for Larisa Blum
The moon was full last night and we celebrated the first night of Passover at a seder, reading from the Haggadah the story of the Jews’ long-ago exile in Egypt when we were slaves. I’ve listened to the history of my people’s tribulations at dozens of seders, but last night I think I heard it for the first time.
And did not like it at all.
As I heard it last night, the Passover story is a drawn-out complaint about being victims and martyrs. You almost have to read it in a whiny voice. God is a jealous God, so full of wrath He goes out of His way to smite down the firstborns! His Chosen people deserve punishment for one thing after another and have to wander the desert for forty years.
I’ve never questioned my people’s ongoing story of woe before, I suppose because I was born when Hitler was still in power, so of course we identified ourselves as victims. The shame amongst us Jews in my Brooklyn neighborhood branded us as losers, and as one of them I assumed I was as much a loser as any of my refugee relatives. Where I grew up, self-hate was taken for granted!
Well, I take it back now! What were we thinking?
The story of Christianity is another variation on the theme of guilt and retribution: a beloved Son is unjustly tortured, his consort is a whore, his mother is a virgin and his absentee Father betrays Him. We are all born in sin because Eve ate an apple and seduced Adam to start the human race, so we are bad by definition, and to seek redemption we must obey a set of rules that make no sense. Our choice is either obedience or disobedience; one gets you to Heaven, the other lands you in Hell. The Savior gets to assign which of us goes where, but it is not very clear how He makes His decisions.
We are to believe, not ask questions.
At the age of nineteen, fascinated by the mystery and power of the Church and the pictures of cathedrals with their soaring arches, I went off to France to study Medieval Art History. I wanted to understand this religion, especially the story of the Last Judgment, curious to know why Hell was so much more compelling to me than Heaven. I figured, being the way I was, I’d be sent down to Hell with the more interesting folks anyway.
My deeper truth, I admit now, was that I wanted to understand fear itself, to find out why I was so afraid most of the time. Religion, it seemed to me, had a stake in keeping me scared and I needed to know why, especially since in my heart I longed to believe in a loving God.
As something of a mystic even as a child, my experiences of the natural world made me feel safe and happy; I could feel God present in the air. I was keenly aware of the ecstatic ‘presence’ of the night sky, the thrill of birds taking to the air from sidewalk trees, the cloud-shapes drifting over our Brooklyn neighborhood. I trusted my experience of Nature more than I trusted the people in my family, who were unhappy and treated each other badly, breaking my young heart on a daily basis.
Outdoors, I belonged. Indoors, I was a stranger.
The only one I shared my feelings with was my little dog. In fact, it was my adoring love for Dukie that gave me my first glimpses of what I would now call ‘spirituality.’
Looking with objective eyes at the monotheistic, Abrahamic traditions now, I wonder again about that fear I felt so deeply as a child. If people are kept afraid, I’ve come to realize, then we can be controlled by whoever is in power.
In many households, that has been the father.
Before Abraham, who was the founding Patriarch of what became the redemptive religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there was no such thing as Patriarchy with its all-powerful Father-God. Deities were many, were both male and female and the Earth was worshipped as sacred - Gaia-Sophia.
So where did this young Abraham, son of a priest from Ur in 3500 B.C.E., come from? I wonder if he was chosen as a mouthpiece for others with a more political agenda in mind?
I cannot help but smell a rat here. Whose idea was it to oust partnership and the female influence and wage battles to make it stick? Could there have been some kind of mind-parasite infecting us, originally planted in an otherwise innocent host, putting us under a collective spell from that day forward?
Science fiction? Well, who knows?
I ran my story by a Jewish friend whose family escaped from the Ukraine when she was nine, and she nodded and smiled, saying, “We do rather complain a lot, don’t we?” Then, more seriously, she told me about her seders.
“For me it’s more of an annual ritual in response to oppression,” she said. “The seder can open up a space for grief and be a way of celebrating empowerment,” she explained. “You sort of take what you’ve got, for better or for worse, and turn it into something meaningful and joyous for yourselves. We spent most of the evening singing and eating the best matzoh ball soup I’ve ever tasted!”
I was reminded of the years I spent singing in the Gospel Choir of a Black Christian Church in my neighborhood. As a Caucasian Jew I hardly belonged there, except I was received amongst them with open arms. It was definitely my privilege to be there.
It was easy to translate much of the language of Christianity into my own understanding of goodness and blessing, and I was happy to do so because I loved these good people and I was lifted up along with them by the music we were making, and the ecstatic spirit we shared. Whatever were the ways any of us understood God, the presence was amongst us every Sunday at church and every Thursday night at choir rehearsal. Taking communion with them felt like being part of their family, and for me had nothing to do with eating the body and blood of anybody.
So right now in this country we’re going through the eye of the needle, being squeezed to fit into an agenda that is brutal and wrong. The danger is immense and the madness beyond anything we could have imagined in our right minds.
So what do we do now?
I don’t have any real answers, but for me it’s about our sharing the worship of the sacred world into which we have been born, no matter what else is coming down. It is about being able to love one another, no matter what. As Caroline Casey says, “Trust each other’s souls, not each other’s agendas.”
Love has to be our response, because love is the ultimate reality.
Yes, this moment is as scary as Hell (though Hell doesn’t really exist, right?) but we are neither wimps nor stupid cyphers. We can use our imaginations brilliantly to make use of all the creativity we can muster, have a good time in the process and change things bit by bit.
If you think you’re depressed, imagine how Barack and Michelle must be feeling these days!
For myself, I simply cannot let them down.