Category Archives: Pesach

For Passover: A Meditation on the Four Children

4sons1Here’s a new Passover seder supplement that I’ve just written for Jewish Voice for Peace. Click the link below if you’d like a pdf to print out and read at you seder table next week.

JVP Seder Supplement 2013

As Jews, how do we respond when we hear the tragic news regularly coming out of Israel/Palestine? How do we respond to reports of checkpoints and walls, of home demolitions and evictions, of blockades and military incursions?

It might well be said that there are four very different children deep inside each of us, each reacting in his or her own characteristic way.

The Fearful Child is marked by the trauma of the Shoah and believes that to be a Jew means to be forever vulnerable. While he may be willing to accept that we live in an age of relative Jewish privilege and power, in his heart he feels that all of these freedoms could easily be taken away in the blink of an eye. To the Fearful Child, Israel represents Jewish empowerment – the only place in the world that can ensure the collective safety of the Jewish people.

The Bitter Child channels her Jewish fears into demonization of the other. This child chooses to view anti-Semitism as the most eternal and pernicious of all forms of hatred and considers all those “outside the tribe” to be real or potential enemies. She believes that Palestinians fundamentally despise Jews and will never tolerate their presence in the land – and that brute force is the only language they will ever understand.

The Silent Child is overwhelmed with the myriad of claims, histories, narratives and analyses that emerge from Israel/Palestine. While he dreams of a day in which both peoples will live in peace, he is unable to sift through all that he hears and determine how he might help bring that day about. At his most despairing moments, he doesn’t believe a just peace between these two peoples will ever be possible. And so he directs his Jewish conscience toward other causes and concerns – paralyzed by the “complexities” of this particular conflict.

The Courageous Child is willing to admit the painful truth that this historically persecuted people has now become a persecutor. This child understands and empathizes with the emotions of the other children all too well – in truth, she still experiences them from time to time. In the end, however, the Courageous Child refuses to live a life defined by fear, bitterness or complacency. She understands it is her sacred duty to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed, particularly when she herself is implicated in that oppression.

At one time or another we have heard within ourselves the voices of any or all of these children.

How will we respond to them?

For Passover: Exodus Without Eisodus

"The Fall of Jericho" (Antonio Tempesta)

“The Fall of Jericho” (Antonio Tempesta)

In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!

The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.[1]

On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity.  The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.

However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.[2]

As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.

Continue reading

Some Thoughts on Passover 5772

This Pesach I’m thinking about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight.

I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.

Woe betide the empire that fails to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharoahs among us ever learn?

There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Read that one around the seder table tonight. And for good measure, throw in this sentence from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

It is my fervent hope that this Pesach, we American Jews, who rank among the most privileged and powerful citizens on earth, will talk openly and honestly about the wages of our power when we gather yet again to tell the story. What would it mean if we truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?

Conversely (and much more painfully), are we, as Americans and as Jews, ready to confront the ways we regularly wield our own power and privilege in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that the power that we chronically take for granted, will eventually, inevitably go the way of history as well?

Indeed, if there is any message we learn at seder table tonight, it’s that, to paraphrase the words of poet Kevin Coval, all Pharoahs must eventually fall:

wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall

Read that one around the seder table too.

I’m so proud to be part of a tradition, a people, a spiritual nation that has survived to outlast far mightier nations because it has affirmed a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora, where this sacred vision was sown, took root and eventually blossomed forth.

May the story we tell tonight inspire us to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.

All the best for a challenging and liberating Pesach.

Liberate Yourself With New Passover Resources!

With the first night of Passover fast approaching, check out these great new seder resources you can bring to the table:

– Hot off the presses: the Jewish Voice for Peace 2011 Haggadah. One powerful excerpt – a new Passover poem written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for her “Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach“:

In remembrance of the 2011 protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere.

Liberation comes when people gather
by the tens and by the thousands
demanding that the despot who’s held the reins
step down, and in between the slogans
they dish out lentils cooked over open flame,
and homes open up so the protestors can shower
and members of one faith link hands
to protect members of another faith at prayer.
Liberation comes at a cost: not only
the horses and chariots swept away, but
innocents gunned down by their own army,
panicked children lost in the roiling crowds
activists imprisoned for speaking freely,
and when the world stops watching
they may be beaten—or worse.
It’s upon us to at least pay attention
on mobile phones and computer screens
as real people rise up to say
we have the right to congregate and to speak
we will not be silenced, we are not afraid.

