Daiyenu: What is Sufficient? A Jewish UU's Struggle with Passover

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, March 24, 2002
Lori Rottenberg
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss

Then you shall take some of the blood, and put it on the door posts and the lintels of the houses...and when I see the blood, I shall pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

-Exodus 12:7 & 13


by Lynn Ungar

They thought they were safe
that spring night; when they daubed
the doorways with sacrificial blood.
To be sure, the angel of death
passed them over, but for what?
Forty years in the desert
without a home, without a bed,
following new laws to an unknown land.
Easier to have died in Egypt
or stayed there a slave, pretending
there was safety in the old familiar.

But the promise, from those first
naked days outside the garden,
is that there is no safety,
only the terrible blessing
of the journey. You were born
through a doorway marked in blood.
We are, all of us, passed over,
brushed in the night by terrible wings.

Ask that fierce presence,
whose imagination you hold.
God did not promise that we shall live,
but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars,
brilliant in the desert sky.

Glasses and Plates

As she left home,
she packed them
in a careful, slow panic-
did she know then her world was to end?

And my grandmother came here,
lived a life here,
and died here,
and what she brought, she passed down to me.

She left me glasses-
glasses and plates-
all that's left of meals eaten, those who ate them, times they shared.
windows on a world long gone.

She would only use them for special times,
meals made sacred with love.
I could never see the place she came from,
but her tables brought me closer.

Now they stand
in my curio,
all arranged like an altar,
colored glass and the gold, like a church.

And I wonder
if one day
an unknown child of mine will
look at them and try to know me?

She'll just see glasses-
glasses and plates-
all that's left of meals eaten, those who ate them, times we shared.
windows on a world long gone:

All that will be left of my world and me.

-Lori Rottenberg, February 2002

Daiyenu: What Is Sufficient?
A Jewish UU's Struggle with Passover

by Lori Rottenberg

One night, I dreamt that my grandfather, whom I've missed dearly since he died, was coming to visit me. In this dream, I was running around getting everything ready and urgently telling my husband Chuck, "We need to put out the bread that my grandparents gave us. We need to put out their bread!" But this bread was kind of old and stale and only had a few slices left in the loaf. I wanted to use a new loaf of bread that we had instead, which was fresh and full and looked delicious. I woke up from this dream feeling very confused and torn, and I didn't know why a dream about bread would affect me this way. As I told Chuck about it, we both realized what the dream was truly about. The old, stale bread given to me by my grandfather represented Judaism, and the new fresh loaf represented Unitarian Universalism. Despite the contribution that Unitarian Universalism has made to my life, I often feel guilty about my activism in something called a "church," and apparently felt I had to hide it and trot out the old stuff, the Judaism given to me by my grandparents, to make them happy. Although my grandparents died before I joined RRUC, and I miss them every day of my life, I am also often relieved I never have to explain my involvement in Unitarianism to them.

My ambivalence about being Jewish by birth and Unitarian Universalist by belief is at its strongest during Passover, which will be starting this Wednesday night. Passover is both the central celebration of Jewish identity as well as a holiday of deep gratitude, kind of like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. (As many of you may know, Passover is far more important to Judaism than the more widely known Hannukah, which only became important in the U.S. because of its proximity to Christmas.) Passover refers to the final plague that befell the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused Moses' request to free the Jews from slavery. After locusts, rivers that ran red with blood, and other terrible events refused to melt Pharaoh's heart, the Angel of Death killed the first-born children of the Egyptians, including the Pharaoh's son. The Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Jews because God had wanted them to put lamb's blood on the doorways.

Through the use of a little script book called the haggadah, the Passover celebration allows Jewish families to personally reenact-in their homes during the seder dinner-their ancestors' struggle to be freed from bondage in Egypt. It marks the first step in their historic covenant with God, the beginning of their chosenness as a people. According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, author of The Jewish Way, when we "observe Passover, [we] are commemorating what is arguably the most important event of all time-the Exodus from Egypt. If for no other reason than the fact that the Exodus directly or indirectly generated many of the important events cited by other groups, this is the event of human history." (The Jewish Way, p.64) Throughout the ages, both Jews and other groups have used the timing, imagery, and language of Passover as tools to gain freedom from oppression-from the desperate Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who revolted against the Nazis during the holiday to Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement who saw American racial segregation as the modern-day remnants of Pharaoh's cruelty.

