The Twisted Moral of Passover

This week is the holiday of Passover, one of Judaism’s high holy days which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Although the archaeological evidence for captivity and exodus is lacking, this story has become a fundamental part of Jewish cultural consciousness, as well as a symbol and an inspiration to others. In pre-Civil War America, for example, the Exodus mythology played a role in the abolitionist movement, as African slaves and their allies looked to these passages to craft a narrative opposing the pro-slavery Bible verses so often preached on by pious Southern slaveholders.

But for all its cultural resilience, the true moral of the Passover story is more disturbing than it is uplifting. To see why, let’s consider what scripture says about the origins of the holiday.

Despite all the inspiring morals and ethical lessons that have been added on, what the Passover festival actually celebrates is the last and most terrible of the ten plagues: God’s sparing the Israelites’ children when he slaughtered the firstborn sons of Egypt. In fact, that’s where the name comes from: the English name “Passover” derives from the Hebrew name, Pesach, which means “to pass over, to exempt, to spare”. The reference is to chapter 12 of Exodus, where God instructs the Israelites to mark their houses with lamb’s blood:

“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (12:13)

That night, God strikes Egypt with the tenth and final plague – the death of the firstborn – and spares only the Israelite houses painted with the blood, slaying man and beast in all the others:

“And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” (12:29-30)

As I wrote in “A Book of Blood“:

The next morning in Egypt must have been a black dawn indeed. How many mothers and fathers were there, stumbling dead-eyed out of their homes? How many wails of grief and funeral songs could be heard? How many graves had to be dug? One can only imagine the horror, grief and despair that would ensue if anything comparable happened in a modern nation.

This is the twisted and bloody moral of the Passover story – it’s a holiday founded to commemorate a mass murder. Even if we take the Bible at its word, the Israelites’ freedom was purchased by the deaths of thousands of innocent Egyptian children. Let us not forget, ancient Egypt was not a democracy! Regardless of their feelings on the matter, the Egyptian people had no say in whether the Israelites were set free. The only person who had the power to make that decision was the pharaoh. What purpose did it serve for God to torment and massacre his subjects? Truth, why not just kill the pharaoh and ensure that the next person to come to the throne was more sympathetic to the Israelites’ plight?

The Passover story, like most of the Old Testament, dates back to an era where religion was a matter of savagery and bloodshed, not love and forgiveness. Its uplifting, modern message of freedom and redemption is a secondary derivation, created by carefully stepping around the unsavory parts of the tale. And therein lies an important lesson: For all that atheists are accused by apologists of taking the Bible out of context, it’s actually theists who often fail to appreciate the importance of context. Not just Passover, but many biblical tales – Abraham and Isaac, Noah’s flood, the crucifixion of Jesus – are treated as beautiful stories only by suppressing their ugly side.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.theinfinityprogram.com Kevin

    Ah, but you see, the Egyptians must have been completely evil and not worth sparing — not a single one, even the babies.

    At least that is what fundamentalist Christians keep telling me every time there is an instance of mass slaughter to defend.

  • Mark

    Actually I think it’s even worse. In Exodus 11:10 God hardens the Pharaoh’s heart so he doesn’t let the Israelites go. God directly interfered and removed choice from the Pharaoh (so much for free will), so he could stage this massacre in order “that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 11:9).

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    The worst thing about that story is that God repeatedly “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12, and Exodus 10: 20, 27, 29, 11) so that he changed his mind, so that God could deliver yet one more plague. And this is the most horrible part of it:

    Exodus 10:
    1. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them,
    2. and that you may tell in the hearing of your son, and of your grandson, how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”

    God commits mass murder of innocents to show off

  • Jesse

    I should mention that there’s a portion of Passover in which there’s a ritualized mourning for the Egyptian deaths and plagues. The original meaning of the Passover may have its roots in barbarism, but at least modern Judaism celebrates the good (escape from slavery) and mourns the evil (deaths of the Egyptians).

  • Pi Guy

    What I’ve never understood is why an omniscient, omnipotent (but clearly not loving and benevolent) god couldn’t just figure out on his own in which houses the Jews lived. I mean, he can turn a single woman into a block of salt just for taking a peek behind her, single out just one woman barren, old woman and give her a child, and unleash bears to savage just a few disrespectful children but he can’t just focus that energy at a single man, the pharaoh?

    Puh-lease.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Oh, have I missed pancake tuesday? I do so love an excuse to have pancakes!

  • Rob

    Kevin, I’d remind the fundamentalist Christians that if God couldn’t spare even the babies, then why would he spare anyone? If even a newborn can be seen as a hopeless case by an omnipotent being, then what possible hope does anyone have for being “redeemed?”

