below for another way to consider the sequence of events.

Toaff on the Possibility of Jewish Ritual Murder of Christians
The StatementThe ReactionThe Recantation
On his first day in Rome, Prof. Toaff was quoted as saying that some ritual murders "might have taken place."Ariel Toaff ... feels as if he had been excommunicated.

A rabbinical press release was issued against the contents of his book even before anyone had read it ...

Toaff feels like he had been pushed into a corner. None of his old friends have called him at his Rome hotel during the entire week of his stay here. He has been dismissed as editor of the Zohar historical review, and is concerned he might lose his university position in Israel as well.

According to Bar-Ilan spokesman Shmuel Algrabali, the university "expresses its strongest reservations" over media reports claiming the book states that the notorious "blood libels" against Jews might have basis in fact.

"Bar-Ilan University has condemned and will continue to condemn any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews," the spokesman said. ...

He has been prevented from seeing or even contacting his father, Elio Toaff, Rome's former chief rabbi ...
Speaking to the Post, Toaff replies with a defiant "No" to the question of whether he believes Jewish communities could have committed ritual murder.
All passages in this table are quoted from " 'Jews never committed ritual murders' " by Lisa Palmieri-Billig in the Jerusalem Post. Feb. 11, 2007.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Critical Bloggers Launches

A couple of weeks ago the crew at Southeast Michigan's excellent, alternative bimonthly newspaper, Critical Moment, launched a new blog aggregator of radical SE Michigan bloggers called CriticalBloggers. I'm happy this blog is part of that project and say thanks again to all my friends at CM.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Response to M.

The blogger M. raised some interesting questions in a comment to my post on "Judaism's Culture of Death." I reply below.

Dear M.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The point of my post was to help illuminate some of the important links between Judaism and Zionism. The culture of death in mainstream Judaism (but which does not characterize the full depth, breadth, or potential of Judaism) as it is practiced today is the same culture of death that energizes Zionism and its violence. My purpose is the same as the prophets who railed against injustice and violence--to stop the injustice and violence! Here's one of my favorite passages from Isaiah:
The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem ...

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth,
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up--
And they have rebelled against Me!
An ox knows its owner,
An ass its master's crib:
Israel does not know,
My people takes no thought."

Ah, sinful nation!
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
Depraved children!
They have forsaken the LORD,
Spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Turned their backs [on Him].

... Trample My courts no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,
Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath,
Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity,
I cannot abide.
Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me,
I cannot endure them.
And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood
Source: Isaiah 1:1a, 1:2-4, 1:12b-15; see note 2 to Word to Chuck W. on the translation of this text.

It is a commonplace that modern political Zionism was founded by secular Jews but that is not the whole truth. Even Theodor Herzl, in his Zionist manifesto, The Jewish State, had a definite, positive role for rabbis--"on whom we especially call"--and synagogue in the movement. Herzl argued that Jews "feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers" and the Jewish "Faith unites us." The influential Moses Hess, in "Rome and Jerusalem," wrote of the Zionist movement: We will "draw our inspiration from the deep well of Judaism."

To turn to a more contemporary source, in Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, the late Israel Shahak writes:
The ideological defence of Israeli policies are usually based on Jewish religious beliefs or, in the case of secular Jews, on the "historical rights" of the Jews which derive from those beliefs and retain the dogmatic character of religious faith.

... close analysis of Israeli grand strategies and actual principles of foreign policy, as they are expressed in Hebrew, makes it clear that it is "Jewish ideology," more than any other factor, which determines actual Israeli policies. The disregard of Judaism as it really is and of "Jewish ideology" makes those policies incomprehensible to foreign observers who usually know nothing about Judaism except crude apologetics.

The existence of an important component of Israeli policy, which is based on "Jewish ideology," makes its analysis politically imperative. This ideology is, in turn based on the attitudes of historic Judaism to non-Jews, ... Those attitudes necessarily influence many Jews, consciously or unconsciously. Our task here is to discuss historic Judaism in real terms.