But no matter whether it's important just to Jews or to the rest of the world, Passover is a holiday that I've always been uncomfortable with. As a child, I first experienced the holiday as a minor inconvenience. The seders were interesting, but I used to wonder why it was really so important that we not eat Oreos, Apple Jacks, or bagels for the full week afterwards. Later, as an older child, these superficial concerns gave way to questions about the meaning of the story we were celebrating. Did the first-born children of Egypt really deserve to die, and should I be happy about that? Was there really a God who looked out only for my family and other Jews? What was so special about lamb's blood that made the Angel of Death magically pass over houses with it smeared on the doorways? As a know-it-all teen and college student, I also started to question the form of the ritual itself. Why did my grandfather always have to be the one to lead the seder while Grandma worked hard in the kitchen? Why was God always a he in our haggadah and seemingly everywhere else? Why did we ask the four questions every year, even though a few seemed to make no sense, like the one about reclining while we ate? Why did we bother pouring the cup of wine for Elijah and opening the door when we knew full well nobody was coming in or drinking the wine?

But now that I am an adult, the biggest problem I have with Passover is that it places Jewish people at the center of a world view, closest to God. To go back to Rabbi Greenberg again, Passover teaches three things: 1) that human beings are meant to be free (no problems there, obviously!); 2) that God is concerned (this is okay if you believe in a personal God, which I don't); and 3) that through this holiday the Jewish people are set apart. (p. 35-36) In this third point, Greenberg captures precisely why this holiday is so difficult for me. I do not experience myself as set apart, a member of a "chosen people," nor do I wish to be. I am no better and no worse than any other human being. Although Jews have suffered severe and special persecution throughout history-and while this always gives me a certain pride in our unlikely survival-to believe in the chosenness of the Jewish people is to quickly descend into tribalism. If we look at the current situation in Israel, in India, and in countless other places around the world, we can see just how dangerous it is when people use their chosenness by God to divide themselves along tribal lines. Although the deaths of the first-born children of Egypt are presented in the Passover story as a last resort to melt Pharaoh's hardened heart and were a type of payback for the murder of the Israelites' first-borns years earlier, celebrating this form of eye-for-an-eye justice has little place in a world plagued with war, religious hatred, and ethnic cleansing. If Passover serves merely as a birthday party for the Jewish people, in which we are to celebrate a bloody triumph over another group and honor a God who will smite our people's foes, it is a holiday that is completely inconsistent with my humanist values. Others Jews have felt a similar discomfort with the holiday. Ira Steingroot, author of Keeping Passover, notes that "Many Jews today are uncomfortable keeping Passover because they do not feel, or are bothered by, the concepts usually assumed to be religious. These 'cultural' Jews do not identify with a particular organized wing of Judaism.but have racial, ethnic, and historic feelings about being Jewish, growing up Jewish in a Jewish family..."

So it is thus a great but common irony that I stand before you this morning as a representative of Jewishness, for although I am a "full-blood" who would be accepted by any synagogue by virtue of my mother's Jewish ancestry alone, I am not terribly well educated about my Jewish roots. I attended Hebrew school for several years, but was not bat-miztvahed because our small-town synagogue would not support a girl doing it, even in 1978. My young, hippie parents thought little of the traditions that their own parents and grandparents had risked their lives to keep by coming to this country, and so I was raised by my immediate family in an almost entirely secular context, save for an occasional lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah.

The bulk of whatever Jewishness I have comes from my father's parents, who helped raise me after my parents were divorced. Refugees from Nazi Germany, my grandparents arrived in this country in 1935, met and married here, and assimilated quickly. They learned English and read The New York Times from cover to cover every day, and looked down on those refugees who continued to speak German and go on about the old country. My grandmother was a gentle-hearted seamstress for a modeling agency, and my grandfather was a hot-headed, larger-than-life Fuller Brush salesman. He in fact broke tradition himself when he chose to go into business rather than enter rabbinic studies as his father had hoped he would. So my grandparents were not villagers from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, hopelessly tied to tradition. They were cosmopolitan Berliners, accustomed to urban life and its attendant tolerance for diversity and personal choice.

And yet, they bore a fierce loyalty to Judaism and a deep distrust of the predominantly Christian culture of the United States. My grandfather once became furious with me because he heard me hum an arrangement of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" I was singing with the school chorus. He had a sister he disowned and refused to talk about because she married a Christian back in Germany. My grandparents paid for my Hebrew school and took me to Israel when I was 12, hoping that Jewishness would take root in the fertile soil of my young mind. And while they were not regular synagogue-goers except for the high holidays, they did hold a Passover seder every year, which was really in many ways my deepest connection to the Jewish religion.

