Another Passover: Jews indulge in food and fantasy

"I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest.  Up comes a theologian and blows it out."

Denis Diderot

“Imagine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams.”

David Hume

The Non-Event

Another Passover is upon us. Jews around the world celebrate their founding myth, the central reason for their identity, and very importantly, because its bloody repercussions persist to this day, their divine right to a piece of land.

It seems obvious to modern-day Jews that the Passover story was about freedom, but this concept, so prominent in contemporary celebrations, was unknown to the Bronze Age shepherd-farmers whose culture the Torah reflects.  The Israelites themselves owned slaves. What the Torah says, in several places, is that God did it all for his own glory.  

(Upon reflection, the Old Testament God bears striking resemblances to The Donald: selfish, preening, capricious, vengeful, violent, autocratic, rewards loyalty and punishes disloyalty, plays favorites -- and does it all for his own glory.)

Passover is another example of blended holidays.  Just as Christians decided that Jesus was born at the time of the Roman Saturnalia, Jews grafted their redemption tale onto an already-existing spring festival called Pesakh. The word refers to the skipping dance the shepherds did to encourage their flock to breed.  Traces of this ancient festival remain in Passover -- e.g., the interchangeability of "Passover" and "Pesakh'"; the parsley and the egg on the Seder plate.  The egg is symbolically equivalent to an Easter egg.  

Holiday at home – no rabbi needed!

This holiday is entrusted to the Jewish laity in their homes – no rabbi needed,  Same for Succoth, the holiday where Jews build little structures in their back yards, to pretend for a little while that they are not pampered suburbanites but hardy desert trekkers, on the way to the Promised Land.

Kinda makes you wonder why they don’t do that for all of Judaism. It would kill the rabbi job market, that’s why. It would eliminate the middleman.

Plus, even if you could create home-guides for other holidays like Tisha B’Av, the High Holidays, and Simchat Torah (where they celebrate finishing the Torah—and then start all over again!), you still need a congregation to reinforce the groupthink and make everyone feel religious instead of psychotic.

(Irreverent question: Does it ever occur to any rabbi, even for a moment, that “Holy shit, I’m up here babbling gibberish to nobody”? Never a moment’s doubt?)

Full instructions for the Seder (ritual dinner), along with the story itself, are provided, in a book called the Hagaddah, which comes in many different lengths and variations. For years, Maxwell House distributed one at Passover time - a booklet of no more than 100 pages -- along with its (presumably) kosher-for-Passover coffee..

South Philly memories 

I vividly recall the Seders at my grandparents' row house in South Philly. Tables placed end-to-end and laden with knishes (three kinds!), matzo ball chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish -- the whole palette of Sara Schwartz' culinary art,

While she stayed in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the meal, grandfather Hymie would sit at the head of the table, reading the Hebrew Hagaddah, gamely trying to get through it, flipping pages amid cries of ":C'mon, Pop, we're hungry!" 

There are fifteen steps in the traditional Seder.  You can't eat until the entire exodus story is recounted. Needless to say, we skipped a few. The Four Questions are never skipped.  As the youngest, I was supposed to recite them, but the first time, I had such stage fright that my Uncle Mike stepped in.

If length is optional, observant Jews regard more as better.  After the final set of songs -- and I couldn't have put it any better than Wikipedia --  "those who are still awake may recite the Song of Songs, engage in Torah learning, or continue talking about the events of the Exodus until sleep overtakes them."

Two of my wife's sisters married rabbis, and they led just such marathons.  Those Seders could go on for five hours.  

None of it happened.

As for me, well, when I found out that none of it happened…I lost all motivation for celebrating non-events. I left all of that Exodus crap behind – and never looked back (at one point, God kills 24,000 Israelites in a plague, for whoring with Midianite women; hey, can’t a guy get laid out here?).

Passover and the High Holidays are when highly observant Jews go into a frenzy.  All because the Jews baked unleavened bread in their haste to leave Egypt, today's Jews can't eat any leavened products for a week. You can't even have them in your house. Jews go after them with toothbrushes, determined to remove every crumb. Ho-lee shit!

And remember: more is better.  You can't eat legumes, for some obscure reason. Foods of all kinds are forbidden unless they are produced and blessed "kosher for Passover."  A whole new set of Passover crockery and utensils is required. 