Although the struggle against antisemitism (and of all other forms of racism) should never cease, the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, is now of equal or greater importance [emphasis added].
Like Shahak, I am interested in going beyond "crude apologetics" to discuss the influence, conscious and unconscious, of Judaism on Jews and non-Jews. I cannot help but think the celebrations of death-victory at the heart of some Jewish holidays, esp. Purim and Passover, have deleterious effects in the world today. I know I'm not alone, in my "Reflection On Passover," I quote Aaron J. Tapper and Jacob Pinnolis who have wrestled with violence in the Jewish tradition. In "3 "Ex-Terrorists"; UM Cops Suppress Free Speech Again (Part 1)" I cited Elliott Horowitz and his book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence.

You asked about my choice of images to illustrate the post. The article is about a culture of death, hence my choice of the Grim Reaper. You wrote, "you claim that the 'real story' behind many of the major jewish holidays is one of death and murder." I encourage you to examine the narratives behind those holidays on your own. A common joke about those holidays was my point of departure and my claim is that the underlying narratives are not congruent with the joke or the common interpretation of those holidays as simple, noble struggles for liberation and, further, that these holidays actually are part of the "culture of death" and victimhood identified by Idith Zertal. Although, as I hope I have made clear, my use of those concepts expands upon Zertal's use.

As for Yom Kippur, I think the main thrust of my argument remains intact without it. Its inclusion as part of a culture of death could be easily defended, I think, but I am also open to treating it sui generis. In short, I don't think it should be a stumbling-block to grappling with the broader issue raised.

You wrote, "you include a quote from numbers to claim that the jews didn't really appreciate being freed from slavery ..." The point was that the biblical Passover story is far from being a case of "They tried to kill us." If that added information "further discredit[s] the story of passover" then I'm totally fine with that. The only way--and it's a stretch at that--I can see to salvage Passover is to change it to an Exodus holiday and to eliminate or repudiate the Passover i.e. the divine slaying of the Egyptian first-born by the Destroyer. But, hey, that's not up to me but I will critique it as it is. By the way, my interpretation of the text from Numbers and the related verses from Exodus is the mainstream Jewish reading.

You talked about "other cultures within judaism." It's fine to talk about those and there is no shortage of people willing to promote (often dishonestly, e.g. the Zionist Michael Lerner) them. However, the truly progressive expressions of Judaism are by no means representative of, or grounded in, mainstream Judaism. To focus on them is to "disregard ... Judaism as it really is" and to fail to go beyond "crude apologetics," to quote Shahak.

In closing, I'll take a whack at the much-hyped tikkun olam. Steve Bhaerman is typical when he tells us "the heart essence of Judaism" is "Tikkun Olam-- the healing of the world." Now, you would think that the "heart essence of Judaism" would merit some explicit mention in the Tanakh (Christians usually call it the Old Testament)--it apparently doesn't. Tikkun olam doesn't even merit its own entry in the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). So far as I know, the concept appears in only one chapter in the Mishna.

Its source, in reference to repairing a broken world, is in the Lurianic Cabbala, named after Isaac Luria, who lived in the Middle Ages. According to Lawrence Fine ("Tikkun Olam in Contemporary Jewish Thought"), the first evidence of its migration from Hasidic mysticism to liberal Jewish American thought comes not until the 1950s.