    Once again, the Bible contradicts itself in such a basic way that it requires a massively self-referential game of Twister (thanks, Greta!) to make any sense of it at all.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumber

    Yes, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart shows the Christian god at his most malevolent. Not only does he kill all those innocents, but he himself decided to do so and removed free will from Pharaoh to have an excuse to do so. There goes the apologist’s free will argument to explain evil. In comes the atheist argument that god, if taken as written is a totally malevolent character.

  • Mercredi

    I’d like to echo Jesse – the modern Passover seder recognizes the suffering of the Egyptians as a horrible thing – “we cannot drink a full cup knowing others suffered so that we could be free”. There’s also the Fast of the Firstborn, which at least some Jews take to be a fast by firstborn Jews in mourning of the murdered firstborn Egyptians.

    Modern Jews grow up knowing that Egyptians suffered and died for their freedom – it’s not a secret for when they’re older, or ignored, or brushed under a rug.

  • Stacey Melissa

    The Ridger – Your point about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to have an excuse to show off even more, and with mass death of innocents in the final instance, is something I’ve long kept on my shortlist of the most senselessly barbaric Bible atrocities. It’s one of the first items I point out to fundies when I want to knock them off their moral high horse, and I usually present it in pretty much the same manner you did here. God shows off by killing innocent people. It’s that simple. Fundies never even have a response to that one, let alone an actual answer. Their panic when confronted with those verses is palpable.

  • Theresa

    A lot of holidays have a dark side — like human beings.

    I love the idea of a holiday of liberation and discussion. I hate the plagues. True, they’re described with sadness at most seders. But there are also disturbing practices like cute plush toys denoting each of the plagues (I saw them at a local store). I cannot imagine the parent who would give this to their child!

    Similarly, Easter *could* be all about the triumph of rebirth, but there’s also an undercurrent of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus — a paradoxical charge since the whole story depends on Jesus being killed, so if anything Christians should thank whoever was responsible.

    0.02

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    That’s the thing about the Bible. Even the stories that are considered acceptable for children (Noah, Daniel & the lions, etc.) are cruel, twisted, and violent.

  • Alex, FCD

    But there are also disturbing practices like cute plush toys denoting each of the plagues (I saw them at a local store).

    Ok, the locusts I can see, but how does one depict a river of blood in a plush toy?

  • Polly

    I’ve always HATED this story – the 10 plagues, I mean.

    The response I got in the past (or I thought of myself) which didn’t at all satisfy me was that it was payback for Pharaoh ordering all the male babies born among the Israelites to be thrown into the Nile (or killed somehow I don’t remember right now) because of a population explosion among them.

    Yeah, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart thing is repeated by the apostle Paul in the NT regarding Pharaoh in a passage that really threw me when I was a believer. That god changes hearts or hardens them compeltely contradicts the Free Will interpretation which I guess is why some theologians don’t believe in free will.

    Again, the apologetic response of “the same heat can melt wax or harden clay” was completely unsatisfactory given that it was decidedly NOT god’s intention to preserve free-will but to “show off”, as someone above put it well, in a most childish manner. Actually, I didn’t think any of the plagues were fair to the people of Egypt. When I was younger, the frogs seemed a little funny, I have to admit.

    I also think the story of Jospeh sends a lousy message, too. The best economic plan god could come up with was fascism?

    I had no idea there was any mourning as part of the ritual of passover. It doesn’t seem to have a basis in the OT. Moreover, the Israelites turn to plundering (this word was used somewhere in the NIV Bible but it doesn’t really fit) their Egyptian neighbors on their way out – probably because the Egyptians were terrorized into giving them extortion payoffs so YHWH wouldn’t kill any more of their children.

    Of the 3 major monotheistic religions, I have fewer problems with Judaism* because it doesn’t proselytize, focuses on THIS world, and pretty much relegates all the really awful stuff to allegory. I bet that’s because the religion hasn’t been in political power in 2,000 years. I look forward to the day when we can say the same for Xianity and Islam.

    *as I understand / it in its reformed state

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Polly, you might be surprise to know, as I was, that Judaism did compete with Christianity for converts in the early Middle Ages. It was around the 11th century when attitudes hardened and Jews had to cease proselytizing for fear of their lives.

    I always wondered why this god of the Hebrews didn’t just wipe out all of the Egyptians and just give the Israelites all of Egypt. After all, from a geographical standpoint, Egypt is much more preferable to Canaan. Egypt is protected to its east and west by desert which serves as a buffer to invasion. It has the Nile River which makes it easy to grow crops to sustain a large population. Instead, this omniscient god gives the Israelites a strip of land between Egypt and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, thereby guaranteeing that the Israelites would be under constant threat of invasion from one direction or the other. Ironically, the only time in ancient history when the Jews really had an extended period of security was when they were part of the Persian Empire, which had conquered Egypt as well as Mesopotamia.

