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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Passover Revised

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's, my world was pretty much a Jewish one. Not that we were religious in any great sense. Oh, I was sent to Hebrew School for a year to study for my Bar Mitzvah. And we “observed” the holidays. Observed is the right word, because we usually observed it from the sidelines, without doing very much about it. My grandfather and father dragged me to Shul a couple of times a year - Rosh Hashanah, maybe - and they fasted on Yom Kippur. When my grandmother died, 10 men with bad breath got together in our livingroom to pray each night for a week while my father “sat shiva.”

We got some chocolate wrapped in gold tin foil on Channukah and felt lousy around Christmas - guilty at enjoying the TV specials, the carols, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Amahl And The Night Visitors,” which was a very confusing but moving Jewish experience. But mostly I took Jewishness for granted because most of my schoolmates were either Jewish or Italians, whose family life was almost identical to mine - nagging mothers pushing food, shared ridicule of religion based sex guilt, stuff like that. Actually, I think that when very young I thought of my Italian neighbors as just a sect of Jews. That made enjoyment of Christmas a bit more acceptable.

Politics and sports preferences were also presumed Jewish in my family. The Dodgers and Adlai Stevenson were Jewish, the Yankees, Eisenhower and McCarthy were Goyim. Labor: Jewish, management: definitely not.

From adolescence on (once the Bar Mitzvah ordeal was over - or maybe freed by the misery of it to exercise the free will of the promised Manhood - I got to question all these presumptions, became an agnostic and observed the defects in all religions, dropping the pretense of adherence to most of the rituals.

The one that lingered longest was Passover, the event that America seemed to embrace as a secondary Thanksgiving. Cecil B. De Mille, the most sanctimonious of all Hollywood mythmakers, sanctioned the Americanization of this issue with his movie “The Ten Commandments” in 1956. Charlton Heston as Moses vs. Yul Brynner as a scowling Pharaoh became an annual TV ritual like “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Its A Wonderful Life.” They all taught lessons to children as powerful as Grimm’s fairy tales must have been to German kinder: “there’s no place like home” ... “no man is a failure who has friends” ... and “Let my people go.”

The Exodus Story became an American liberal icon, a brief against slavery and for Self-Determination against Imperialists and tyrants, quickly adopted by the Civil Rights Movement as an paradigm. The movie “Exodus” (1960) solidified the concept and associated it with the establishment of Israel. The survivors of The Holocaust were the underdogs fighting the pompous powerful Colonial Establishment and the neo-Pharaohs of the Arab world, winning because of determination and rightness ... just like the Dodgers and the Negroes.

By the time I had a son, I had moved away from Brooklyn and was living in L.A. which, despite its Jewish population (second only to NY in the US), was not Jewish the way Brooklyn was. The LA Dodgers were definitely NOT Jewish, Sandy Koufax aside.

So when the opportunity arose to give my child a private school Jewish education, I acquiesced. Though most of the holidays and rituals he was immersed in seemed rather contrived to me (Purim, Sukkoth, Simchat Torah, etc) Passover was one I thought was a lesson worth maintaining.

In order to keep up with his schooling, I felt compelled to brush up on my Judaica. Learned a little Hebrew, the new versions of prayers my grandfather “davened” which were now intoned with chic Israeli pronunciation - you can spot any New Yorker when he says “Shabbas” instead of “Shabbat” - and I didn’t want to be embarrassed in the company of the other parents all of whom seemed to be able to fake it better than I could at the childrens’ services.

So one day at the bookstore I ran across a Torah that looked interesting. “The Torah: The Five Books Of Moses ... A new translation of The Holy Scriptures according to the traditional Hebrew text” published by The Jewish Publication Society Of America.

I began to read it like a novel for the first time as an adult. Jumping quickly to Exodus, I came upon the following passage:
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put in your power. I, however,will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’”
That quote was typical. Pharaoh wasn’t acting from free will. The Lord was pulling his strings. After every plague - locusts, frogs, lice ... Pharaoh relented, agreed to “let Israel go,” but each time, the Lord “hardened” or “stiffened” Pharaoh’s heart. Why did God do this if his goal was to the free His people from slavery?

The answer was very clear from the sequence of the plot. When Moses first enters Pharaoh’s court, he performs some tricks: turning a stick into a snake and the Nile to blood, which Pharaoh’s magician’s duplicate. With every miracle, Pharaoh is impressed with the power of the Hebrew God, but that is not enough for God. His goal is for Pharaoh to recognize Him as the One True God.

