Posted tagged ‘Easter’

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!

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When It Comes to the Passion Story, Not All Passion is Good

April 2, 2010

As I stated in my last posting on this blog, there has arisen in my community quite a furor over whether or not it is constitutional acceptable for a city government to call a paid holiday for its employees by a religious name or a secular one.  The holiday in question is Good Friday, and the contested alternative name is the religiously neutral one of Spring Holiday.

Today, in our local newspaper, the Quad City Times, an editorial was published which was supportive of keeping our city government religiously neutral.  That is the good news.  Unfortunately, the author of the editorial chose to introduce his text by drawing the following comparison with the traditional gospel version of the Passion Story – the account of the execution of Jesus.

“Somber Christian church services today mark Good Friday, commemorating a day in 33 A.D. when government leaders in Jerusalem caved in to public pressure and executed a religious leader. In Christian churches across the Quad-Cities today, lectors will read the portion of the passion play when Pilate, a governor, then Herod, king, tried to convince the mob otherwise. But the people wouldn’t listen. “Crucify him!” the people said, according to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

So the government leaders complied with the will of the people.”

This account was so disturbing to me that I posted the following comment on their web site and now wish to share it with my blog readers:

I do applaud the stand taken in this editorial calling for us to reconsider how governmental bodies should treat religious holidays.  Thank you!

However, I do wish to correct some historically inaccurate statements made in its introductory section.  The story of the execution of Jesus as presented here is the story as it is presented in Christian scripture, particularly the Gospel of John.  Of all the four gospels, John was written later and is clearly the most antisemitic.
The story as presented was intended to generate hatred for the Jews who, at the time, were competing heavily with the Christians for the conversion of the pagans, particularly the Romans.  They were bitter blood rivals.  Especially considering the desire of Christianity at the time to appeal to the Roman population and someday perhaps even become the official faith of the Roman empire, there was a great need to re-frame the story so as to take responsibility for Jesus’ death off of the Romans.  Transferring the responsibility to the Jews serve a double purpose for the Christians since it not only took the responsibility of “deicide” off of the Romans but it also served as a serious blow to the Christians’ Jewish competitors.  Indeed, when John has the Jewish crowd shouting to Pilate “Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” that statement was intended to justify Christian prejudice and persecution of all Jews throughout the ages, and not just those who were contemporary with Jesus.  It takes but a short review of the history of that period to see that the Jews of the time were open to embracing any person who offered them any form of hope.  They had no reason whatsoever to denounce him and call for his execution.

As Paul Harvey, of blessed memory, used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!”  Most credible scholars today recognize that the traditional Christian account of the execution of Jesus is terribly historically flawed.  First of all, the Roman empire was a hard and ruthless ruler of its occupied provinces.  Their governors – called Procurators – ruled with iron fists, imposing Roman rule and collecting heavy taxes.  Roman rulers never were the type that would bow to the pressure of their non-Roman subject people.  This was especially true in the province of Judea.  The Judeans had been involved in anti-Roman revolutionary activities since the rebellion of Judah of Galilee in 6 B.C.E.  In fact, Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a continual hotbed of revolution.  Josephus, in his history to the period identifies these revolutionaries as on of the four sects prevalent among the Jewish people and calls them the Fourth Philosophy.  They are also known as Zealots.  Fundamental to their belief was that the Jewish people owed no allegiance to an earthly ruler but only to the Heavenly Ruler.  These Zealots conducted continual guerrilla warfare against Roman caravans in the Galilee.  The Romans called the brigands and robbers.  In the urban centers, especially Jerusalem, there was another group of revolutionaries called the Sicarii, which means “Dagger Men” in Greek (the common language of the Roman empire).  These revolutionaries were terrorists.  They would go into crowds, especially markets, with daggers under their cloaks.  They would then approach Romans or Jewish collaborators with the Romans and stab them to death and then disappear back into the crowd.  In was because of this environment that the Roman empire decided that Judea needs to be ruled with a special rigor.  Therefore they sent their worst, most corrupt soldiers there, both as punishment to these soldiers and to the Judeans.  As for their Procurators, they sent their hardest, greediest men.  A Procurator of a province received a percentage of the taxes.  The more the people were taxed, the richer the Procurator became.  In Judea, it was standard that a Procurator would rule for three to six years and amass such a fortune that they could retire to Rome and live the rest of their lives in luxury.  Enter Pontius Pilate.  Unlike the gospel descriptions of him, Pilate was anything but a gentle soul whose heart would go out to someone like Jesus.  In fact, Pilate was the ONLY Procurator in the history of Roman rule in Judea who was recalled to Rome for use of excessive violence.  He probably still holds the world’s record for number of crucifixions.  He was so harsh that the Roman senate determined that he was doing more to provoke revolution rather than suppress it.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover pilgrimage festival, as far as Pilate was concerned, he had all the markings of a revolutionary or a potential revolutionary.  He came from the rebellious province of Galilee.  He was developing a significant following.  He numbered among his closest advisers (apostles) one man who was a known Zealot – Simon the Zealot – and another who might have been a member of the Sicarii – Judas Iscariot.  The name “Iscariot” is neither Hebrew nor Greek.  Monsignor S.G.F. Brandon, in his work JESUS AND THE ZEALOTS, proposes that the name is actually a combination of both languages and originally was “Ish” (which in Hebrew means “man”) “Sicarii”.  In other words, a member of the Sicarii.  Therefore, seeing Jesus as a threat, it was Pilate who had him arrested and executed.  It also should be noted that when Jesus was crucified, the two other men crucified along with him were, according to the gospels, thieves.  Crucifixion was even for a Roman like Pilate too extreme a penalty for theft.  However, if you recall, this was the term the Romans used for Zealots, revolutionaries.  It would therefore appear that Pilate viewed Jesus in the same light as he did these two rebels.
I share all this with you because it is important to understand that the Passion story, as portrayed in the beginning of this editorial is not only historically inaccurate but has stood at the very foundation of Christian based antisemitism for almost 2,000 years.  The belief that Jews were the ones directly and primarily responsible for Jesus’ death – the sin of “deicide” – the murder of God – has fueled a hatred that has resulted in the barbarous murder of literally millions of Jews throughout the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, and is still virulently alive today in the doctrines of so many of the hate groups.  When we tell this story as so presented in the editorial, whether intending to or not, we are fueling the fires of what many consider humanity’s longest hatred.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.