Delivered at First Existentialist Congregation, Atlanta, Georgia
I am currently on my first, and probably only formal (paid), sabbatical from Unitarian Universalist parish ministry, excused from my regular duties, released from a daily, or almost daily, crosstown Atlanta commute: from pastoral counseling, from newsletter editing, from intern supervision, from class teaching or arranging, from congregational politics, from sermon preparation and giving. Taking a break from being vocationally tied to a particular house of worship, even as we define it: including the community celebrations I have been part of virtually my entire life. A total this year of almost six months of time to myself: to rest, to regain a sense of authenticity and personal agency it is easy to lose in this work. To read, to reflect, to travel, to create. In exchange for which, an enforced retreat.
No Sunday morning services. No coffee hour. No potluck or paid suppers. No Cultural Mosaic Spring picnics. No monthly lunches with my local colleague group. And no religious observances — UU style — in the company of my fellow spiritual travelers. Going it alone, some days feeling like it is a glorious and meaningful break. Other days that it is a kind of house arrest.
Take this past week for example — the relatively rare convergence of arguably the highest holiest period for two major religious faiths.
According to the Gregorian Calendar year 2012 or the Jewish Calendar year 5772, the first night of Pesah, or Passover, corresponded with the Christian Good Friday during Easter week. It is no accident that Easter and Passover are usually very close together but not necessarily — as will be this year — during parallel Holy Weeks. Passover always begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. Since the Council of Nicea in 325, establishing this and other orthodoxies in Western Christianity, Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday following the Pascal Full Moon, the first full moon on or after March 21 on the Gregorian Calendar, with calculations close to but not identical to the solar/lunar Jewish Calendar where each month starts with the New Moon.
While Jesus, by most accounts, including all three synoptic gospel accounts, celebrated the Last Supper on the first night of Passover (or perhaps during the meal breaking the Fast of the First Born the day before Passover), and died the second day at the time the ritual lambs were slaughtered in the Temple, the decree of the Nicean Council, issued three hundred years after the death of Jesus, deliberately separated the Easter observance in Christianity from any lingering connection with the Jewish Passover, especially the sacrificed lamb. In what is sometimes called The Great Parting, the Bishops crafted a theological apology that the Jewish Passover was just the foretaste and promise — the run up to — the coming of the Messiah and the real Salvation event, replaced for all times by the offering up of Jesus for the atonement of sins and no longer observable by the creedal faithful.
But this year, despite any creedal separation, these two holy times and two too often clashing faiths are literally elbow to elbow in the cradle of their traditions. In Jerusalem Friday, Arab Christians and visiting pilgrims, Catholic and Protestant, commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus in prayers and processions, filling the cobblestone alleyways of the Old City, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where they believe Jesus was killed, buried, and then resurrected on what is now Easter Sunday.
In the same city, in Jewish homes and restaurants, preparations were being made for the first night Seder, preceded by a serious spring cleaning of chametz, or all fermented grain products, and then the last-minute shopping for the necessary ritual meal ingredients: special for-Passover matzot, lamb shanks, fruits and nuts, spring greens and bitter herbs. All in the shadow of heightened security and tensions that go back these many centuries.
I read about how these holidays and holy days are being celebrated thousands of miles away in the newspaper in this year when I will have stayed home from my own congregation, where this weekend for the first time in my memory we will have held a Good Friday service in addition to a community Seder last night, and this morning a traditional early Easter service and a flower communion, created by an Hungarian Unitarian minister in the dark days just before the Second World War — who asked his parishioners to bring a flower to exchange, instead of the customary bread and wine, and for his opposition to Hitler and his policies, was put to death by the Nazis.
Stripped, albeit voluntarily, of actual attendance: I have followed these events vicariously on Facebook, wondered how many people would come to any or all of the special services; worried if there would be ample food at the Seder by the end of the line; and given the heat and early blooming this spring, whether people would find enough blossoms in their own yards (I know our azaleas and rhododendrons are fading fast) for the flower ritual today.
This retreat from organized religion (essentially) — even Unitarian Universalism — has allowed me or left me with a vacuum filled with the ability and/or necessity of reading about the American Way of Easter and Passover as a voyeur. Noticing (or actually re-noticing in high density) the ubiquitous marketing of bunnies: plush bunnies, chocolate bunnies, mini globes filled with bunnies, papier-mâché bunnies, even bunny nutcrackers. Easter baskets of every size and color, filled with sweets, toys, high end cosmetics, and even Easter ornament trees. The calendar announcements of one Easter egg hunt after another — one location boasting that more than 25,000 plastic eggs filled with candy would be scattered across a baseball field.