Historians give credit to the Hebrews as the originators of Monotheism, which formed the basis of Western religious thought from then onward and was claimed to be a powerful impetus to Western dominance of world culture. That claim is arguable, but what is not is that the God of the Hebrews freed His people so that they could worship Him, and did it in a way that forced all other people to acknowledge Him as the Only God, not just one that was powerful or fearsome.

The point is proved later on when He gives Moses the Laws of human behavior to relay to the people. The first five of the so-called “ten commandments” are about honoring God.

The only reference to slavery in the first ten Laws lies in the order that “your male and female slaves” must also keep the Sabbath.

Of course, there were more than just ten laws. Another one ordered:
“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; he he shall them remain his slave for life... (Exodus: 21)
Modern apologists for God argue that these concepts were an advancement in thought for their time, a step in the liberalization of Man's imagining of his relationship with God. For the first time, God is shown providing rational laws and covenants based on a sense of justice rather than arbitrary and capricious whims that previous ideas of Gods has allowed.

Okay, but you gotta admit that He had a pretty healthy ego.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The first five commandments may be about what god wants from man, but the next five, and most of the 603 that come after that, are about man's relationship to man. The great 'humanitarian' idea introduced by Judaism is the rule of law: neither god nor kings exercise arbitrary authority; they are forced to be just by the requirements placed on them by the law.

    While the bible's portrayal of god's personality may make him seem like an egotistic jerk, even figuring god as a coherent individual -- rather than a force of nature or more abstract spirit -- was revolutionary since it's god's very individuality, his oneness as such, that makes it possible for him to be subject to the law: you can't make a contract with an abstract nature spirit.

  3. I agree with that as the last paragraph of my post acknowledged. Western law recognizes Moses as the promulgator of the core principles of our law. My problem is with the oversimplified lessons we teach our kids at seders & Thanksgiving, which ignore historical "truth" and "print the myth". The effect is later disillusionment & cynicism about ideals, tho I am glad to observe that your comment shows a far more mature perspective than I feared.

  4. A great Israeli singer, Hava Albershtein (pronounced Khava, with a more pronounced "kh" sound) has a song on the subject of Passover, called Khad Gadia, in which she asks, "when does all that killing/slaughter stop?" That's what I ask, too. Passover is a much hated holiday for both myself and my children, especially Yuli, my son. Any time our family got together for a Seder, you could count on a good fight:) well, a good debate. Don't even get me started:) And I am so glad it's all in the past. I won't go there any more...All of the above notwithstanding, we all stubbornly insist on eating only matzos instead of bread ( provided we are at home during that holiday). Go figure:)
    Oh, I used to question every question in the Hagaddah. I guess I am the ungrateful son/daughter, eh? Nah, I don't think so:)
    To Greg: read Yehuda Amichai on the subject of G-d being an egotistical jerk who sits on his throne (armchair), judging and doing nothing...
    To Mort: I understand why you would be glad that Greg's outlook is mature. But I would also urge him to question more. Greg is right that most of the commandments are about relationships of men to men. Heh, what about women?
    The great humanitarian idea of Judaism (this is for Greg) is that G-d is inexplicable. Judaism's view of G-d is existential, and that allows for as much doubt as you wish - even for doubting G-d
    s very existence.

  5. I also admit that I have a very special relationship with this subject, so I'm if there is anyone who's objective...

  6. I am more and more taken with the notion of God as the metaphorical Father who created us, taught us how to live right and sent us on our own to stumble or trhrive as we might. As such, the current question for mankind is whether it is time to grow up and act like mensches without resorting to God's threat. As a writer recently put it, "bad news: God is imperfect; good news: He doesn't exist."

  7. Mort, yes, we have a degree of free will. We are responsible for being, or becoming mensches. It is possible to be a mensch without "resorting" to G-d, as you put it. It always has been...especially since His existence hasn't been proven:) As Jews, we love a good debate on the subject. If you have time and desire, look up the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. G-d and his existence/non-existence, participation/non-involvement, father role/lack of role are some of his favorite themes. His poetry has three major themes, ultimately - G-d, Love, and War - and they are all intertwined at times.
    As to your suggestion that He taught us - even if He did, he didn't make it very legible or intelligible:) No wonder that all those volumes of the Talmud ensued:)