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.