Paper frogs and real history

My wife tells of making paper frogs to symbolize one of the plagues. Every year the Haggadah’s joy in other people’s suffering becomes more distasteful to me (ten drops of wine are dripped out to sympathize with the poor Egyptians).

Thinking about the real history makes me LMAO. The Jews were a primitive tribe of shepherds and farmers. Egypt was the Middle Eastern superpower of its day. Imagine Somali pirates attacking the US Navy.

Any exodus from slavery probably resulted from captivity, which in turn resulted from attacking the fringes of the Egyptian empire. But in the Torah, a 430-year, master-slave relationship between Jews and Egyptians was fabricated out of whole cloth.  The Jews did not build the pyramids. They were not slaves in Egypt.  They weren't even in Egypt.

Before they were enslaved, the story goes, the Jews did rather well in Egypt, after Joseph correctly interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams. If Joseph was such an influential adviser to the Pharaoh, don’t you think the Egyptian historians and record keepers would have noticed?

What does it say about a religion that its founding myth bears no relation whatever to discoverable reality? At least the Muslims have an actual historical figure (who rode up to heaven on a white horse).

Do you believe?

What it says…is that here, in the Exodus story, is another dividing line between belief and non-belief. Do you believe the fundamental myth or not? If you are a true believer, yes: you probably manage to do the same group-reinforced mental programming that keeps the Torah intact as a true account of the history of the Jews. If you doubt, keep it to yourself.

Don't get it

Celebrating actual events, e.g., July 4th, makes sense, although no politician ever talks about liberty on the 4th (or the rest of the year).  But why celebrate things that didn't happen and act as if they did?  As my brother (Judaism Ultra-Lite) points out, it's an excuse for a good meal.  Granted, but like the Jews wandering in the desert, what a hell of a long way to get there!

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Comment by Alan Perlman on April 8, 2018 at 8:09pm

Vine, Thank you so much for your kind words.  To make sure I knew what I was talking about, I actually read the Torah (in authoritative translation), which most Jews do not. Primitive (8th century BC). Nothing there! Wrote a book about it - An Atheist Reads the Torah, available online.

There are other religions that condemn unbelievers to hell, most notably Islam.  What's the point of having a religion if outsiders are not doomed?  And why are a dozen (at least) religious wars raging around the world?  Even supposedly peaceful Buddhists,   

Comment by Vine on April 8, 2018 at 7:00pm
I so enjoyed this informative essay, along with your companion piece about Easter. I'm a mere computer programmer and lack your erudition in matters of history and theology, but I did once have the privilege of attending the Passover Seder of my girlfriend's family, who were willing to welcome errant goyim into their home for the occasion. While I find the prescribed fantasies of Judaism fanciful and peculiar, they seem to me quite benign compared to those of Christianity. Feel free to enlighten me if I'm wrong, but I have heard of no other religion besides Christianity in which the presiding god condemns ALL of his "children", by default, to an eternity of the most excruciating torture, sparing only those who, prior to their deaths, have declared their allegiance to the specific religion in question. That is the most pernicious religious myth of which I'm aware. Even if I believed it were true, I could not worship such a god.
Comment by Alan Perlman on April 5, 2018 at 11:41am

Loren...and yet they behave as if it's true.  Cognitive dissonance is not a problem for children (Santa, Easter Bunny) -- or for the grown-up children that religion produces.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 4, 2018 at 9:46pm

Cat, As it turns out,I went to many Humanistic Seders at the Birmingham Temple, founding congregation of the movement.  Knowing the founder himself -- Rabbi Sherwin Wine -- was a great privilege.  The story was indeed told, in abbreviated form, hedged with "Tradition tells us..."  I don't believe it mentioned God  I would have walked out. 

Comment by Grinning Cat on April 4, 2018 at 7:35pm

It would be of interest to see how Humanistic Jewish haggadot, that wouldn't mention a God at all, present the mythology of the exodus story; whether they claim any connection to actual history.

Comment by Loren Miller on April 4, 2018 at 7:15pm

Considering that Israeli archeologists have themselves failed to find any evidence whatsoever that anyone spent 40 years or even 40 days wandering the Sinai desert two or three millennia ago is rather a strong indicator that the book of Exodus is yet one more fairy tale in a collection of fairy tales.

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