Here's a quote from Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky (Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, 2004, p. 58) on Cabbala and Luria:
Yesaiah Tishbi, an authority on the Cabbala who wrote in Hebrew, explained in his scholarly work, The Theory of Evil and the (Satanic) Sphere in Lurianic Cabbala (1942, reprinted in 1982): "It is plain that those prospects and the scheme [of salvation] are intended only for Jews." Tishbi cited Rabbi Hayim Vital, the chief interpreter of Rabbi Luria, who wrote in his book, Gates of Holiness: "The Emanating Power, blessed be his name, wanted there to be some people on this low earth that would embody the four divine emanations. These people are the Jews, chosen to join together the four divine worlds here below." Tishbi further cited Vital's writings in emphasizing the Lurianic doctrine that non-Jews have satanic souls: "Souls of non-Jews come entirely from the female part of the satanic sphere. For this reason souls of non-Jews are called evil, not good, and are created without [divine] knowledge." In his illuminating Hebrew-language book, Rabbinate, Hassidism, Enlightenment: The History of Jewish Culture Between the End of the Sixteenth and the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (1956), Ben-Zion Katz explained convincingly that the above doctrines became part of Hassidism. Accurate descriptions of Lurianic doctrines and their wide influence upon religious Jews can be found in numerous other studies, written in Hebrew. In books and articles written in other languages, and thus read by most interested non-Israeli Jews and non-Jews, such descriptions and analyses are most often absent. The role of Satan, whose earthly embodiment according to the Cabbala is every non-Jew, has been minimized or not mentioned by authors who have not written about the Cabbala in Hebrew. Such authors, therefore, have not conveyed to readers accurate accounts of general [National Religious Party] or its hard-core, Gush Emunim politics.
So, it is quite conceivable that tikkun olam, in its original Lurianic sense, referred to a world where Jews ruled and everyone else obeyed, if they existed at all. Now, I'm in favor of appropriating and reinterpreting things as much as the next person but let's be honest about the very negative aspects of "classical Judaism" and knock off the "the heart essence of Judaism" nonsense.

See also:

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Judaism's Culture of Death

Here are two online versions of a "joke" I recently learned about from a book by Harvey Cox:
So the Hebrew school teacher asks little Johnny: "What is the meaning of most Jewish holidays?" Replies little Johnny: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." Little Johnny had a point.
--"The Horseradish Chronicles: The Pain of chrain" by
Michael Arnold Glueck in the Jewish World Review.

"They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat": so goes the world's shortest summary of Jewish holiday themes that circulated recently on the Internet.
--"Eat, Drink, and Be Merry...and Share the Wealth" by Josh Eagle,
Yosef Abramowitz, and Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick in SocialAction.com
The Jewish holidays of Purim, Passover, and Hanukkah are part of the "culture of death" and "victimization" that permeates Judaism and much of modern Jewish life, as noted by Idith Zertal in Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge UP, 2005; pp. 1-2). On the penultimate page of her book, in reference to the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli Jew, Zertal identifies aspects of Jewish Israeli society: "the nationalist fanaticism, the messianic belief in a borderless Greater Israel, the practices of power and violence, and the rituals of blood, victimhood, and the Holocaust ... " Nearly every aspect of this culture of death, which Zertal identifies, is rooted--one way or another--in Judaism but for present purposes I'll focus on the holidays.

In the cases of Purim and Hanukkah, it would be more accurate to say, "We killed them. Let's eat;" whether "They tried to kill us" is debatable. Purim is based on the biblical book of Esther and the story is told entirely from the perspective of the victors. The author tells us that no Jews died but they did strike "down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them" (Esther 9:5).* After killing more than 75,000 people, the killers celebrated days of "gladness and feasting" (Esther 9).

The Maccabean civil war at the root of Hanukkah started when Mattathias, a priest and father of Judah Maccabee, killed another Jew for coming "forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice" to Greek gods. According to I Maccabees 2:
When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.
One of the other things that pissed Mattathias off was the king's decree banning the practice of male genital mutilation known as circumcision.

Of course, the joke would also have to be modified for the Passover story: "Our Lord, Jehovah, killed them. Let's eat." The Exodus narrative does not claim that "They tried to kill us;" it says:
Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7-9).
It is commonly believed that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (the related notion that the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves has come under serious scholarly criticism). In any case, Exodus indicates that the Israelites routinely made slaves of one another (Exodus 21). And soon after exiting Egypt they were longing for the good old days when they served the Egyptians and had meat and their fill of bread (Exodus 14:11,12; 16:3).
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (Numbers 11:4-6)
Even the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year--Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement--has a bit of the stench of death about it. Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (3.10) describes the ritual sacrifice conducted in the Temple in Jerusalem:
But on the seventh month, which the Macedonians call Hyperberetaeus, they make an addition to those already mentioned, and sacrifice a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins.