    When it comes to Geography, the god of the Bible gets an epic fail.

  • http://torhershman.blogspot.com/ Tor Hershman
  • http://torhershman.blogspot.com/ Tor Hershman

    Oh, and to keep on subject – this mini-doc tells how the Jewish peopls REALLY got started.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7iQRFP_e90

  • Polly

    @Tommykey

    I wouldn’t hire YHWH as MY real estate agent, I’ll tell you that!

    always wondered why this god of the Hebrews didn’t just wipe out all of the Egyptians and just give the Israelites all of Egypt.

    The Egyptians were probably buying their chariots from the Judah Plains Chariot Dealership (Judges 1:19). ;)

    I didn’t know that about proselytizing. It’s hard to imagine them winning any converts since the religion is so tied to ethnicity – children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    @Alex, FCD

    Ok, the locusts I can see, but how does one depict a river of blood in a plush toy?

    It’s a perky-looking little blood droplet: http://www.cblfineart.com/tenplinpl.html

    I’ve also seen Ten Plagues wine markers (http://www.yontifications.com/wine_markers.html), and once had a friend send me a Harry & David gift box with the note that she had narrowly been talked out of sending (and here I’m quoting directly from the ad copy) “Ten Plagues of Egypt Chocolate Gift Basket! Yes, you too can down chocolate locusts, caramel boils, and dead cattle in this cheery collection.”

    Words fail me.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    I am convinced that many people misread these passages, such as the Passover story.

    Why would the Hebrews have had to mark their doors with blood? Perhaps it is an emphasis on cultural identity, on cultural distinctiveness. The Biblical god could’ve known which houses were which, but it’s not a story about any god — it’s a story about the people who are telling the story, the Jews.

    This is what many people misunderstand. The OT is really a Jewish cultural narrative, much of it mythologized. It’s not history. It’s about identity and tradition and values and practices. People who take these stories literally miss the point.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    This has always been a sticking point for me. God, at some point, had to be thinking something along the lines of, “OK, now the next logical step in my plan is to kill babies. This will totally help me further my cause.” I don’t care about any other part of the Bible, really – it well and truly doesn’t matter. For something so abjectly horrifying to be termed “a good story,” for the main character of this story to be termed “good,” “wise,” or “rational,” tells me everything I need to know: the writer of this story, whosoever it may be, had an extremely warped moral compass, and this warped morality must necessarily have persisted throughout the book’s history for the story not to have been cleaned up (or excised outright).

    Speaking as a philosopher, precious few things are ever “just that simple,” but this one really is: if one is able to stomach the idea of a deity who kills babies to prove a point, then one has failed at morality, as has one’s god, one’s holy book, and one’s culture for not rejecting such a plainly barbaric story. At the risk of waxing deontological, mass-infanticide is just one of those things that is never good, never acceptable, never anything less than an atrocity. If anyone takes even a moment to try to defend such an action, rather than reject the source of the story as all moral and civilized persons ought, then that person is already too far gone – mass-infanticide is not defensible, no matter who does it. The End.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Polly, from what I have read, historians on the subject have determined that at one point, Jews made up 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that this could have only been achieved if people were converting to Judaism.

    The problem with Judaism is that its stringent requirements made conversion difficult. Early Christianity can best be viewed as a Jewish reform movement that made it easier for Diaspora Jews or recent converts to accept the Jewish god. It was a way of saying “Hey, you can still worship the same god, but you don’t have to worry now if your pagan friend invites you over to his home to eat roast pork.”

    One thing I have noticed that seems to support this is that early Christianity does not seem to have done well in Israeli itself. Ever notice that Paul and the early Christians seem to have spent all of their time outside of Israel trolling for converts?

  • Polly

    @D,

    But it’s not that simple you have to take into consideration the

    I can’t even do a parody.

    I’m disgusted with the fact that every !@#%FUCKING fundie I’ve ever met in real life has defended the atrocities in the Bible. I don’t remember if I ever did more than grudgingly accept them because “I had to”, which still doesn’t make it right and is to my lasting shame.
    I never tried to convince anyone else because OF COURSE, OF COURSE, no one else ever asked me for my opinion about them because it was NEVER EVER brought up.

  • Polly

    @Tommykey,

    The problem with Judaism is that its stringent requirements made conversion difficult.

