Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why is this Night Different?

Tonight at sundown, the anniversary of the night before my people’s exodus from slavery, Jews all over the world will gather to celebrate our god and good fortune. Yet this very night is the anniversary of a horrifying mass murder as well. This night our god slaughtered thousands upon thousands of innocent first-born Egyptians boys and men to make a point: that Yahweh alone is God (Exodus 7:2-5). As the Ten Plagues are read during the Seder Jews diminish the wine in their cups so as to take no joy in Egyptian suffering, but this is an insufficient gesture in the face of the needless horrors inflicted upon the ancient Egyptians.

The plagues in general and the tenth plague in particular are examples of collective punishment unparalleled until the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the Holocaust was not punishment but genocide). It was Pharaoh, not the Egyptian people who enslaved the Hebrews. It was Pharaoh, not the Egyptian people, who ordered the death of the newborn Hebrew boys. The murder of the first-born sons of Egypt, the innocent along with the guilty, is not an act of justice, but of madness perpetrated by a god whose thirst for blood, both human and animal, seems endless. Is this the god I race out of Egypt to follow?

Those of you who are Christians may imagine you have escaped the clutches of this brutal god, following instead the Prince of Peace who made love his creed (Matthew22: 37-39), and the hallmark of his followers (John 13:34-35). But who is the god behind Good Friday? Is it not the same god whose thirst for blood can only be slacked by the murder of his Son? Isn’t this what Jesus’ death ransoms us from: a god who demands blood, whether it is the blood of Jesus or of all humanity? Isn’t Jesus’ death supposed to ransom us from eternal damnation? And even if it does, the god who creates such insanity remains unchallenged. While the Easter resurrection may prove the truth of the Son, it does nothing to change the nature of the Father who sent him. Indeed, the very notion that failure to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior results in eternal damnation makes plan to anyone with the eyes to see and the ears to hear that the god of the Passover is unrepentant and unchanged, and that his followers, by whatever name, are still trapped in a system of unsurpassed brutality.

Why? Because the gods we worship have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with us. We create god in our image. The god we create is the god we desire and the god who sanctions our desires. And what we desire above all else is to impose our will on the world that we might grasp what we want when we want it. We create a murderous god along with a way to shield ourselves from being murdered even as we stand idle while the murder of “the other” is done in our name and by our hands washed clean by our god who revels in it.

I am ashamed of the silence of Moses in the face of Egyptian horror. I am ashamed of the willingness of Jesus to be the Lamb of God, to die for us rather than challenge the cult of death his Father relishes.

What we need today is not another Moses leading his people to freedom over the corpses of their neighbors. What we need is not another Jesus who submits his will to god’s will and takes his place upon the cross (Matthew 26:39). What we need is the Abraham who dared to confront God’s madness and injustice, insisting that the Judge of all the world act justly (Genesis 18:25). What we need is the indignation of those Hebrew prophets whose God has no need of blood and death, and desires only justice, compassion, and humility (Micah 6:8). But we will not get what we need; we will only get what we are. And what we are is a species enslaved to enslaving others whether in this world or the next.

My prayer for this Passover Week and Easter Sunday is not one of praise and thanksgiving, worshipping the god of my own insanity. My prayer is this: “May steadfast love and faithfulness meet, may righteousness and peace kiss” (Psalm 85:10), and may humanity be free of our self-reflective gods that we might at last hear the call to justice and compassion for all life that is the hallmark of the true God.

7 comments:

Eruesso said...

Great class on Tuesday covering the Passover, one of my favorites so far. It was very thought-provoking, and I could tell that it is a very "Passion"ate topic for you.

In search of said...

In my search for who my god is, I started reading many books. Not having a great background in religion but raised christian, without much church, I was quite confused yet open minded. In my reading I read "The Book of God" (not the actual bible), not so bad for someone who never read the bible but wanted to know more, but I couldn't stand the way the bible reads. So this book gave me some of the basics I was looking for. I still was not fully buying into traditional religion but trying to. Then I read a book called "The Red Tent", Before reading this I had already decided my god was not that punishing god but a loving spirit. I really like the first part of the book it was pretty simple and good, then whame they slaughter all the males. The book, if you have not read it, takes you on the journey from Dinahs perspective, not all factual of course but good. Either way I was shocked awake, never hearing this story until this time (do to my lack of biblical knowledge) I was sickened and very disturbed by this god they were portraying. I knew a little about this with the old testimant stuff but kind of decided I didn't like the old testament so whatever. But this was different it showed the victims of this christian god and I was not ok with that anymore. Now it didn't turn me away all together but it did make me dig in a little more on my search and on my personal belief in god. But it was this moment when I knew in my heart that this god they portray in the bible is not what I wanted to beleive in. I beleive it has good teachings and is still a part of my search but there is so much more to it. Thank you for your blog it has reminded me again to keep searching.

dtedac said...

