On Monday, March 25th, I’ll be schlepping out to Massapequa Park on the Long Island Railroad with some of my kids in tow, off to Bubbe and Zayde’s for Passover. We’ll have a great time — games, food, talk — and then at some point during the ritual Pesach dinner there will come the moment when I’ll whisper to whoever is sitting next to me (probably my sister Sharon, because everybody else is tired of hearing me complain). Here’s what I’ll say, what I say every year: “I really don’t like this part.”
I’m talking about the celebration of the ten plagues, which apparently God inflicted upon the families of the Egyptian ruling class in order to help Moses and the Jews escape to Israel. There’s a whole lot of weird ritual at this point. We recite the list in unison, dipping our fingers into red Manischevitz wine (grape juice for the kids), flinging the drippings onto our plates as we recite. Yes, we do this, and it always brings uncomfortable laughter. Here’s the top ten list, straight from Exodus and the Haggaddah:
- Wild Animals
- Murrain (cow disease)
- Death of the first-born
It was the last plague that convinced the Pharoah to allow Moses to leave, and fortunately we stop here, and the Passover celebration gets better soon after (especially since, finally, we finish the Haggaddah and are allowed to eat). There are some parts of the Pesach ritual I do enjoy, like the singing of the rockin’ tune ‘Dayenu’, which can be seen here:
Actually, unfortunately, “Dayenu” isn’t usually as awesome as it is in this video. More often, it sounds like this:
Either way, I enjoy most types of ritual celebrations that don’t revel in the death of innocent children. But the plagues are ugly and ridiculous (frogs? lice? boils? really?), and the death of the first-born is hard to take, especially since we’re a big happy family sitting around a table with several generations of our own first-born and later-born (and adopted, and blended-born) enjoying each others’ presence.
Many have discussed this problem before. I found the photo at the top of this page on a Christian website called ‘Oregon Faith Report‘, accompanied by the photographer’s curious observation:
I was walking through Bed Bath & Beyond and stumbled a finger puppet display. At first glance of seeing the blood and animal attack puppet I thought it was a first aid finger puppet teaching tool. Upon further reading I noticed it advertised itself as the 10 Plague Finger Puppet set for kids. The puppets are based on the 10 plagues as told by the story of Moses and Egypt in the Book of Exodus. You have your hail, darkness, frogs, boils, lice and the most deadly — the firstborn plague. I would have never imagined such teaching tool and now I can only imagine how to walk through the story as a parent. For it to hit the marketplace shows that it has legs and that many Jewish families must have found something that works to help preserve their traditions.
Well, we Jews have lots and lots and lots and lots of traditions, and as far as I’m concerned, the celebration of the plagues is one we can start doing without. The funny Topless Robot blogger who posted ‘The 5 Most Disturbing Plague Related Passover Gifts‘ seems to agree.
And, in fact, the Haggaddah has already been made politically correct, as my father and brother are sure to remind me whenever I bring this up. “You should see the ones they used to use.” In the editions we run our Pesach with, there is a nice paragraph at the end about how we regret the suffering of our enemies, and how we wish peace for all peoples of the world. This is good. But it’s not yet good enough.
Why can’t we simply adjust the Haggaddah (an ever-evolving book that dates back about 1800 years, and has no single authoritative text) to deemphasize the part of the ritual that celebrates the suffering of our enemies? While it is a vital Jewish law that families gather to recite the story of Moses every year, I’m not convinced that the law mandates which aspects of the story we emphasize. I suppose it’s up to socially-aware Jews like myself to speak up when a change is needed, and that’s why I’m doing so today. I hope others will do the same.
One objection I’ve heard, when I’ve suggested that the tradition must evolve, is that any criticism of Jewish tradition may be motivated by anti-semitism, and that Jews should not respond to any criticism from outside the Jewish community. There are layers and layers of ethnic/historical hard feelings to dig through to try to resolve this type of dispute, so I try to respond by saying this: “Let’s not change the tradition because others tell us to. Let’s change it because it’s the right thing to do.”
I think Yahweh will forgive us if we finally stop reveling in a victory over our oppressors that took place three thousand years ago. It’s good sportsmanship, if nothing else. We can still enjoy the endless other weird Passover rituals, like the chewing of the bitter herb.
I’d love to know what others think about my suggestion that the Passover ritual must evolve, and I’d love to hear from Jews and non-Jews about this. Is it time for a change?