Note: Thirteen years ago, both Easter and Passover were a little earlier than they are this year, roughly speaking this week. Of course, the days of the week fell on different dates and that complicates things, but the point is that I’m writing as though the first night of Passover were earlier this week and today were Good Friday.
This year, I’m going home for Easter. I’ve arranged to borrow a car and I’m heading home after my landscaping shift tomorrow. My Dad is glad about it. I don’t think he really believes that the service on campus counts.
But Easter isn’t the only holiday I’ve gotten more organized about myself this year. I asked around, trying to find out what was happening this year—I was thinking there might be a Good Friday service on campus, but there wasn’t—and I discovered that Passover is this week, too, and that some people on campus were having a Seder, and that you didn’t have to be Jewish to go. So, I went.
I’d never been to a Seder before, though I read up on them before I went so I sort of knew what to expect. I’m not sure how typical this Seder was, though, since a lot of the people who went aren’t Jewish and I’m not sure how many of the others are Jewish anymore.
It’s funny, there aren’t any people on campus now who are Jewish the way that Ollie and Archie are Christian, although I’ve heard there have been some in the past. I’m not even one hundred percent sure that there was anyone at that Seder as Jewish as I am Christian. What I mean is…I believe in Jesus and I read the Bible and I go to church sometimes, but I also go to Charlie for spiritual teaching and I don’t think he’s been to a Christian service in a very long time. I don’t think my Dad is entirely wrong to worry that I might be switching religion, I just don’t think there is anything wrong or worrisome about what I’m doing—or I wouldn’t be doing it. So I’m sort-of Christian. I’m broadly Christian, but I’m other things, too. And I don’t think that there is anyone on campus who really has Jewish beliefs to even that minimal extent. I mean, I know for a fact that a lot of them believe in multiple deities, which seems to be the number one thing Jews are not supposed to do.
And yet, I’d say almost a quarter of the people on campus self-identify as Jews. There are more Jews here than Christians in that sense. But when I say I’m Christian, I’m talking about what I believe. When they say they are Jewish they are talking about who they are. It’s an ethnic identity.
What do they believe? All different things, I’m sure. I don’t know most of them very well, and when I say “almost a quarter” I am estimating—there’s a lot of people on campus who I don’t know if they consider themselves Jewish or not, because we’ve never talked about it. But there are people who call themselves “Jewitches,” there are Hebrew polytheists who do their best to follow some version of the religion Israelites had before they were Jews, there are Qabalahists who may or may not be Jewish in any other way, and there are Wiccans, Buddhists, non-denominational Neopagans and people who won’t say what they are but who all celebrated Chanukah as children and all call themselves Jews.
I think for a lot of these people being Jewish is an ethnic identity and maybe also a kind of habit, the way that a lot of people on campus celebrate Christmas but don’t believe in Jesus—except they don’t call themselves Christians. For others, they might be pagans, but the way they are pagan is shaped by their being Jewish. Like the Hebrew polytheists, obviously, but also there are people like Aaron, the librarian.
I haven’t talked about Aaron much, because I haven’t talked to him much. Mostly I only interact with him when I need his help as a research librarian, and he is very good at that. But I do know a little about him, things I’ve noticed and things I’ve heard, and we have talked a few times. And I know that part of the reason he is a librarian is that studying texts is very important to him. He makes a basic assumption that scholarly study is itself a religious act, rather than simply going to books as a source of spiritual ideas. I could be wrong, but I think that is a Jewish assumption. And Aaron turned up at the Seder.
There were about twenty of us, not that I made a count, at least five of us visitors who aren’t Jews in any form. It was interesting. The whole thing is basically a teaching event, a transmission of this sense that we (meaning the Jews alive today) are part of a larger body of people who were slaves in Egypt and were liberated by God. I remember thinking, years ago, that it must be very strange to consider yourself God’s chosen people, to believe that you have this contract with God where He’ll take care of you if you belong to him, and still have all these awful things happen to you. I mean, so many people have tried to just get rid of the Jews over the years, it’s awful. But this week, at the Seder, I realized maybe I’d misunderstood the deal. God hasn’t kept the Jews safe or made them particularly prosperous, but they still exist. They are still here. That’s not something that can be said about a lot of ethnic groups from a few thousand years ago.
The whole idea of a diaspora—I remember, in American Minority Perspectives, being struck by how different the Jewish perspectives were from the personal history that Greg told. I mean, Greg is Japanese-American, but he can’t help that. He has no interest in maintaining his Japanese heritage for his own sake. He’s very insistent that he is American. He says his mother came to this country to become American, and that is what he wants to be. I think he would have forgotten his Japanese ancestry a long time ago if he did not have to cope with other people constantly reminding him of it. In contrast, the Jews left their country hundreds and hundreds of years ago and they are still Jews.
And I think the Passover Seder is why, or a big part of why.
You eat, you drink, you hear stories, you ask questions. It’s a deliberate transmission. I happened to be the youngest person there, so I got to ask the questions. I really didn’t know the answers, not completely, so it was interesting.
But for all that, I didn’t really believe the answers—I didn’t believe the we part. That night wasn’t different from all other nights for me. I am not Jewish.
Ultimately, I was there as an outsider. I found it interesting in a more or less anthropologic way. And that got me thinking.
I mean are these the chosen people? Did God really make a deal with them that if they followed His law and remained loyal to Him then He’d take care of them? If I really believed that, then wouldn’t I have to become Jewish, too? It would seem stupid not to. So do I really believe that these people are all deluded? No, I can’t quite buy that, either. And these people on campus who are so insistent about their Jewish identity don’t follow the law—the Jewish religious law—so obviously they don’t believe it, so why are they Jewish? Why I am I a Christian when I’m willing to learn a way to God from people who aren’t Christian, a thing I’m pretty sure good Christians are not supposed to do? I know that Kit says that it’s possible for apparently contradictory things to be simultaneously and equally right—she even has a pretty elegant illustration of it, involving people traveling in opposite directions to reach the center of the same circle, because they started on opposite sides. But “Have no other gods before me” seems pretty unambiguous to me, and not one of these supposed Jews on campus, and only a small handful of the campus Christians actually obey that one.
Which makes me wonder, do we really believe in God? Or do we believe in going to church or being Jewish, or whatever else? And should we believe in God? Is God real?
I‘ve been asking people about this. I know there are people on campus who are very religious but, while they don’t quite say so, I’m pretty sure they don’t believe that any of the gods and goddesses they talk about really exist. They talk about them like psychological constructs whom they worship in order to obtain psychological benefits and facilitate personal growth.
I asked Allen about it, but of course he didn’t give me a straight answer. He said that at least religions are a response to human psychological needs, that the need is real. But he didn’t say more than that. So I asked Charlie.
“I prefer to think that God is that which is real,” he said, “and that our job is to find out what that reality is and what it means so we can relate to it properly.”
[Next Post: Monday, April 14th: Easter]