And then there were the articles about the cancellation of the annual egg hunt in Colorado Springs and another here in Macon, due to the aggressive behavior of “helicopter” parents, who jumped the rope set up only for children in order to insure their kids got enough goodies.
The admix of the resurrection of the Christian Messiah and the chocolate-covered Coming of the Easter bunny, which did not go unnoticed by a seven-year-old boy with whom I had a conversation yesterday afternoon. After telling me that his stomach hurt due to an overindulgence in his egg hunt loot, he wondered out loud what the Easter Bunny had to do with Jesus. Probably inappropriately answering his query (kind of like responding to a how-are-babies-born question from a child not my own), I told him: Nothing. Lambs maybe, but the bunnies and the painted eggs are part of an ancient Spring festival. And left it at that and for him to sort out the mash-up of the two.
If sweets and trinkets and sales on ham and pineapple and recipes for easy cheesy scalloped potatoes signal the Easter celebration, at least in the media, Passover is no less so encased in culinary references and for-profit ventures — for example, the Matzah wars between American-made and drastically-marked-down Israeli imports. There were the Jewish Forward recipes for dolled up chopped liver for the holidays, apple and sage or Szechuan. New variations on ways to prepare the Haroseth, the simulated “mortar” for the unleavened “bricks,” including a tantalizing one made from pears, pecans, figs, and cinnamon. All manner of fried matzot, chipotle being the most unique.
An ad for a Perfect Passover stay at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples Florida, with three renowned chefs and four areas to sun and swim. A three-hour pre-Passover walking tour of the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, including a tour of a matzo bakery, wine and horseradish tastings. Five-course non-Kosher high-end restaurant Seders, complete with the Seder plate, where people can perform their own services. Or the celebrity-infused Seder held Friday night in the upper reaches of Madison Square Garden for a party of Jewish Bruce Springsteen fans who wanted to solve the dilemma of respecting the holiday while making it to the promised land of their favorite rock star’s concert.
It is no more surprising that Passover is rolled out this way, than the chocolate covering of Easter. As a matter of fact, chocolate matzots are a popular dessert for a Seder meal. For many American Jews, Passover is about the meal, usually only one, eaten in the company of family, with all its gaiety or grimness, and/or friends, or on utility plates in synagogue social halls. It’s about the gefilte fish, mostly from a jar,the matzah ball soup, the syrupy sweet wine, the roast chicken or brisket, the special fruity jelly candies. More or less, usually less, about the reading of the sharing of the Haggadah, which is the telling of the story of the Exodus, which the Passover meal recreates. Certainly that is true for most secular Jews, which is most Jewish people in this country, who have left their Temples behind, but hold on to minimal cultural connections, quite often, but not always, this particular meal.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the lopsided emphasis is changing. Admittedly, I feel less qualified or comfortable addressing what may or may not be happening for “secular” or mostly nonobservant Christians in terms of re-looking at Easter and its rituals than I do in Jewish circles, but one observation I can make, in the midst of the continuous commercial spin on both holy-days, holidays, is that there seems to be at least increased literary/textual interest in taking a more expansive and inclusive and thoughtful look at the Jewish-Christian continuum and connections, on one hand, and spending at least as much time selecting a Haggadah, or creating one’s own, as cleaning the house for company and preparing the food.
In an effort to pull the two faith traditions more closely together, there have been recent books published, including the mainstream easy read Kosher Jesus, written by a rabbi with a large following and strong ties to Christian evangelicals, making the case for Judeo-Christian camaraderie (and a right-wing agenda around Israel), and more significantly the release of the long-awaited first Jewish Annotated New Testament, which gives Christians the opportunity to accept more fully the Jewish context of their faith, and Jews the opportunity to appreciate the resonances.
Perhaps I have not been paying attention, given the growing numbers of Haggadah options, but it seems to me that there has been more buzz this year than ever about the service beyond the food — that these words are not just pauses between bites.
As religious scholars point out, the Passover Seder as we have come to know it, with its order of service or Haggadah, happened during the Rabbinic period, after the destruction of The Temple, at least two hundred years after the death of Jesus. In Jesus’s time, it was called The Feast of Unleavened Bread, where matzah was eaten, along with a ritually sacrificed lamb, a very stripped down version of what we have today.
