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Passing on Passover

Growing up in a secular Jewish family, some of my fondest childhood memories are of partaking in the various customs that make up the Jewish tradition. Things like lighting candles for family meals on Friday nights served to provide a sense of secure regularity as well as family cohesion. There was never any religious significance to any of this (my Baby-boomer parents being, if not explicitly atheistic, at least lacking anything resembling piety) and there was always an unspoken understanding that the various rituals and gatherings were a nod to established ancestral traditions rather than acts of worship.

During a conversation with a good friend a few years ago, I was reminiscing about this and happened to comment that I had good memories of Passover celebrations as a child. “Well, you must come and join us next week!” was her response. I hesitated for just a moment before accepting. It had been a long time since I attended a seder and I thought it might be quite nice to spend an evening enveloped in the warmth of a family Passover gathering.

The Jewish Passover ritual works a little like an earthquake. There is a major event, the first night (or the first two nights if you are outside Israel), followed by seven lesser nights, sort of religious aftershocks. All the really important stuff happens on the first night, and this is what I attended. The experience was actually not what I expected, and to be honest I was a little shocked by my own reaction to proceedings. As nice as it was to be part of a family gathering for the evening, the actual content of the seder service upset and offended me.

Either my parents had spared us the details as children, or some part of my mind had edited them out of my memory. Each person at the table took turns to read from the Hagadah (The Passover service) and when my turn came, it was as if the words of a lunatic were flowing from my mouth:

"He sent against them his fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": "His fierce anger," is one; "fury," makes two; "indignation," makes three; "trouble," makes four; "discharge of messengers of evil," makes five. Thus, you must now say that in Egypt they were struck by fifty plagues, and at the sea they were stricken by two hundred and fifty plagues.

The story of Passover must surely be one of the most unpleasant tales in all folklore. God’s chosen people are all enslaved by the Pharaoh. Moses asks Pharaoh to set his people free, but God has hardened the Pharaoh’s heart thus ensuring that Moses’ request is denied. In return for this, a multitude of plagues are visited upon the Pharaoh’s unfortunate people (none of whom had any part in his decision). The plagues range from frogs, lice and locusts to boils, blood and ultimately, the slaying of the first-born son (this includes cattle, incidentally).

Depiction of the death of a first-born son

Eventually, running away and being pursued by the armies of Egypt, Moses parts the red sea to let his asylum-seeking charges through, only for it to close in on the hapless Egyptians and drown all those following behind.

What a charming tale!

The Passover ritual is a celebration of this macabre story and is perverse for a number of reasons:

1) All the evidence of modern archeology suggests that the Jews were never enslaved by the Egyptians. There is no mention amongst the meticulous records of the ancients of the Jews as slaves. A mass exodus of a couple of million Jews living for forty years in the Sinai would have left archeological remnants. There are none. The whole story appears to be a myth!

2) Even if the story were true, it is hardly something to celebrate. This is a tale of huge suffering inflicted on people who had no say in the matter. Imagine the grief of thousands of Egyptian mothers who awoke to find their first-born sons dead. What had they done to deserve this? What had the babies done? It seems unacceptable to deem this something to celebrate, even as an essential cog in the machinery of emancipation. Yes, freedom sometimes comes at a cost - but we do not celebrate the collateral damage of war.

3) This is also a story of faith. When all seems lost and things seem like they couldn’t get worse, The Big Guy will sort it all out. But sadly, life just isn’t like that. It seems an insult to the memory of the millions who died in Europe in the forties to suggest that they had a kind and loving benefactor watching over them.

4) Slavery and oppression are still very much alive in the world today. It’s all very well celebrating the notion that a single group of people may have found freedom and prosperity centuries ago, but what about the millions who are starving and oppressed right now?

5) The entire proceedings have an air of divisive fervour about them. Whether one is sympathetic to a Zionist agenda or not, it is simply a fact that paragraphs like the following cannot be conducive to peaceful relations between people of different faiths:

Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your indignation upon them and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.

Is this really the kind of sentiment that we should be promoting and celebrating? Is this kind of thinking going to enhance the chances of finding tenable solutions to global conflicts?

It seems to me that there’s a huge inconsistency here. How many of the millions of Jews who will sit around seder tables this week, drinking to the deaths of Egyptian babies, loudly protested the deaths of innocents in Middle Eastern conflicts in recent years? I personally know several.

The obvious response to all this is to say that this is simply tradition, that one should place the value of maintaining cultural heritage above that of examining its content too closely. To this I would respond that the mark of a civilized society is a willingness to realize that elements of our traditions can change from acceptable to unacceptable as we ourselves progress. It’s like trying to hold on to the scenery whilst on a moving train. We are happy to agree that child-brides, slavery and stoning are socially unacceptable even though they all had secure places in the traditions of our forefathers. It is not enough simply to say that we no longer participate in these things. We recognise the moral requirement to repudiate them in principle.

Surely the same should go for the cruelty that is celebrated in the Passover ritual? Perhaps some compromise between orthodoxy and total rejection of tradition could be found? Maybe humane people could use the occasion as an opportunity to get together and celebrate the hard-won freedoms so worth celebrating whilst also reflecting on how much there is still to do? The Jewish tradition is rich in wisdom. It is a culture which highly values solidarity, charity, kindness, humour and gentleness. Why can it not relinquish ideas and practices that so go against these values?

I would not want to single out the Jewish faith for criticism. The catholic drinking of the blood of Christ or the Islamic notion of heavenly virgins for martyrs are equally unpalatable.

As for me, I won’t be attending any more traditional Passover nights. I believe that freedom, family and togetherness are worth celebrating and that really fine chicken soup can verge on the numinous.

But at my party, locusts, blood, darkness and infanticide will definitely be off the menu.

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