    That fits in well with the whole debate about circumcision and not eating blood or meat sacrificed to idols and Sabbaths debate that Paul had. Clearly they were lowering the bar to expand the base.

    Besides, who in their right mind would convert INTO a non-bacon religion?!

  • velkyn

    I’ll have to add this bit too, so much for “free will” and all of the other bs:
    Exodus 3:21 “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22 Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.”

    God makes people do things against their will. He hardens the Pharaoh’s heart. I dont’ think that can be said enough. Bible God killed people (again!) just to show just how powerful he is and for no better reason that that.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    In your opening paragraph you say

    In pre-Civil War America, for example, the Exodus mythology played a role in the abolitionist movement, as African slaves and their allies looked to these passages to craft a narrative opposing the pro-slavery Bible verses so often preached on by pious Southern slaveholders.

    One of the things organized religion has done well is to agitate for greater equality for the underprivileged – the civil rights movement in the US is a great example.

    How can we use an atheist perspective to get to the same place? What stories can we use to inspire people to better their condition? How can we build institutions that can be used to fight oppression (as southern churches were used by the civil rights movement in the US)?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    One of the things organized religion has done well is to agitate for greater equality for the underprivileged – the civil rights movement in the US is a great example.

    That’s news to me, considering that religions have been against freedom and equality for the most part. Sure, some people come forward and fight for equality and tout their religious devotion, but they are actually swimming against the tide. For example, look up the founding of the Southern Baptists for just one example.

    You might want to take a gander at this book for some detail on how religions have stonewalled equality and how freethinkers have fought for equality throughout the history of the US.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup. This never quite struck me in this way before — damn, now I have to rethink whether I ever want to go to another seder again — but: yup. And I also want to add:

    Why on earth did the Jews have to mark their doors with lamb’s blood? God has the power to murder all the firstborn children in an entire country…. but he’s too stupid and his aim is too lousy to figure out where his chosen people live so he can spare them?

    I will say this: It sure is in keeping with the bad-aim God who doesn’t know how to send floods or earthquakes or such in a way that selectively kills sinners but spares believers. (In the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the gay gay gay Castro district was relatively unharmed, while the very heterosexual indeed Marina district suffered the worst damage of anywhere in the city, and some of the buildings that were hardest hit were churches. Maybe if they’d had lamb’s blood smeared on their doors…)

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    I will say this again: I strongly suspect that these stories about not about the Biblical god, but about the people telling the stories.

    Other groups in other civillizations have compiled narratives of mythologized history. Why are people surprised by this?

    Why would people have to mark their doors? Is it because their god had bad aim? Or is it because it would have been an act of group solidarity?

    For many, religion is inextricably bound up with the social and cultural mores of their society. Why would fundamentalists decry the decreasing influence of religion in public life – could it be because religion is fundamentally a social construct?

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    “Ten Plagues of Egypt Chocolate Gift Basket! Yes, you too can down chocolate locusts, caramel boils, and dead cattle in this cheery collection.”

    .

    BLEAGH!

  • Alex, FCD

    @ Cobweb’s picture.

    My first thought was “that’s a beetle, not a locust”. My second thought was “WTF is going on on the right there? Was there a plague of otters?” That is a pretty awesome anthropomorphic plague of darkness, though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’d like to echo Jesse – the modern Passover seder recognizes the suffering of the Egyptians as a horrible thing – “we cannot drink a full cup knowing others suffered so that we could be free”.

    It’s good to know that modern Judaism has humanized the victims in this bloody story, but I don’t think that alters the basic point. Even if they express sympathy for the ancient Egyptians, Jewish people are still celebrating the genocide of an entire generation of people. (Whether this actually happened in history or was only a pious myth is beside the point.)

    To any practicing Jewish believer, the question still presents itself: Do you or do you not think God was in the right when he murdered the innocent firstborn? If you believe he was, then perfunctory notes of sympathy aren’t really relevant to the moral calculus. But if you believe he wasn’t, then why do you continue to worship a god who doesn’t even meet your own standards of basic morality?

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    The way my Dad puts it, the definition of a Jew is someone who argues with God. If we didn’t disagree with God, even on issues of basic morality, we would not be human. And there is one sect of Judaism (Reconstructionist) which is essentially atheist. Modern Judaism isn’t based on the Bible anymore — it’s based on the Talmud and a long history of (mostly) logical and rational study. There’s a reason Jews make a rather large proportion of scientists, and it’s not just the “My son the doctor” cliche.

    I still consider myself Jewish culturally, despite my atheism. Most of it is due to the knowledge that there are those out there who would despise me for my Jewish background regardless of what I make of myself — I’d rather be proud of it and spit in their face.

