Sunday, April 5, 2015

Elijah's Chair

 On April First, after Alex Gibney's HBO documentary on my hometown's most famous "tax-exempt religion" founded by a pulp novelist aired, noted atheist Neil DeGrasse Tyson dismissed scare claims. “But why aren’t they a religion?” he asked. “If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen… It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult.” I have some hesitation with Tyson's glib argument, as critiqued since by Steve Neumann. However, as I listened last summer to an audiobook, Janet Reitman's similarly thorough expose that confirms much of what Lawrence Wright's study has uncovered, I wondered about Mormons, and Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses in the same way. Or this documentary on one of my hometown's more recent, odd, spiritual set of seekers, The Source Family. If a cult survives a decade it's on way  to being a sect, and after a century, a religion. As the founders fade and memories get mythologized, in the past, invention replaces oral history with either more of the same or, as in Buddhism, belated compilation and codifications. (Yes, we keep two traditions defying logic: kosher and Elijah's Chair.)

The trouble with the Exodus, like those tablets Joseph Smith claimed to have translated before they vanished, or the historicity of Jesus, the veracity of Mohammed, or what the Buddha really said, all fall into the abyss, lacking first-hand testimony. As I wrote last year, the Exodus may not have happened, at least as we celebrate it with 600,000 fleeing Pharoah's hardened heart and actions. There might have been a small slave revolt, and few hanger-ons, the borderers called "ivrit" could have well hung out with the fugitive rabble.

Two nights ago, we held our seder. My wife narrated her version, complete with a prank she and my older son engineered well on me. But, tired of the triumphal "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat" storyline, we decided to host our older son, his college friends, and two older, secular Jews with a different take. We've evolved over a quarter-century of this, and so we shared this activity, I post it as it may inspire others out there, who approach with not a fixed identity but an evolving imagination how we tell this story commanded to repeat each year for thousands of them, relevantly:

"The Seder is the annual Jewish celebration commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, which freed the Jewish people from slavery. The story is that God subjected the Egyptian people to plagues which grew more brutal, culminating in the death of the first born son. The tears of thousand mothers finally softened the Pharaoh’s heart. 

We look forward each year to taking a breath, dining together and reveling in the freedom we enjoy.  Jews are commanded to tell the tale, not once, but twice. We have done so dutifully for a quarter of a century. We clean the house and get rid of bread and noodles and cookies in order to simulate the Jews hurried Exodus from Egypt. We do this though because we've always done it. We are proud that at this time Jews all over the world are reflecting on their freedom but the story we're commanded to tell might as well be Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. The fairy tale trivializes our wonder at our own blessings and brushes the struggle of those less fortunate than we are under the rug. We long for something more real and meaningful and we come to you." (So my wife wrote, and proposed for us to fill out in Comic Sans below. I did so as an example, trying to keep my guest list limited, hint-hint.)

My Seder

My name is:

I would have my Seder at: under the redwoods where my friends Bob + Chris live

The living or not living people I would invite are: 7 Living: Bob, Chris, my wife and sons and girlfriends as applicable; 7 Not-living: Hypatia of Alexandria, "La Malinche," Emma Goldman, Hans + Sophie Scholl, Michael Dillon, Thomas Merton

We would eat: a vegetarian meal but a delicious one, cooked by my wife (with help!)

We would celebrate our freedom by: playing music we could all agree on in the background, while discussing ways to advance justice, equality, tolerance, and other genteel values while taking into account our own earnestness and blinkered minds

We would acknowledge those who are not free by: gathering our funds and actions to support the righteous cause of our choice, but neither for profit nor for a politician.

Instead of matzoh for affikomen we would hide: a dog's chew toy as one will be nearby.

Whoever finds the affikomen will get: to donate the amount to a favorite charity


Jerome said...

Tyson is ill-informed. And smart, granted. There is a cup for Elijah at the seder. No chair. Your link goes to the cup article at chabad. At a bris, in some communities, there's a chair for Elijah. Now what biblical verse is in both the Haggadah and the circumcision liturgy, and why? For jewish customs, there are better sources. good piece.

Jerome said...

As well, I don't think pharaoh cared about the tears of mothers, esp of hebrew mothers whip been crying for years. Mir for Egyptian mothers. His own child died that night. His own tears mattered. And the issue of the gardening of pharaoh's heart is fascinating and has been dealt with in many commentaries. I heard a rabbi point out yesterday (female if that matters to you) that although Moses is mentioned but once in the Haggadah, Pharaoh is mentioned several times. Perhaps we are called on to see how we today might resemble pharaoh and ally us contradictions, rather than Moses.

Jerome said...

All his... I hate autocorrect.