And despite the many questions I had about the holiday growing up, that connection still remains to this day: my memories of drinking syrupy Manischewitz wine in my grandmother's jewel-toned hock glasses that were carefully (and miraculously) brought intact from Germany. Of stealing the matzoh, the afikommen, from behind a pillow when my grandfather got up to go to the bathroom and "ransoming" it later for money and gifts. The seder plate filled with its mysterious and largely indigestible items: the horseradish, the lamb shank, the salty egg, all symbolizing hardships that my ancestors had to bear. Passover, my strongest link to thousands of years of Jewish history, of which I am a real if improbable result. Reform Rabbi Ben Kamin understands this emotional connection to the holiday and how in Judaism the memories of home and religion are inextricably linked. In his book Thinking Passover he writes, "in the end.[Passover]'s not about the matzoah or the shimmering pieces of gefilte fish in white gelatin and red horseradish. It's about people, and feelings and laughter and tears. It's about remembering what your house used to smell like at this time of year, what certain people looked like and how they sounded and felt, and how that resonated through and around you. As Elie Weisel.has asked, 'What significance does Passover have, if not to keep our memories alive?' "

I have tried attending a large-group seder here at RRUC, and even though it was lovely in its own way, I will always long for the seder that is celebrated at home, led by and shared with family. Herman Wouk writes that "almost all living Jews stem, at a remove of no more than 4 or 5 generations at the most, from observant Jews." This is certainly true in my case. Who am I to throw such a history away, for the mere reason of my utter disbelief in Jews' uniqueness as human beings? I worry about my daughters not even having the choice to disregard the memories of seders past, as I have done, because I am too torn to run a seder in my own home: I am trapped on the one side by my inability to believe in and honor the holiday in the traditional way and trapped on the other by my memories of what I remember Passover to be and my subsequent unwillingness to turn the holiday into something that my grandparents would never recognize. Through my inaction, I often feel I am letting an important candle burn out.

During last year's Easter service, I listened to Scott and Lynn's wonderful sermons about how to reclaim the difficult holiday of Easter by making it a metaphor for spiritual rebirth. I listened to Collins's powerful rendition of a song from Jesus Christ Superstar, and I realized this is how Unitarians keep a foot in both doors: they can use the rationalism of their current faith to help them make sense of their first religions. The service was lovely, yet I squirmed and squirmed and squirmed. I felt like my grandparents were watching me, rolling in their graves as I sat in a "church," participating in an Easter service, during Passover, no less. I realized that I needed the same help to make sense of what Passover means to me, and since then I've learned I'm not alone in this need. As a major piece of Unitarian Universalism's Judeo-Christian heritage, Passover should be a regular part of the interpretive dialogue of this congregation.

So how can we interpret Passover in a UU context? I obviously will never be comfortable celebrating Passover in the way my grandparents did. But perhaps if we overlook Passover's problems as mere examples of Old Testament-era political incorrectness and view it instead at its cleaned-up best as an allegory for freedom from oppression, we can use this holiday to free ourselves from the oppression and guilt of maintaining religious traditions that no longer resonate in our lives. Just as my grandfather risked his own father's wrath from Passover to Yom Kippur for not entering rabbinic studies, and just as my grandparents felt free to observe Judaism in ways that were different than their own parents did, perhaps I, too, can use Passover as an opportunity to celebrate my own religious freedom, and to incorporate the new realities of my family's life in America into my religious outlook.

I may always be a hyphenated Unitarian, someone who cannot give just a one-word answer when someone asks what religion I am. I know many Jewish Unitarians who share this problem, and even if you are not Jewish, maybe you, too, carry similar complexities with you from your home religions. Maybe you too feel the guilty pull of emotional connections to a faith in which you no longer believe. Yet as I prepared for today's service I realized with irony that I am now better educated about Passover than I ever was before I stopped officially being Jewish. And while I do not yet have all the answers I crave about how to reconcile my ancestors' traditions with my personal beliefs, the distinctly UU process of finding one's own truth requires that we become educated in this fashion, that we hold each holiday, each ritual, up to the light, for examination, for study, and for eventual reintegration into our lives. Perhaps it is enough just to remember, to engage in this process, and to try to add what was best about our home religions to Unitarian Universalism's big tent. Perhaps is it is enough merely to struggle to integrate what we remember in our hearts about our home faith with what we believe in our heads. And because UUism is about constant struggle to understand your own beliefs, about engaging in a process rather than finding a goal, that alone should be sufficient. Daiyenu.