    Ebonmuse, when I was an observant child, I would not have known how to answer you. As a college student, when I was starting to grow out of it (having read Dawkins by that point), my response would have been that I didn’t worship God, I just believed in him. I certainly would not have praised God. And I can trace my first doubts to when I first studied the Holocaust at age six.

    Sorry, I’m getting off the subject. I would guess that a Rabbi would give the answer that worship isn’t really the point of Judaism. In a very real sense, Judaism isn’t even a religion in the way that Christianity or Islam is. It’s more a philosophy. There is no afterlife, and whether God even exists is largely beside the point. The point is …

    … drumroll …

    … TRADITION. (cue Fiddler on the Roof)

    From my own experience of Seders and other Jewish services, prayer etc. is literally about going through the motions. Because that’s what makes you Jewish. Somewhere in the Talmud there’s a discussion the point of which is: We do all this not because it is commanded, but simply because it is so damned difficult. We isolate ourselves from others, follow restrictive rules, and follow antiquated rituals recalling immoral acts we would otherwise disavow not because God commands it but because it ties the community together. A community that would otherwise splinter.

    Unfortunately, this only increases the pressure from outside groups (Goyim, Gentiles, whatever). And that pressure sometimes becomes violent.

    If Jews had assimilated into European society from the start in the 1100s, they would have disappeared like a small drop in a very large ocean, and there never would have been ghettos, pogroms, or a Holocaust. All that bloodshed would have been spared.

    But Jews do it the hard way. Simply because they are Jews. That’s the point.

    I’ve gotten off the subject again, haven’t I? I suspect that if pressured, most Jews would disavow God’s hateful actions. Many would admit that they don’t believe in the Bible, and many (including my Dad) would admit to deism if not atheism. But they would still consider themselves Jews, and they would still go through the motions. I say this not to excuse these beliefs, but to point out that as a Jew myself, I personally doubt that these beliefs are sincerely held by the majority of the population. There are fundamentalist Jews, but they are a far smaller minority of the whole than in Christianity or Islam. Even in Israel, most of the hardliners are not fundamentalist. The hardest fundamentalists there have entirely retreated from politics, and are in fact opposed to the existence of the State of Israel.

    Thanks for reading this somewhat wandering response. If you have comments or questions, I’ll try to answer them. I’m sure I’ve overlooked something somewhere. :)

  • Leum

    The local rabbi (who is really awesome guy) has some really interesting interpretations of Exodus*. With regard to the plagues, he sees them not as an almighty God punishing a king, but as a war between two gods of roughly equal power. Gods, he says, are not fair when fighting each other. Since he was explaining this at a synagogue service, he used this to say that the unfairness was so obvious that it could serve as a reminder to us to be better people in our own dealings; to be better than God.

    I tend to agree with this. Exodus makes more sense if it takes place in a polytheistic cosmos, one where the battles are between the local gods of different people and the Hebrews’ god is presented as the most awesome for the benefit of his people. The idea that gods should be good wasn’t really part of theology at the time.

    Of course, the whole thing’s probably an allegory anyway, most of the OT is.

    *Interesting in their own right, but also interesting in that a rabbi’s the one with these interpretations.

  • Katie Scarlett

    I lost my first child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome 30 years ago. The horror of a supposedly benevolent God deliberately inflicting this terrible event on anyone is beyond my imagining. That was the beginning of the end of my Christian beliefs.

  • Alex, FCD

    And there is one sect of Judaism (Reconstructionist) which is essentially atheist.

    There is another sect of Judaism that is explicitly atheistic.

  • velkyn

    “to be better than God.” – leum

    That isn’t too hard then at all and why worship something that is less than you? And I would disagree that Judaism is a “philosopy”, perhaps that’s what it’s becoem but there was a lot of worship supposedly, lots of “sweet scent of smoke for the Lord”, blind obediance to the point of killing a daughter, etc? What happens when the temple is supposedly rebuilt? Do the sacrifices start up again?

    David Plotz makes a similar observation in “The Good Book”, it’s not God that does anything to keep the Jewish people intact, it is the Jewish people’s keeping of the book that is the key.

  • Mercredi

    @Ebon – There’re a _lot_ of ways for a believing Jew (or Christian, or anyone who decides to take the OT as part of their holy book) to respond to the atrocities in the Passover story without ceasing their worship. Here are just a few:

    1) “Wow, my ancestors had a really bloodthirsty idea of God. Since there’s no historical evidence of the Exodus… I wonder if this story comes from another religion originally?”

    2) “Wow, my God used to be an ass. I hope he knows better now, but in any case I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.”