On the tenth day of the same lunar month, they fast till the evening; and this day they sacrifice a bull, and two rams, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins. And, besides these, they bring two kids of the goats; the one of which is sent alive out of the limits of the camp into the wilderness for the scapegoat, and to be an expiation for the sins of the whole multitude; but the other is brought into a place of great cleanness, within the limits of the camp, and is there burnt, with its skin, without any sort of cleansing. With this goat was burnt a bull, not brought by the people, but by the high priest, at his own charges; which, when it was slain, he brought of the blood into the holy place, together with the blood of the kid of the goats, and sprinkled the ceiling with his finger seven times, as also its pavement, and again as often toward the most holy place, and about the golden altar: he also at last brings it into the open court, and sprinkles it about the great altar. Besides this, they set the extremities, and the kidneys, and the fat, with the lobe of the liver, upon the altar. The high priest likewise presents a ram to God as a burnt-offering.
Of course, animal sacrifice is not today part of Yom Kippur, except for those orthodox Jews who sacrifice a chicken as part of Kaparot.

Last year's Israeli slaughter in Lebanon and the ongoing war against Palestinians are natural expressions of a Judaic culture of death.

Note
* All Biblical text is from the New Revised Standard Version via The Unbound Bible.

See also:

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Global Vigil Update


Above is a group photo from yesterday's first ever “Global Vigil” outside Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The event was sponsored by Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, in conjunction with Deir Yassin Remembered (DYR). The synagogue has been the site of at least two acts of Jewish violence against protesters and local Zionists and their lackeys have launched a full court press to marginalize JWPF and other anti-Zionists but the group is going strong into its fourth year of weekly protests against religious Jewish complicity in the crimes against humanity and war crimes of Israel. Thanks to S. for the photo. and congrats to H. for a great event.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Jesus and the Last Supper as Passover Seder

Last night, I was told by a Jewish friend that at a church service she attended (she's a musician, not a Christian) the congregation was told by clergy that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. This error is apparently not all that uncommon. For instance, in the thoroughly tendentious--if not anti-Christian--Constantine's Sword, James Carroll describes a "Passover Seder," which included some of his Jewish friends, he hosted in the early 1970s when he was a Roman Catholic chaplain at Boston University: "When I lifted the matzo, I cited [Jesus'] act at the Last Supper, his Seder" (pp. 49-50; emphasis in original).

It is quite understandable how a casual reader of the Gospels might mistake it for a seder. In reality, in the Last Supper and the events commemorated during Holy Week, Jesus preempted the Passover.1 Jesus' role as the final, perfect paschal Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; I Cor. 5:7) is the most obvious and powerful example of this but for present purposes I will focus on the Last Supper-seder connection.

