According to time-honored tradition, during the Passover Seder the youngest child able to do so asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The inquiry elicits a stirring response recounting the Israelites’ miraculous delivery from 400 years of enslavement in ancient Egypt. The Seder honors their deliverance and, more generally, freedom and liberation. It’s what makes the night “different.” No mention is made that the occasion also glorifies genocide.
Passover’s glaring, if often overlooked, flaw reflects its flawed source, the Old Testament. A hodgepodge of bizarre, confused, and oftentimes morally suspect fables, the Old Testament is a testament to religion’s intrinsic appeal, since it begs belief that any truly principled deity would be associated with such hokum. The Book of Exodus speaks to this. The epic tale is especially muddled and morally twisted.
The story’s logical inconsistencies are many. To name a few: Why does Moses initially exhibit such reluctance to do God’s bidding? Why does an all-powerful God need Pharaoh’s permission to release his (the Lord’s) Chosen People? Couldn’t he just magically change Pharaoh’s mind or arrange for a palace coup? How is it that a plague of frogs emerges from the same waters that God earlier turned into blood, killing all its waterfowl, or that the same livestock felled during a previous fit of divine rage again succumb, this time to boils, and yet again when God visits fire and brimstone on Egypt for Pharaoh’s recalcitrance? And forty years wandering in the Sinai? Did the ancient Jews really have such a lousy sense of direction?
More problematic are Exodus’ moral values. That God punishes all Egyptians, women and children included, for the sins of their despotic leader is grotesquely medieval. Worse, we’re told on at least a dozen occasions that Pharaoh acts not from free will, but rather because his heart is “hardened” by the Lord, thus effectively making him an instrument of God. It’s doubly vile.
The foggiest earthly approximation of this sort of barbarous behavior today would result in a war crimes indictment. The God of the Old Testament acts without moral constraint, however. He’s a “jealous” deity, as he ominously reminds Moses, who will not hesitate to punish multiple generations for the sins of their insufficiently pious patriarch. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” writes famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
God’s criminal behavior needn’t bother true believers, whose faith is blind and tribalism intense. Such a Lord, to loosely paraphrase a comment made by Franklin Roosevelt about a thuggish ally, may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. But what about secular Jews? They likely cast a more critical eye on scripture and, at the very least, interpret it metaphorically. Yet many celebrate Passover—about 70 percent of Jewish Americans participate in Seders—an occasion whose very name references genocide, or God’s instruction to the Israelites to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that his spirit, on its way to condemn to death all Egyptian firstborns, would pass over their homes.
Somehow this is overlooked. Liora Gubkin teaches religious studies at California State University at Bakersfield and is author of a book on Passover. When asked about the merits of commemorating the Holocaust during Passover, Gubkin says without irony: “People have a hard time tolerating genocide in the midst of a Seder celebration—our ability to tolerate genocide elsewhere is another issue.”
What explains such willful blindness? Perhaps as members of one of history’s most oppressed people, Jews find Exodus’ message of redemption so powerful as to preclude any critical examination of it. Indeed, stories of Jews taking comfort in the Passover ritual during times of great peril, including while interned in German concentration camps, suggest that the tale of the ancient Israelites resonates deeply.
Yet today the majority of the world’s 14 million or so Jews live in the tolerant and pluralistic United States, a global superpower, or Israel, a Jewish state that’s a regional superpower. Deriving Jewish identity through Jewish victimization is therefore anachronistic. This negative identity isn’t sustainable in the twenty-first century (or any, really), nor is it morally tenable when it blinds one to others’ suffering.
Which is why Passover should be passed over. But if it must be celebrated, let it be celebrated in a manner more fitting for a modern God. When asked why this Passover night is different from all other nights, the answer ought to be: “Because on this night we commemorate all who have suffered persecution, Jews and non-Jews alike, ancient Israelites and ancient Egyptians alike.”