Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Passover Reflections

Originally posted on April 20, 2011

My Jewish heritage comes up at this time of year as people wish me a happy Passover. It’s awkward, because although I’ve enjoyed elements of the culture—jokes, history, some philosophy, cultural sociology—I am not affiliated with the religion per se. I’m more like the philosopher Spinoza (who actually was excommunicated by his congregation in Amsterdam in the 17th century!—and that is a very rare event!). Spinoza believed in God, but not the patriarchal, rule-making, jealous personification that is presented in the traditional Bible and echoed in the religions that followed.

Trends and cultural elaborations being complex as they are, there are of course many, many profound bits of wisdom to be found mixed in with all the great religious traditions—Judaism being no exception. One of these traditions has been the art of interpretation—also known as “hermeneutics”— through which what seems to be simple or even foolish on the surface can be found to have great depth. I’m a bit skeptical as to how much that depth was known to those who wrote the texts that are being interpreted and how much is attributed by people who are reading into the text their own creative ideas. It’s well known that the mind can “discover” patterns that are imagined to be “really there” when pondering an ambiguous text that has been designated as meaningful. The underlying mechanism involves the tendency of mind to unconsciously project its own biases onto ambiguous objects and to think, “I’m not making this up: It’s really there!”

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the validity of any exegesis—of any explanation of a text, as if what is explained really describes the intention of the writer or producer. Even if there is some partial correspondence, there is also a superimposition of the bias of the reader. The attribution of the wisdom or meaning to the imagined author is a way of avoiding taking responsibility for an idea: “I didn’t make it up: It’s right there, if you read between the lines.”

Back around 30 years ago I did attend a “seder,” a special Passover dinner, with some friends. The host introduced an ingenious question: What if Passover was a celebration not just of the historical event which is traced as a turning point in the ancient history of Judaism, but rather as an allegory of the challenges associated with breaking out of a slave mentality. I was intrigued by this idea, because many types of folly partake of this passivity and victimization. A slave gets to feel resentful for being mistreated, but there is the compensation of not having to take responsibility for making choices in life. One of the most telling episodes in the Exodus was that the liberated people, when faced with the hardships of the desert, begged to go back into slavery in Egypt! So this theme has seemed useful as an allegory or parable. It illustrates a relevant theme today.

I’ve found many writings that are thought-provoking not only Judaism, but also other religions. It’s part of what makes for a good sermon, one that seems relevant, evocative. Other than granting that there is a lot of wisdom to be found in Judaism—and there’s wisdom also in other religions and cultural traditions—, I confess that I don’t find that religion more attractive than any other body of legends and practices. The fact that my family of origin was Jewish does exert a small amount of guilt. I confess also to some fondness for certain kinds of humor, and a mild interest in the history of this people rather than other ethnic histories as a way of looking at trends in the evolution of consciousness. I feel some vulnerability to judgment by those who might see this as simple disloyalty, as if apostasy were a moral weakness. On the other hand, I feel it’s time to admit that I’ve made a mature decision to distance myself from a tradition that simply doesn’t speak to my authentic feelings and thoughts about a subject close to my soul—the meaning-making function. To the degree I have moved toward philosophy, to this degree I can’t permit myself the luxury of giving lip service to that which I don’t find valid.

I may yet attend services with family members regarding funerals or other rites of passage, more as a kindness to them than as an expression of personal affiliation. I attend some funerals of other Christian neighbors or extended family members. Ah, it’s a complexity, though. Because people want to have simple labels, they don’t know how to place me.

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