Easter and Passover
This year, the climactic commemorative celebration days for each religion actually did overlap. Which raised questions about their possible relationship, or at least how they stand today vis a vis each other.
I tend to agree with what I heard Rabbi Irving Greenberg say, years ago, at a certain meeting of Michael Wyschogrod’s “Rainbow Group.” It was a group of theologians and religionists of various degrees and kinds, dedicated to conducting a candid interfaith dialogue. During his talk, Greenberg suggested that there likely had been a real resurrection, because God might have had reason to back both religions. His hypothesis was that each does different work and neither can replace the other.
We can step right over the little storm in the politics of religion that followed his remarks. What I’d like to know is, what do I think was true about what Rabbi Greenberg’s said? With what am I agreeing?
Years earlier, I’d attended a course in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary. The professor was Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl. At one point, Stendahl voiced the question, for which he would provide his own thoughtful responses, “Why did the Jews crucify Jesus?” He was a man of obvious personal stature. I’m not recalling the moment to reproach him, merely to note that, at that moment, I was seated alongside two rabbinical students from Jewish Theological Seminary. Instantly the three of us looked at each other — eyebrows raised — two thousand years reflected in our eyes.
There are articles of faith that Easter underscores for Christians, which I find impossible to believe. For example the tenet, based on Genesis 3, that one disobedient act, discovered in the first appearance of man and woman, put the human soul at a distance from God which only the life and death of God in human form could repair and close up again.
I don’t read the third chapter of Genesis that way. The words with which God evicts the first couple from Gan Eden seem to me simply an accurate description of the human condition. After the expulsion, we gain the ability to tell good from evil, we enjoy and suffer the asymmetrical ties between the sexes, and we must work for a living. That’s how it goes — the real situation — whether in anyone’s single lifetime or in human history.
Does life in history mean that one can’t act in a way acceptable to God? No. According to the record we have, Abel’s sacrifice is accepted and Cain hates him for it. All of which sounds to me remarkably like real life.
I try to live realistically. I don’t get a clearer sense of how to do that if I view each and every chapter of my life story through the lens of sin. I’ve sometimes acted in ways I still approve, at other times in ways I do regret. Are all the mishandled episodes irreparable? The arrow of time flows only one way. In that sense, nothing can be undone that’s already been done. But I’ve seen relationships repair, incrustations fall off, masks give way to honest looks and long misunderstandings clear up. I’ve not escaped despair but, in my experience, despair tends to be premature.
Why was Jesus crucified? I believe he was crucified because he was pure of heart and clear of mind and, in his proximity, people felt close to the divine. That’ll get you crucified every time. You don’t need church councils to explain it.
That said, the world would be much the poorer without Christianity. The cathedrals, the almshouses, the opportunities to preserve and meld the riches of classical thought with the Israelite experience of covenantal life in history, the provision of the vehicle by which we get “Judaism for export,” the achievements in fine art, music, literature, political theory — the priceless longing for transcendence — country gospel, and so on. I wouldn’t want a world without it.
What about Passover? What theological doctrines does it presuppose or entail? None that come to my mind. It tells the Exodus story from which we learn that God is a player in the historical condition we are in. Also, that we need to know how to meet God on the plane of action. Also, that Jews are God’s forever pilot project — from whose spiritually various examples the whole world can take instruction and blessing.
As for those in the world who don’t take instruction and blessing from the pilot project — if instead they find ingenious disguises for their uncannily persistent hatred — well, tough. Anyway, they should.
Is being Jewish enviable? Not really, though personally I wouldn’t prefer to be anything else. Could one improve the world by taking Jews and their history out of it?
The other day, in a thought experiment, I tried to do just that. I was curious to see how the world would look if all the Jewish-derived features were lifted out of it.
The funny thing is, I couldn’t do it! Without its multitudinous Jewish influences, the world became extraordinarily hard for me to recognize.
So how are these two great religions rightly to do the job of coexisting in history, from this time forward?
Perhaps we need to learn
To forgive each other.