    3) “To me, this is at its heart a story about how sometimes atrocities are committed in pursuit of an otherwise laudable goal. I think God expects us to recognize that his actions in this story are horrible and wrong.”

    Being Jewish does not require that one take the story of Passover to be literally true, or even to be an accurate metaphor depicting the nature of the God of Abraham. And even then, worship doesn’t have to signify approval or agreement, and godhood doesn’t necessarily mean moral authority – just look at the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse pantheons, and look at why people worshiped them.

    There’s a fantastic story from my friend’s Torah study class that I think is relevant here.

    Four rabbis were arguing over the meaning of a particular piece of Jewish law. Rabbi Reznick had persuaded two of them, but the fourth, Rabbi Erlich, disagreed vehemently. They debated it heavily, and finally, Rabbi Erlich said, “This is what it means. Let us ask God.”

    And God said, “Rabbi Erlich is correct.”

    Rabbi Reznick said, “No! When it was written, yes, you decided. But now, things are decided down here!”

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    There’s a similar joke about a scientist (forget which one) who couldn’t figure out a certain mathematical conundrum, and spent his entire life working on it. When he arrives in heaven, God asks him what he would like to do first, and he asks for the proof of the mathematical problem. God promptly hands him the proof, written in 20th-century language. He sits down for a few minutes, reads it, and finally shakes his head. “Still wrong!”

  • Leum

    Mercredi, the one I heard was even stronger. God makes the walls of the synagogue buckle in, the roof collapse, and other bad things happen* and rabbis respond “No, no. Who are you to interpret the Torah?”

    *Rabbi Reznick says stuff like, “If I’m wrong may the synagogue walls collapse!”

  • Theresa

    Jennifer’s and Mercredi’s posts illustrate something I really like about some flavors of Judaism. Namely, almost everything is up for discussion.

    Re. Jennifer’s point that practice is what makes you Jewish: An interesting parallel with the non-supernaturalist aspects of Buddhism. Not based on any specific creed, and not centered on a weekly service, but centered on continuous observation, introspection and practice including both meditation and social action.

    My spouse is a Jewish atheist, and we both would like our son to identify as Jewish. So we are trying to raise a humanist, Jewish son and I often struggle with what that means. I hope he will be able to absorb the best parts of the Jewish spirit of inquiry and awe without necessarily believing in a supreme being, or privileging the truth of one book over all others.

    BTW, we went to a humanist seder this year — it was fun!

  • John Nernoff

    I’m wondering what “Jewish” atheist means. If you don’t believe in the Jewish religion or “God” then why call yourself a “Jew”? Is that a race? Like “African-Americans”? Hmm, my forbears were from Estonia so am I entitled to call my self an Estonian-Atheist? What about a Spanish atheist whose family has lived in America for generations. Spanish? Hispanic? Really?

    So what does all this mean? I can guess the various designations are pleas for sympathy. The Jews suffered in WW2, the Black suffered during slavery; so they can get away with using quasi-racist terms to perpetuate the self-designating labels which generated the ire against them in the first place (not that it was right, you see).

    Oh well, then there’s Kennedy. He’s an Irish Catholic and an American at the same time.

  • Leum

    Being Jewish is a religious, ethnic, and cultural identity. A Jew can be defined by having any one of those identities. Also, there are some Jews who don’t believe in God but do believe in the religion and observe all or some of the rites and rituals of Judaism because they find them personally meaningful. The relevant quote is something like, “Goldstein goes to shul to talk to God, I go to shul to talk to Goldstein.” Some of my cousins fall into this camp. They don’t think God exists (or don’t much care either way), but being Jewish gives them a sense of identity and a connection to something beyond themselves.

  • http://verywide.net/ Moody834

    I attended my first seder Friday at some very liberal and progressive Jewish friends’ house. They had those plush plague toys. I found the whole thing odd and vaguely disturbing, but I also saw the effort they were making to “lighten” the story of their people. What was it Charlie Chaplin said? “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” I got the impression from them that they perform the Passover seder because they are Jewish and that’s what Jews do, but that one shouldn’t take such things too seriously as anything other than a way to remember the sense of Jewish community with other Jews and respected goyim friends.

    That being said, I have to admit that I see little good in lightening up something that is still one of the most heinous chapters of any religious text. Then again, I don’t much understand the religious impulse anymore. The older I get, the more asinine it seems to me to be. But I am not Jewish, not a member of a religion that accounts for less than 1% of all religions (there are more non-religious people than there are Jews). It’s a different kind of psychology in effect, is what I’m saying.