Dear Rabbi Rami:

I hope you have a good Passover. I read your commentary today and I'd like to share some thoughts of mine regarding Easter and its meaning.

Before I get to Easter, I agree with you about Pesach. The story of the killing of the first born is more about revenge over enemies than anything else. The baseline story is freedom to be with God, I think, and this is what I get out of it. I don't see God hating Egyptian kids and killing them out of hatred. People doing that? Yes, unfortunately they could.

Now to Easter. For some time I have had problems with this season; not with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the theology surrounding it. As a Catholic, I think that Augustine really did a disservice to Western Christianity when he introduced the idea of "original sin." I think he was projecting his own feelings of guilt regarding his life onto the whole Church. What really gets me is that Judaism had no such original sin idea: no idea that all of humanity became odious to God because we were not perfect in following God's way. If God was truly offended by an imperfect being that went off the path, could God really be very good? And why would God be infinitely offended by a finite being that did something wrong? And the Reformed theology "take" on all of this (total depravity) is just the extreme extension of this original sin idea. I just don't see it that way. This is a "God versus us" model rather than a "God in and with us" model.

I believe that Jesus wanted to bring us back the teaching of the Shema: love of God and others. Everything he said and did was really trying to bring that message home. His death was offering of himself for the message that he brought, not a divine payoff. He lived the life of love and gave us an example of a death for love of God and others. It is possible to look at this and use the term "salvation" or "new birth", but I see them as metaphoric terms about being in a true relationship in and with God rather than the literal interpretation that is so widely used.

As for the resurrection of Jesus, I do believe that "something" happened. There was an experience by the friends of Jesus (transcendental in some way; we don't know everything about it for sure) that gave them the assurance that Jesus was still alive and had claimed a victory over death. Scripture does not tell us precise details, but the basic message I believe is that Jesus is alive in God, not gone forever, and the message he brought is still true. It was not absolutely necessary for Jesus himself to roll the stone away from his tomb, step out and go upwards, as art shows us. (I do like that art, but just as Michelangelo shows God to be an old bearded man who works out at the gym, we take it all as symbolic.) What we see in Jesus, life in God that goes on and on, is what we seek for ourselves.

All this is definitely not the traditional way of looking at the events of Holy Week, but I think it makes more sense to me. I believe that God is not separate from us but in and with us. I believe that God is truly transcendent and immanent, thus the meaning of the Easter event is not so much reconciling a separate God to humanity, but reconciling unsure and confused people to the truth of who we are in God. When we live in God and God's love, when we get back on God's road again, we can travel in joy and love.

I really like the music of Taizé; it is meditative and peaceful. They have a song taken from the words of Ambrose of Milan:

Il Signore ti ristora.
Dio non allontana.
Il Signore viene a incontrarti.

[The Lord restores you.
God does not go away.
The Lord comes to greet you.]

That's how I think of our "salvation": we get off God's path, but God comes to get us, to bring us back. God doesn't go away or tell us to get lost.

For my part, this way of thinking about God and us makes more sense that the adversarial model that we are taught.

God bless you always.
David Costa

TheNote said...

Thank You.
There are several things about you - that make me more comfortable with the path I'm on . . . (yep, future maggid here . . ) My first term, i told a story that caused everyone in the room to go slack jawed. First they laughed, then they cried - but, after the story, they felt angry and tricked, because they'd cried for the Egyptians . . . So, thank you - for thinking, and saying so - clearly.
AND -
Happy Birthday of the Sun to You!

g

Patti said...

This is my first Easter since I put the whole Christian thing down. Feeling a bit lost and at odds with the holiday I read your blog. As usual Rami, you did not disappoint. Thank you for pulling me out of my complacency and slapping me with a bit of "take some a dat" all who celebrate this weekend. I have lots to think about as I sit around my friend's Seder table. Good for you and good for us.

jonathanjb said...

I appreciate the sensitive you demand of us when you point out the suffering of the innocent Egyptians. But were they entirely innocent? Certainly as individuals they were, but is not a society to be held accountable for its actions and the values that underlie it? And is it appropriate to punish only the leader when so many acquiesced as well?

I don't think it justifies the suffering of the innocent but it does not seem fair to me that only the leader should pay the price since his decrees could only become a reality with the active and passive assistance of others.

jonathanjb said...

I appreciate the sensitive you demand of us when you point out the suffering of the innocent Egyptians. But were they entirely innocent? Certainly as individuals they were, but is not a society to be held accountable for its actions and the values that underlie it? And is it appropriate to punish only the leader when so many acquiesced as well?

I don't think it justifies the suffering of the innocent but it does not seem fair to me that only the leader should pay the price since his decrees could only become a reality with the active and passive assistance of others.