Category Archives: Judaism

Why All the Dead Babies?

Passover makes it especially clear: religion is not where morality comes from.

This piece was originally published in FaithStreet years ago, but when I searched for it recently it was gone. So I’m reprising it here, slightly updated. It’s a bit of an antidote to my recent concession that religion can be useful.

As an atheist mom, I am sometimes asked, “How do you teach your children morality?”

I’m not a cultural anthropologist, an evolutionary biologist, or a neurologist. I don’t know where we get our sense of right and wrong. But I do know one thing: No one’s morality comes from the Bible. At least no one I want to meet.

Passover is a perfect example. When our kids were little, Adam and I — both raised Jewish — would go to my in-laws’ house for a Passover Seder, our three godless kids in tow. We’d open the door to the most delicious smell this side of bacon: matzo-ball soup.

Sorry, kids: two hours till dinner. Don’t touch that matzo! Look: Mom has brought you coloring pages!

I would bring all the Internet had to offer small children suffering through a Seder: Crosswords, word searches, and color-your-own cartoons of lice, flies, boils, locusts, and, especially, frogs — the fun plague.

But no matter how many pictures of frogs I waved around, my children fixated, outraged, on the dead babies.

They did not know the 10 Commandments, much less the 613 laws of the Mosaic Code. They had not studied sharia; they had not heard of The Beatitudes. Still, somehow, they got the notion that killing babies is wrong.

There is a lot of baby killing in Moses’ story, beginning with the Egyptian edict that all the baby Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile and ending with the Angel of Death killing all the (non-Jewish) firstborn children.

In this context of infanticide, distracting my kids with frogs felt a little dishonest. So after a couple of years, I decided to acknowledge the horror of the story. Then I could at least reframe the carnage as the tragic collateral damage of a system of oppression.

I found quotes from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I found a CD with Paul Robeson singing, “Go Down, Moses.” I helpfully stickered my father-in-law’s Haggadah — the Passover playbook — with circled numbers keyed to a sheaf of supplemental materials on slavery.

Rather than relying on the verses selected in our Haggadah, I decided to return to the source: the book of Exodus itself. Although I didn’t believe Exodus was literally true, I thought it probably still contained powerful truths on the themes of slavery and freedom, tyranny and redemption.

Then I went back and read it.

Passover, as originally conceived, celebrates neither freedom nor justice. It celebrates the triumph of one god over other gods, one people over another. In this triumphant story, murder is rampant and rarely justifiable.

Animals die first: countless fish from the water-turned-to-blood (Exodus 7:21), land animals from livestock disease (9:5), then anyone or thing caught out in the worst hail/firestorm Egypt ever saw (9:25). And then, for the tenth plague, brutality, not justice, is meted out:

“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (11:5-7).

All of this is particularly horrible because every time Pharaoh wants to let our people go, God hardens his heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3,9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, 14:17) so as to spread his fame in an age before the printing press or Twitter.

“But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4; also 7:1-5, 9:16, and 11:9).

Glory in the eyes of the Jews is an even greater obsession. We are to remember him as “the Lord who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6, 10:2, 12:17, 12:27, 13:3, 13:8, 13:9, 13:14, 13:16, ad inf). We are in his debt and at his mercy:

“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26).

This isn’t God the Father so much as the Godfather.

As for slavery, the Old Testament makes it clear: there’s nothing wrong with owning slaves — just with being slaves. I’m not a biblical scholar or a historian. The rules in Exodus 21 about how one is supposed to treat one’s slaves may well represent, in the context of the biblical era, a giant moral leap forward.

But Passover, as it is set forth in Exodus, is not an anti-slavery, anti-oppression holiday. It’s an us-against-them, praise-the-Lord holiday.

I’ve never been to a Seder that presents Passover that way. Never. Some are more sectarian than others, but all of them reach for general themes that affirm — at the very least — that slavery is wrong and that struggle against oppression is righteous.

The Jews I know — believers and nonbelievers — comb Exodus looking for phrases that meet our ethical standards. We leave the rest out. We make scripture conform to our morality, not the other way around.

I remember once when I was a child standing next to my father during Yom Kippur services. We turned to such-and-such a page to read aloud a prayer about sin and repentance and before I could begin, my father leaned over and whispered fiercely, “Don’t you read that. It’s not right: you’re a child, you haven’t sinned.”

It’s not right. Every day parents are leaning over and whispering that to their children. Or showing it by example. These people don’t get their morality from their scriptures — they bring their morality to it.

Like the bar mitzvah boy who interprets his short portion of the Old Testament with extreme creativity. Or the priest who grants annulments with unorthodox leniency. Or the Presbyterian minister who performs same-sex marriage ceremonies, no matter what Romans 1:26–27 may say.

Why stick with those old texts at all if you have to twist, excerpt, or quietly ignore them? Why did I struggle with Exodus once a year, when I could just give up on Passover entirely and feed my kids matzo ball soup on Martin Luther King Day?

Habit, I think. As a family we have by now more or less kicked it; we seem often to be coincidentally out of town on Passover, or coronavirally confined to our homes. But we’ll surely find ourselves at a seder again, and it doesn’t have to be a waste. There’s something to be said for reading those passages aloud together and together proclaiming, It’s not right. Or studiously ignoring those passages and congratulating ourselves, as a people, on our moral progress.

If you look at it that way, Passover is an annual celebration not just of how long the Jewish people have lasted but also of how very far we’ve come.

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God? No. Religion? Maybe a Little.

I need events that can’t be canceled.

We don’t need religion any more to explain the universe. And we obviously don’t need it to tell us right from wrong. But it must be useful, or why would people hang on to it? This essay is about one of those uses.

Read the whole thing here at the Washington Post. (And if you don’t subscribe to the Post and don’t want to, you can probably read it online courtesy of your library. Check into that.)