    As an aside, I wonder if the blood smeared on the doorjamb was like a laser painting the spot that a smart bomb would then target. Seriously, though, Jehova was an old-school deity who desired blood sacrifice, blood being perceived as the bearer of life-force. It would not at all surprise me to hear that if an Egyptian had followed the Jews’ example then the plague would have passed over the Egyptian’s house as well. Think that sounds crazy? Consider the elemental problem of Judges 1:19, where we read: “And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” Jehova was an elemental deity who could be thwarted by iron. This leads me to suspect that it was only the mark of sacrificial blood that saved anyone. For instance, the passage in the Exodus it says: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle”. In other words, a firstborn whose parent couldn’t make the mark, because said parent was in the dungeon, Jew or non-Jew, was killed. Even cattle were killed. This is an implacable elemental force at work; there’s no real thoughtful consciousness at work here.

    …Not that the story is in any real sense true to the facts of history. The thing is, it reflects the rather simple understanding of the Jews in that age, even as we see the rather simple ideas, however artfully expressed, of the Egyptians. As one person at the seder put it: “God wanted to show off what a big wang he had” (said by a liberal feminist Jew).

    It shouldn’t be spelled YHVH, it should be spelled YMMV.

  • http://www.obsessedwithreality.com Freidenker

    I’ve been Jewish for most of my life, as I’m an Israeli Ashkenazi non-believing Jew. I’ve had 23 seders thus far, man and boy. Seders are usually about singing songs and eating Jewish cuisine (which I despise, by the way).

    What I found most troubling about the Seder this time is that part of the Hagada (the ritual reading done in the Seder) that deals with “The Four Sons”. The Hagada says (and I’ll translate freely from Hebrew since I’ve never had a Seder in English):
    “Keneged Arba’a Banim Dibra Ha’Torah: Hacham, Rasha, Tam, Veze Sheeino Yo’dei’a Lishol”

    This translates roughly to:

    “The Torah speaks of 4 sons/males (same word in Hebrew): A wise one, an evil one, a simple one and one which doesn’t know how to question”.

    The Jewish tradition regarding these “sons” classifies them respectively as:
    “Devout Jew, Atheist, slow-learner and utter imbecile”. The slow-learner doesn’t get what this whole Seder is about, the utter imbecile doesn’t even understand that there’s something going about at all.
    The devout Jew just takes wholeheartedly everything that’s told to him and the atheist, who is dubbed “the evil son” says that the whole thing is a waste of time.

    The Hagada says that were atheists (the evil sons) present in the exodus, God would not save them from Egypt.

  • Stuart

    If Jews had assimilated into European society from the start in the 1100s, they would have disappeared like a small drop in a very large ocean, and there never would have been ghettos, pogroms, or a Holocaust. All that bloodshed would have been spared.

    But Jews do it the hard way. Simply because they are Jews. That’s the point.

    You could see something like this as a sort of gamblers fallacy – the more some groups ancestors have suffered, the less likely they are to give up that identity even if that means they will be isolated/attacked or whatever because of it. Counterintuitively if that group stopped being a magnet for hate/mistrust/etc. it might be the catalyst over several generations for the identity group to disappear when it had previously withstood almost anything that was thrown at it.

  • Pingback: 10 Biblical Atrocities That Go Overlooked (Part 1) | Secular News Daily

  • Genghis

    It’s interesting to see that there are few fundamentalists in this thread so perhaps, being a fundamentalist, I might be able to add something to this discussion.

    * The Passover has to be taken in the context of the enslavement of the Hebrews by Egyptian Society.

    * Their emancipation involved the ten plagues.

    * The ten plagues were a contest between two religions. God went through each of major “Gods” of the Egyptian pantheon and demonstrated that they were false.

    * Pharoah was given many opportunities to change his mind but eventually a part of God’s judgement was the hardening of his heart.

    * One could surmise that the ten plagues was just as much to convince the Hebrews that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the One True God, in case anyone held the thought that Egypt’s past ascendancy indicated that their Gods were more powerful than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    * The death of the firstborn was partly to demonstrate that Pharoah himself, was not in fact, a God.

    In our Western Society we like to think that the acts of individuals are paramount and that we can live in a society where those acts don’t have corporate consequences. This is not the case. History is littered with examples. Just look at the societal devastation caused by Hitler’s misplaced ambitions.

    But taking the German example further, can German society not take some responsibility for Hitler’s foolishness? One could argue that there were many “innocents” that died too. Were these deaths a judgment of God? It would be easy to write off this idea just because we might find it repugnant.