As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent New York Times column: in the absence of a stable homeland, Jews have made their home in books.
Everywhere that Jews have wandered, he tells us, there have been different Haggadot — from the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah (which is said to have survived World War II under the floorboards of a mosque and the later siege of this city in a bank vault), to the Washington Haggadah, a 1478 manuscript housed at the Library of Congress, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and strikingly similar to much more contemporary copies; to those carried by Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses.
The formal order of service — the Haggadah or “the telling” — is not a singular text, frozen and canonized for all time. In the 16th century there were as many as 25 printed versions, by the 19th century well over 1,000, and now perhaps 7,000, not counting those homemade, pasted up and photocopied from a variety of versions, saved — wine and food stained — from year to year.
Why is Passover (night) different from all other nights, Safran Foer asks? Because it is the night that copyright laws don’t apply.
From the ubiquitous Chase and Sanborn and Maxwell House Haggadahs of mid-20th century America, picked up by the millions, 50 million by one accounting, in grocery store aisles, to the Santa Cruz Haggadah published in 1991, the one my college-age son brought home one year, a so-called alternative model with its self-liberation emphasis and gender-neutral loose translation from the Hebrew, there have been choices available for family-based and public observances.
With a great deal of fanfare, Jonathan Safran Foer published his own Haggadah this year — grandly named the New American Haggadah, a high-gloss, visually-inventive version with commentary from some respected writers, that from my viewing (and purchasing) is virtually impossible to use and exclusively male gender in its religious language. Other new editions include Haggadah Good Feeling About This, described by one critic as everything the New American Haggadah is not: homey, unsophisticated, and useful.
There’s the well-reviewed Wellspring of Freedom version by a Montreal rabbi, and even a Koren Ethiopian Haggadah, in which the not-always-easy relationship between that community and other Israeli Jewish communities is also described.
In addition to fresh choices in published Haggadot (and the ability now to build our own open source Haggadahs online), a list of updated 21st-century plagues has gone viral in cyberspace: replacing boils and locusts and other ancient scourges with a list including out of control Super-PACs, fear-mongering politicians, puritanical religious crusaders, all-powerful, self-interested banks and financial organizations that don’t care about the client, and otherwise reasonable, caring people who let them all get away with it.
There is a lively conversation going on about the seemingly endless additions that are being made to the ritual foods on the Seder Plate, with new items including potato peelings to remember those imprisoned in concentration camps; an orange to recognize the historical exclusion of women, gays and lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons from ordination as rabbis; olives to symbolize the hope for peace in the Middle East; artichokes for interfaith families; and the latest, a tomato in support of mistreated migrant workers.
College students who blog for New Voices, an online Jewish forum, point out that this most widely observed Jewish holiday, and most complex in many ways, is celebrated now not just by Jews but by non-Jewish members of intermarried families, non-Jewish friends, and what are sometimes misguided efforts by Christians to understand and recast what Jesus’s last meal was like. They wonder if this hospitality and inclusivity bring with them the possibility of losing the particular story which has given Passover its power and continuity over these many centuries.
The power of the Seder, one blogger wrote, is its accessibility and universality. Its focus on oppression and oppressions, and what liberation might look like. To look inward and outward. This blogger suggests the Seder may at some point become a trivialized dumping ground for an ever expanding hors d’oeuvre tray of contemporary causes, to which we come only to view oppression through the lens of one particular oppression, or one plague, and miss the larger sense of oppression that connects and motivates us all.
No answers yet, but the conversation is rich, in many ways richer than chopped liver and brisket.
One of my congregants commented on Facebook this morning that she missed me and my husband at the Seder there last night and will miss me at the Easter flower communion this morning. Ditto. Double Ditto.
I have already come to realize how powerful community celebration is, especially places like ours — where we don’t have to abandon our religious pasts or for some of us never have the opportunity to discover these traditions. Where we can find and delve into what is new, study and re-examine what is old, and create. I can hardly wait.
As a Humanist myself, I find much wisdom in Alain Botton’s observation in his just-released book on religion for atheists:
The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.
I look forward to returning from my time away with renewed zest for doing just this — and encouraging others to do the same. How do we keep Easter and keep Passover in ways that neither allow them to stay frozen nor disappear into the pages of advertising circulars. That bind us together, that let us hold on to our own histories.
Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Alleluia and Shalom.