(Art by Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

Read the rest here at the Washington Post.

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Rites of Passage

Noah baby

A little over thirteen years ago, my first child was born. We named him Noah Cohen-Greenberg, which maybe could have sounded more Jewish if we’d tried harder (middle name “Moses”?), but maybe not.

Shortly thereafter, he was circumcised in the hospital by a sardonic Korean obstetrician. If you are Jewish, you may have already read the subtext of that sentence: Noah wasn’t circumcised in a bris, a religious ceremony characterized by assembled witnesses wincing, a defenseless newborn wailing, and bagels.

My husband and I were Jewish by upbringing and heritage. We were also nonbelievers who had never exactly said “no” to religion. Although we had more or less cut God out of our Jewish wedding, we hadn’t been brave enough to cut the “Jewish” out. But from the safety of Albany Medical Center, after a quick conversation with Dr. Lee, we circumvented the ritual circumcision. No bris, no matter the repercussions.

To wit: Adam’s father, a self-described “traditional Jew,” was furious, and refused to touch Noah for the first eight days of his life. I think that’s because the bris is supposed occur on the eighth day, but, in any case, it was horrible. I should still resent him for that. But I can’t. My father-in-law’s childlike dependence on rules is heart-breaking. Also heart-breaking: his self-defeating attempts to control his grown children’s religious life; and his inability to discuss his beliefs using reason, reflection, or a socially acceptable decibel level.

So I felt sorry for him. And I could tell—after those eight days elapsed—how much he loved his new grandson. More to the point: I’m a get-along kind of girl, especially with male authority figures. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. So we got along. Went to holidays up at the in-laws’, bearing challahs or Passover desserts—contributing food where we could not contribute religious feeling. We side-stepped questions about Jewish education for the kids. On High Holidays, we didn’t go to synagogue, but we didn’t flaunt it: in fact, we hid the fact that we were working when we “should” have been praying; and we told our children not to mention their Yom Kippur play dates when Grandpa inquired about their day.

Steadily approaching all that time was the magic number: thirteen. Would Noah want to have a bar mitzvah when he came of age? Despite the fact that we’d been raising our children as atheists, it wasn’t out of the question. Although Noah is not a believer, he is a belonger. When Grandpa suggested Noah take Hebrew lessons up at their house—a kindly Jewish educator did the tutoring—Noah said, “sure,” and even made sure to wear a yarmulke. When aunts and uncles and family friends asked about his expected upcoming bar mitzvah, he played along. I started to worry. I had been bat mitzvah myself. And I have good memories of the whole process. The effort of studying, practicing, and writing, of being a gracious host and a worthy center of attention, makes for an excellent rite of passage, as well as rich fodder for future stand-up routines and therapy sessions. If Noah wanted all that, could we really refuse?

I didn’t know. But I knew I had to get him to tell me the truth—his truth—which is not easy with an adolescent who aims to please. I asked him in private if he really wanted to have a bar mitzvah ceremony (“I guess so”) and why. He answered “because I’m Jewish.” Doubtless the unspoken impetus behind all kinds of rituals, but does it constitute sincere desire? Noah, I said. You know that your dad and I don’t believe in any of this other than the bagels. And you know that having a bar mitzvah would be a lot of work. We would consider doing it. But first I need you to write a paragraph explaining why you want to.

Just a paragraph. To see if he was serious. To understand his thinking. To show him I would expect effort from him, that his desire would be animating this adventure, not mine. Rather than wait for him to opt out, I gave him the chance to opt in.

Noah never opted in. In fact, after a spate of bar mitzvah parties last spring, he seemed to lose interest, leaving the whole question behind him as he ran happily into his first season on the cross country team. “I guess so” became “I guess not.” His thirteenth birthday passed. My father-in-law made no comment. So when I took Noah to his grandparents’ the other night for a Hebrew lesson—recently restarted after a long hiatus—I didn’t think anything of it. A bit of Hebrew can’t hurt his brain; well-educated people should be familiar with the Old Testament; an hour a week doesn’t seem too much to please an old man. This was my reasoning in the face of my husband’s this-can’t-end-well head shaking.

Note to official scorekeeper: Adam was right. When I went to pick up Noah, I was informed by my father-in-law that they had chosen his Torah portion and set a date. “He’s not having a bar mitzvah,” I said. “Yes I am,” said Noah. “We’ll talk about this at home,” I said. But by the time we got to the car, I had already squeezed out of him his reason. Which was simple: “It would make Grandpa happy.”

He means it. Noah is sweet to his core and attached to his Grandpa in a way that his brother and sister are not. Noah also hates conflict, craves approval, and wants to fit in. Does he really want to have a bar mitzvah ceremony? Does he want to study Torah? Would he ever choose to go to synagogue? Does he intend to participate in a Jewish community? No, no, no, and no. But the idea of aiming that “no” at Grandpa—risking his disappointment, his disapproval, and possibly his disfavor—is unthinkable to him. Fair enough. Saying “no” to authority figures, saying no to other people’s expectations on behalf of your own true beliefs and desires: that’s a dividing line between childhood and adulthood that I still find difficult to cross. I’m forty-three. How could I  expect him to cross it at age thirteen?

I had said “no” just once, right after Noah was born, when I first felt both the terrible responsibility of parenthood and—on the threshold of teaching a brand new person all I knew about the world—a new clarity about my beliefs. Noah is thirteen now, but he’s still my baby. I asked him if he wanted me to tell Grandpa that there would be no bar mitzvah. And he said yes, if I promised not to say the decision was coming from him. I can do that. I can try to protect him from the repercussions. And maybe if Noah sees me do it, my get-along boy will learn to say “no” for himself one of these days. That’s a rite of passage I will be proud to witness.