A seder, or ritual feast, takes place on the first night of Passover, which lasts seven to eight days. Unlike the Synoptic gospels, the Book of John is clear that Jesus was judged, crucified, and entombed on the day before Passover began:
Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pontius Pilate] said to the Jews [sic], "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" ... Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him ... Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews [sic] did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. ... But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. ... Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish [sic] day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19)2
As for the apparently contradictory chronology that appears in the Synoptic Gospels, the exegesis of German New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen will more than suffice:3
In my opinion, in Mark we can discern behind the text as we now have it a connected narrative that presupposes a certain chronology. According to Mark, Jesus died on the day of Passover, but the tradition supposes it was the preparation day before Passover: in 14:1-2 the Sanhedrin decided to kill Jesus before the feast in order to prevent unrest among the people on the day of the feast. This fits with the circumstance that in 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is coming in from the fields, which can be understood to mean he was coming from his work. It would be hard to imagine any author's using a formulation so subject to misunderstanding in an account that describes events on the day of Passover, since no work was done on that day. Moreover, in 15:42 Jesus' burial is said to be on the "preparation day," but a relative clause is added to make it the preparation day for the Sabbath. Originally, it was probably the preparation day for the Passover (cf. Jn 19:42). The motive for removing Jesus from the cross and burying him before sundown would probably have been to have this work done before the beginning of the feast day, which would not make sense if it were already the day of Passover. Finally, the "trial" before the Sanhedrin presupposes that this was not a feast day, since no judicial proceedings could be held on that day. It would have been a breach of the legal code that the narrator could scarcely have ignored, because the point of the narrative is to represent the proceeding against Jesus as an unfair trial with contradictory witnesses and a verdict decided in advance by the high priests.
Then, too, there is the testimony of (non-contemporaneous) Jewish texts:
And it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshua [the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come and plead on his behalf." And since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover." (BT. Sanhedrin 43a.) [emphasis added]
It is also noteworthy that particular dietary rules are an important part of the traditional Passover seder. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was fairly contemptuous of Israelite notions of ritual purity.4 Violation of the purity code is practically a hallmark of Jesus' ministry For example, there is this passage from Mark 7 (cf. Matthew 15):
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [sic], do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)--then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
The Gospels give no evidence that Jesus and his disciples ate a paschal lamb or bitter herbs--both part of a traditional Passover seder. It also seems unlikely the bread used at the Last Supper was matzo i.e. unleavened bread. The beginning of the Feast/Festival of Unleavened Bread is marked by Passover, of which it is a part. In the Koine Greek of the ancient texts, the Gospels use azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106) (transliterated "azumos") in reference to unleavened bread whereas Jesus and his disciples ate artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740) (transliterated "artos") i.e. regular leavened bread for the Last Supper. This distinction also appears in the Latin Vulgate where the root for unleavened bread is "azym-" and leavened bread is "panem." As for the Aramaic, according to Roy A. Reinhold, the distinction holds true in those texts also.

In short, the Last Supper took place before the appointed time for a traditional Passover seder and, in any event, it bears only a superficial resemblance to one. In the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new rite to mark a new covenant:
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24; cf. I Cor. 11:25)
Notes:
1 To underscore the opposition between the Jewish Passover and Easter (not to be confused with what is now known as Holy or Maundy Thursday), the first ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) mandated that Easter should never be celebrated on the same day as Passover.
2 All English-language biblical text in this post is from the New Revised Standard Version via The Unbound Bible. Latin Vulgate is from the Blue Letter Bible. My Latin translation was confirmed using Notre Dame University's Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid.
3 For those for whom Theissen's treatment does not suffice, there is the detailed chronology of E. W. Bullinger in Appendix 156 of The Companion Bible, which harmonizes the apparent discrepancies among the Gospels.
4 It is somewhat anachronistic, although standard, to refer to 1st century Israelite sects as "Judaism" or "Jewish." The sects criticized in the New Testament are not what we know today as Judaism, the same point could be made about Christianity. As Michael L. Brown, a self-described "Jewish believer in Jesus," states in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Vol. 1), "... Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are ... siblings;" Brown quotes Rabbi Hayem Goren Perelmuter as saying they "were shaped at approximately the same time."

See also:
Addendum:
In "The Seder That Wasn't," Arthur Magida, former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, asserts:
But let's set the record straight: The Last Supper, an event that according to the New Testament occurred circa 30 C.E., did not resemble the seder as Jews know it today: a meal with several important elements that are eaten in a certain way for certain symbolic reasons. The seder as we know it today didn't even begin to develop until after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. [emphasis in original]
I was aware of Magida's piece when I first published the post but decided not to include it since it wasn't very relevant to my argument but, hey, it adds some interesting information and, so, here it is now.

Revised: 04/25/2007, 7/18/2008

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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?

Notes
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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