A Passover Homily

by Reverend Lynn Strauss

I love the Passover Seder.The telling of the Freedom story of the Hebrew people serves as a metaphor for all liberation stories. To tell it over a meal, through the sharing of bread and wine gives the message substance; allows me really take it in.

It is a reminder that religion is meant to confront the powers and principalities.to upset the status quo, and open us to new ways of being. Religious practice and ritual is meant to free us all from our prisons, our oppressions, our fears. Religion, the best in all religions, is meant to set us free.

My husband, Dave is Jewish. Dave comes from a secular Jewish home. He was never taught to believe in God. He was never taught that God had chosen Jews for special protection. The Judaism that Dave learned was of a legacy of oppression and struggle, and hope in revolution. He was taught a cultural Judaism that emphasized a way of living righteously that focused on freedom and justice for all.

When Dave and I met we were in our 20s.we discovered we held the same values.even though we came to them from two different sources. His source was a secular Jewish tradition of working for change from the grass roots-giving power and resources to the have-nots. My source was a liberal Christianity that focused on the transforming power of love and personal and communal accountability for changing the world.

The intersection that we found from our different backgrounds-the - connection that has been most meaningful for us - has been in the movements for freedom.

Like many of you we have found Unitarian Universalism to embrace our core values. We have been able to bring the best of Dave's Jewish secular learning and the best of my activist Christian learning to fruition within Unitarian Universalism.

Freedom stories continue to be our common source.

In the first Unitarian congregation to which our family belonged, we shared a Seder meal every Passover. The basement fellowship hall was filled and the meal was long and rowdy. There were years when our children got to ask the first of the four questions. "Why is this night different from every other night?"

I am always moved by this question. Because the gathering for Seder is so different from every other night..so different from what Dave had experienced in his non-traditional Jewish family; so different from the spaghetti suppers of my church-going childhood.so different from the isolated nuclear family diners of most Friday nights.

There was power in the tradition that we shared with our UU friends. The power of naming the plagues and the oppressions that peoples in all times and places have suffered, the power of children asking questions, the power of the empty place at the table, the power of food that tells a story, the power of remembering, and the power of hope that some day, perhaps next year, freedom will be realized somewhere in the world.

When Dave and I moved from Chicago to Knoxville, Tennessee we were welcomed into our neighborhood by several families from the Temple and the Synagogue.they knew we were Unitarians and were therefore likely to be liberal in our ways. About the second or third year, they invited us to a neighborhood Seder. It was wonderful! The whole living room was taken up with tables lined end to end. I remember we could hardly get in the front door. The meal went on for hours. And there was so much laughter. They didn't bring the intensity to the ritual that our UU congregation had, they were simply having fun together, telling the age-old story. The host had a collection of Haggada from all over the world, in many different languages, some secular, some religious. All told the freedom story.

It isn't necessary to believe in God to find meaning in the Bible or in religious parable and story. The metaphors of place used in the Exodus story can hold meaning for all of us. We have all lived, at some time, in a kind of Egypt, a place where our ideas, our beliefs, our difference was oppressed. And we must not forget those in America and around the world who still live bereft of freedom.

Most of us in this room, still live in the wilderness, in the desert where freedom is a privilege, and a right which we must learn to share, and use well. We have been brought to a place of crossing over, the journey is still before us, we have not yet come to the promised land.

For Unitarian Universalists the promised land is that place which Dr. King, dreamed, where all would be judged by the content of their character.and it is that place called the Beloved Community, where love guides relationships of equity and compassion. In The Promised Land there would be peace in the Middle East, an end to terrorism, no more AIDS, no more domestic violence, no more hunger, no more disparity of wealth, no more killing, no more children on drugs, no more schools that don't teach, no inequity in health care. Passover and Easter, remind us to hold on to the vision of what is possible.

Few if any of us will see the Promised Land.but it is up to us to keep hope alive..to be on the journey.as Lori said, it is sufficient to struggle with our beliefs, and our traditions..to struggle toward meaning..

And it is a blessing and a responsibility..to remember..the struggle of others.and the hope that lies deep in all hearts.a hope for freedom, freedom for all. Freedom now.


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