    I have discussed with Germans how the silent majority went along with Hitler and never spoke up against his excesses because they were cowed by his police. But people of his ilk cannot be stopped without risking one’s own life. Can German society be absolved of all responsibility? Drawing this back to this discussion: Can Egyptian society be absolved of all guilt? Certainly all of Egyptian society benefited from the enslavement.

    The Egyptians had built a slave economy. God wanted to emancipate His people. Pharoah and the rest of Egyptian could foresee the economic disruption to his country that this would cause and pitted himself and his country against God. God won. For all we know, Egyptian society may not have had the will to release the Hebrew slaves unless the plagues reached a certain level of severity.

    I admit this is not a comprehensive analysis but I hope that it furthers this discussion with a different perspective.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    * Pharoah was given many opportunities to change his mind but eventually a part of God’s judgement was the hardening of his heart.

    This apologetic makes absolutely no sense. Pharoah tries to relent and god does not allow him to, just so god can go on more of a rampage and cause more damage and kill more people. IOW, he had no opportunity to change his mind.

    * One could surmise that the ten plagues was just as much to convince the Hebrews that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the One True God, in case anyone held the thought that Egypt’s past ascendancy indicated that their Gods were more powerful than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    This is sick. god had to kill a bunch of newborn Egyptians in order to convince the Jews that he was indeed more powerful than those other gods and you seem to be citing it approvingly.

    * The death of the firstborn was partly to demonstrate that Pharoah himself, was not in fact, a God.

    And, Yahweh, in his perfection, couldn’t come up with another way of doing that, except to kill a bunch of innocent babies.

    In our Western Society we like to think that the acts of individuals are paramount and that we can live in a society where those acts don’t have corporate consequences. This is not the case. History is littered with examples. Just look at the societal devastation caused by Hitler’s misplaced ambitions.

    Those consequences come about because of our limited power and imperfections. god is not hindered by such disadvantages. If Pharoah is the guilty party, god need only punish Pharoah in order to set things straight. What did the newborn children of the land do that made them guilty?

    I admit this is not a comprehensive analysis but I hope that it furthers this discussion with a different perspective.

    A sociopathic one it seems. When you’re writing apologetics for genocide, it’s time to stop and think about your position a bit harder.

  • http://www.facebook.com/egranovetter Ellen Granovetter

    I don’t think it is a privilege to be called Jewish American, etc. Actually, I almost never hear the term used. Was the term developed by Jews or others? These terms marginalize the groups, imply they are not fully American, like others are. I hate it when people make assumptions about Jews, such as thinking you are happy your child is dating a Jew. I do not care at all. And there is a huge amount of inter-marriage. My friend loves to be called Norwegian-American. There is no prejudice against those from northern European countries. Jewish atheist must refer to a pwrson who identifies with the ethnic group but does no believe in God. I am an agnostic who happens to live in the U.S.

  • http://www.facebook.com/egranovetter Ellen Granovetter

    Jews were in Europe well before 1100, and got along with Muslimas and Christians in Spain until Spain became a Catholic state, and the Inquisition took place. When Hitler took over in 1933, Jews were quite assimilated in Western Europe, and many were well educated. Does every group need to assimilate to avoid being massacred? Today? In the U.S.? Europe? Do we all need to be the same?

    I don’t like the Passover holiday, either. “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind” (Gandhi.

  • angle of down syndrome

    i’m sure some babies must have died if he killed all first-borns

  • Sally Strange

    So what you’re saying is that modern Jews have a more developed sense of morality than the god they worship.

  • MarkIra613

    The only thing twisted here is the author’s uninformed spin on Passover.

    We Jews must NOT gloat over the downfall of our enemy, even
    if such a downfall was eminently deserved. When God metes out justice to the
    wicked, we should find it unsettling. God’s power has been unleashed in this
    world; am I so deserving that it will not be directed at me?

    The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah adds that there is a certain sense of elation we may feel. God’s honor has been restored. Wickedness does not last forever. God ultimately sees to it that His enemies are punished. If He does so in this world, just a small amount of His glory has been revealed to mankind. And for that, we may rejoice.

    We may NOT, however, rejoice over the suffering itself our enemy endures. It may be necessary and it may be 100% right,” but it is NOT a source of joy.

    The Talmud states that when the Egyptians were drowning in the
    sea, the angels wanted to sing their daily song of praise to God, and God
    quieted them: “The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you
    are singing song?!” (Megillah 10b). One of the most wicked and immoral
    nations history has produced was at last experiencing its morally inevitable fate,
    yet God Himself experienced no pleasure in the process.

    Yet at the same time the angels were silenced, Moses and Miriam led the Jewish nation in the Song of the Sea.

    Were we so much better? If the angels could not sing, how could we?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X