A “Food and Justice” seder from Uri L’Tzedek;

– “The Labor Seder” by Jews United for Justice;

– American Jewish World Service’s “Slavery, Freedom and Migration;”

A Haggadah Insert by Jewish Solidarity with Native American People;

The 2011 Tikkun Magazine Haggadah supplement which, as always, has enough material for 10 seders.

May it be a liberating Pesach for us all!

Passover and Good Friday: Together Like Never Before

The most memorable aspect of my Pesach this year? A combination Passover – Good Friday service JRC held together with the wonderful folks at Lake Street Church of Evanston.

The whole thing was hatched somewhat by chance. A month or so ago I was having lunch with my good friend Reverend Bob Thompson of Lake St. Church (appropriately enough at Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe) and our conversation turned to our respective upcoming rites of spring. Bob mentioned to my surprise that he hadn’t celebrated Good Friday at Lake St. in quite some time – mainly because he simply couldn’t abide by blood atonement theology – the notion that God would somehow require the bloodshed of one man to atone for all of the sins of the rest of the world.

For my part, I mentioned that Good Friday had not generally been so “good” to the Jews throughout history, since this was invariably the time in which the worst pogroms were perpetrated against European Jewish communities. As a result, for much of Jewish history Passover was a secret ritual: observed in fear and in private. Given our complicated mutual history, we both agreed that it would be enormously powerful to celebrate Passover and Good Friday together in a spirit of healing and hope.

So that is exactly what we did this last Friday. While Bob and I weren’t at all sure if this service would fly, it actually suceeded beyond our highest expectations. Hundreds of JRC and Lake St. members filled the sanctuary at Lake St. church. Together we celebrated with a service that mixed Hebrew and English, Jewish songs, Christian hymns and prayers for healing. We ended with a rousing “Down By The Riverside.” Afterwards, countless participants – both Jewish and Christian – told us that the service was an immensely moving and healing experience for them.

During the service, Bob and I had a conversation in which we both mused about what our respective holidays might look like if we recast them in the spirit of healing and hope. Bob began by saying the first thing Christians needed to do when celebrating Good Friday was to apologize to the Jewish community for the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. He then went on to explore how Christians might recast the meaning of the crucifixion itself. Here’s what he had to say:

Every Good Friday well meaning folk gather to listen to priests and ministers talk about how Jesus was crucified, the “lamb of God,” to take away the sins of the world. In other words, Jesus died a sacrificial death to satisfy the God who demands retribution – the God who requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Thankfully these days there’s an emergent form of Christianity – one that does not buy this “blood atonement theory” – and it is a theory. Today, more and more Christians are saying they do not believe that God requires the shedding of blood… The point is, violence is not a solution – it’s always a problem. We have to get to see that violence never purifies – it always defiles. In every form it is defiling.

That’s why if Jesus was standing here today, I believe he’d say, “don’t call me the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might say rather something more like “I am a window to divinity and a mirror of humanity. What I came to do is to show you what it means to be open to the Divine and to reflect the best of who we are as human beings. And everybody can reflect this and be this window if only we have the spiritual vision to see clearly enough.”

In other words, Jesus, I believe, would not say that he suffered to keep us from suffering – he suffered because to be human is to suffer. Jesus hangs there because life is always hanging in the balance for all of us all of the time.

I was so taken by his willingness to take on the violence inherent in the crucifixion image – and I responded in kind with my remarks:

There’s no getting around it: to observe the Seder, you need to tell a story of oppression and violence. And you cannot get to what is for Christians resurrection and what is for Jews the Exodus from Egypt without going through that moment of violence…

I will also say I share with you, Bob, completely, that I do not view violence in any way as redemptive. I reject that categorically. I think we all have to. But we still have to struggle with the way violence affects us and what it does to us and what it does to our souls. We can’t ignore it. Even if we disavow it, we can’t ignore it.

As a Jew… I fear the violence that is embodied by the Seder and that has been waged against the Jewish people for centuries will turn us into a bitter people. That it will only cause us to have a sense of entitlement which means we use our pain as a weapon against the outside world because nothing we do to anyone else can be nearly as horrible as what’s been done to us. Or it will cause us to build bigger walls between us and the rest of the world and to instill a Jewish identity that basically says nothing more than “all the world really wants us dead, and that’s what it means to be a Jew. And we have to be forever vigilant because we live in a world that hates Jews.”

And while I’m not unmindful of this history and I do think we need to retell this history because those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it…I also think we need to look seriously at what this legacy of violence and oppression does to us and what we do with it.

