I’m not one for long posts on religion, but with the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) upon us and Easter rapidly approaching, there are a few things worth noting.
Spring festivals have probably been going on since people began planting crops. Easter (and the Passover from which it descended) are both, at their heart, reinterpretations of pagan spring/fertility holidays. But that’s not news. Let’s (briefly) review the basics of these holidays.
Pesach is the Jewish festival that celebrates the (supposed) Exodus from Egypt. Over the last couple of thousand years there have been many interpretations and explications of the holiday, but most of the basics are about renewal. The liturgy and interpretations specify that all Jews are to remember that not only were our ancestors slaves and redeemed by God, but that each of us was, in a way, in Egypt, in bondage, and redeemed by God. Many liberal and reform Jews specifically relate their emancipation to modern oppression, and during the seder (the telling of the Passover story) will discuss modern moral crises. (My family’s original Haggadahs, called “The New Haggadah” from the late 40′s explicitly blended in themes of modern suffering and called on readers to oppose oppression wherever it is found.) The foods of the holiday, such as the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, add a physical element to the remembrance.
Easter, like Passover, is a holiday of redemption. In this case, it celebrates the (supposed) death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While Pesach celebrates both a spiritual and physical redemption of the People, Easter, while telling of a physical salvation of sorts, relates more to a spiritual salvation and redemption.
Both holidays evoke an historical sacrifice: in the case of Pesach there is the slaughter of lambs to mark the doorposts of the Hebrews in Egypt, so that the Angel of Death will “pass over” their homes. In the case of Easter, it is the sacrifice of a different type of paschal lamb, the “lamb of God”, or Jesus, which allows death to pass over indefinitely, as it were.
Easter is essentially the Christian Passover (the Last Supper was a Passover meal), but these two holidays have a nasty history together. Before the destruction of European Jewry, one of the most popular anti-semitic memes was the “blood libel” This particular excuse for murder held that Jews needed to sacrifice Christian children to use their blood to make matzah, the traditional Passover bread. Combine this with the accusation of having “killed Jesus”, and Easter/Passover became a popular time for pogroms, or campaigns of violence and murder against Jews.
Many of my fellow atheists may find these details irrelevant, but I find religion endlessly fascinating. So, Happy Passover and Happy Easter, dear readers, and let’s try to focus on the positive messages of both holidays: freedom, redemption, fellowship, and good food. Hopefully, some of the bitter memories of the season will fade and be remembered in ritual rather than feared as a lurking danger.