In This Time of War, I Propose We Give Up God

From The New York Times, by Shalom Auslander:

This weekend, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Passover, the name of which comes from the story of God “passing over” the homes of our distant ancestors on his way to slaughter the first born sons of evil Egyptians. Our forefathers, the story goes, marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood in order to spare their own sons the awful fate of their enemies.

In this time of war and violence, of oppression and suffering, I propose we pass over something else:

God.

Two aspects of the Passover story have troubled me since I was first taught them long ago in an Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y. I was 8 years old, and as the holiday approached, our rabbi commanded us to open our chumashim, or Old Testaments, to the Book of Exodus. To get us in the holiday spirit, he told us gruesome tales of torture and persecution.

“The Egyptians,” he told us, “used the corpses of Jewish slaves in their buildings.”

“You mean they used slaves to build their buildings,” I asked, “and the slaves died from work?”

“No,” said the rabbi. “They put the Jewish bodies into the walls and used them as bricks.”

My father was something of a handyman at the time, and this seemed to me a serious violation of basic building codes, not to mention a surefire way to lose a home sale.

“Is this brick?” the interested couple asks.

“No, no,” says the realtor. “That’s corpse.”

But just as troubling — even more so today in light of the brutal slaughter taking place in Ukraine — were the plagues themselves.

God, the rabbi said, struck all the Egyptians with his wrath, not just Pharaoh and his soldiers. Egyptians young and old, innocent and guilty, suffered locusts and frogs, hail and darkness, beasts running wild and water becoming blood. Mothers nursing their babies, the rabbi explained, found their breast milk had turned to blood.

“Yay!” my classmates cheered.

But Pharaoh, the story continues, still wouldn’t relinquish his slaves. Technically this was God’s fault as he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but the issue of free will wouldn’t begin troubling me until my teens. And so God, in his mercy, started killing babies.

“Every firstborn son in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the servant girl.” Exodus 11:5.

Surely, I wondered, there were some Egyptians who didn’t whip Jews, who didn’t have anything against Jews at all? Surely there were Egyptians horrified by slavery, Egyptians who disagreed with Pharaoh as often as we do with our own leaders?

“Everyone?” I asked the rabbi. “He struck everyone?”

“Everyone,” the rabbi said.

“Yay!” my classmates cheered.

God, it seems, paints with a wide brush. He paints with a roller. In Egypt, said our rabbi, he even killed first-born cattle. He killed cows. If he were mortal, the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims would be dragged to The Hague. And yet we praise him. We emulate him. We implore our children to be like him.

Perhaps now, as missiles rain down and the dead are discovered in mass graves, is a good time to stop emulating this hateful God. Perhaps we can stop extolling his brutality. Perhaps now is a good time to teach our children to pass over God — to be as unlike him as possible.

“And so God killed them all,” the rabbis and priests and imams can preach to their classrooms. “That was wrong, children.”

“God threw Adam out of Eden for eating an apple,” they can caution their students. “That’s called being heavy-handed, children.”

Cursing all women for eternity because of Eve’s choices?

“That’s called collective punishment, children,” they can warn the young. “Don’t do that.”

“Boo!” the children will jeer.

I was raised strictly Orthodox. Old school. Shtetl fabulous. Every year, at the beginning of the Seder, we welcome in the hungry and poor Jews who can’t afford to have a Seder themselves. It’s a wonderfully human gesture. A few short hours of God later, at the end of the Seder, we open the front door and call out to Him, “Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that did not know you!”

And God does. With plagues and floods, with fire and fury, on the young and old, the guilty and innocent.

And we humans, made in his image, do the same. With fixed-wing bombers and cluster bombs, with self-propelled mortars and thermobaric rocket launchers.

“Why did God kill the first-born cattle?” my rabbi said. “Because the Egyptians believed they were gods.”

Killing gods is an idea I can get behind.

This year, at the end of the Seder, let’s indeed throw our doors open — to strangers. To people who aren’t our own. To the terrifying them, to the evil others, those people who seem so different from us, those we think are our enemies or who think us theirs, but who, if they sat down around the table with us, we’d no doubt find despise the pharaohs of this world as much as we do, and who dream of the same damned thing as us all:

Peace.

3 thoughts on “In This Time of War, I Propose We Give Up God

  1. My parents were raised Hard Shell Baptist, and, when we moved, favored Southern Baptist preachers who colorfully described the way your skin crisped in Hell. Not great for a child with a good imagination. I remember walking down to Sunday school and marching back to Mom, who was home with my newborn brother, clutching a pamphlet on the five steps you must follow to be saved and avoid Hell. What about people born in rural areas in Africa, I questioned. Have little kids there even heard about these five steps? Mom assured me they would somehow be afforded an opportunity to hear. Made no sense. What about someone born into a family with a different religion? Do they go to Hell because they followed their family’s beliefs? Later, I would question why “Your good works are as filthy rags,” if they are not done in the service of the Lord. Certainly my dad hit me, sometimes forgetting which was the leather end and which the buckle end, but I knew for sure that he’d go to Hell himself rather than prepare to sacrifice me, no matter who commanded it. Abraham was wrong, but God even more so for asking it, I concluded. I struggled with what I believed, trying to hold onto some belief in a Supreme Being, until 2016, when Christians chose a “broken vessel” to put this country right again and the last wisps of belief were blown away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thank for your comment. My dad was raised as a Baptist but once he came of age, he never set foot in a church again except for weddings and funerals. He said religion had been “crammed down my throat” and it completely turned him off. I have been struggling lately with understanding how a loving God would allow little children to be blown to pieces in Ukraine. I guess it’s a mystery.

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