And for me that means bearing witness to oppression in the world. If there is any sliver of redemption in violence, it means that it can open the door to empathy – and I would suggest that this idea comes from a very deep place in Biblical tradition – in the Torah.

The commandment commanded more times than any other in the Torah is some version of “Do not oppress the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” To me what that says is “you don’t take your pain and use it as a weapon against the outside world. You take your pain and use it as a tool for empathy with the outside world – and to bear witness against oppression no matter where it is fomented, whether it is in our community or it’s in any community.

We cannot hold on to our pain as uniquely ours, and I want to come back to something you said earlier, Bob: “We’re all in this together. It’s not some of us – it’s all of us. And violence against one people is violence against all.”

You can read some of Bob’s thoughts about our service on a piece he’s just written for You can also click below to hear an audio of the entire service. (The service itself begins at the 10:00 point).

Next Year in a Jerusalem for All its Citizens

Jewish settlement in Silwan, East Jerusalem (photo from Activestills)

The words “Next Year in Jerusalem”  seriously stuck in my throat at seder this year.

I know that these words are largely a spiritual metaphor.  I know that for centuries of Jewish history these words referred to a messianic vision of the future and not literal immigration. Still, given the political realities of the day, it’s just so very to difficult to separate spiritual metaphor from literal facts on the ground.

It was enormously difficult for me to proclaim “Next Year in  Jerusalem” together with Jews the world over knowing that right now in Yerushalayim Shel Mata (“earthly Jerusalem”), non-Jewish residents are being evicted from their homes and the construction of Jewish residences are increasing with utter impunity. By any other name this would be called “ethnic cleansing,” and I have no trouble saying so.

Many will claim that Jews have a right to build houses anywhere that they please. That is not the issue. This issue, of course, is that Palestinians in Israel do not. Others will say that the government is only building in parts of Jerusalem that “everyone knows” will be always be part of Israel anyway.  This is, in fact, exactly what Netanyahu claimed in his address at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference:

Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.

This claim is hogwash. If you would like to know why, please read this article by Danny Seidemann and Lara Friedman, who understand the recent history and politics of Jerusalem better than just about anyone:

What Netanyahu really means is that East Jerusalem land falls into two categories: areas that “everybody knows” Israel will keep and where it can therefore act with impunity, and areas that Israel hopes it can keep, by dint of changing so many facts on the ground before a peace agreement is reached that they move into the first category.

It is an approach that can be summed up as: “what’s mine is mine, and what you think is yours will hopefully be mine, too.” It discloses with stark clarity the underlying principle of Netanyahu’s Jerusalem policies: the status of Jerusalem and its borders will be determined by Israeli deeds rather than by negotiations. More bluntly, who needs agreement with Palestinians or recognition of the international community when “everybody knows”?

And it is an approach that we see today on the ground, where Israel is doing its best — through construction, demolitions, changes in the public domain — to transform areas of East Jerusalem that have always been overwhelmingly Palestinian into areas that everybody will soon recognize as Israeli, now and forever. This is happening in the area surrounding the Old City, in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods like Ras al Amud and Jebel Mukabber, and it is now starting to target areas like Shuafat and Beit Hanina.

The notion that a peace process can survive such an Israeli approach in Jerusalem is not rational.  The notion that Israel can be taken seriously as a peace partner while acting this way is farcical.  And the notion that the United States can be a credible steward of peace efforts while tolerating such behavior is laughable.

Next year in a Jerusalem for all of its citizens…

Passover Supplements Galore!

The Passover 2010 seder supplements are arriving fast and furious. In my last post I shared my JVP supplement – here are a few more you can download and use to spice up your seder meal:

– The “Moral Voices” initiative of Penn Hillel has published “From Chains to Change” – a supplement that connects the lessons of Pesach to the contemporary scourge of human trafficking;

– Workingman’s Circle’s “10 Modern Plagues” demonstrates how our contemporary bounty is diminished by the suffering of others;

– J Street’s supplement asks “Four More Questions” about the prospects for the peace process in the coming year;

Tikkun Magazine’s supplement, thoughtful as ever, is so verbose that it could be its own haggadah…

The new supplement created by American Jewish World Service focuses on disaster relief:  “Dayenu: Supporting the Long Journey from Disaster to Recovery;”

– Jewish Funds for Justice highlights immigration reform with “For We Were Strangers;”

A print-out placemat from Mazon asks a 5th question: “Why On This Night are Millions of People Going Hungry?”

A zissen Pesach – all the best for a sweet and liberating Passover…