Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ask The Rabbis | Should Jews at the Seder Ask God to Smite Our Enemies?

Ask The Rabbis | Should Jews at the Seder Ask God to Smite Our Enemies?

March 22, 2018 in 2018 March/April, Ask the Rabbis, Featured
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Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that know You not, and upon the families that call not on Your name; for they have devoured Jacob, yea, they have devoured him and consumed him, and have laid waste his habitation… May Your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.”
Passover Haggadah


HUMANIST

Even the seder itself appears to be of two minds about whether we should ask the Deity to smite our enemies on our behalf. On the one hand, there is a tradition to ask God to “pour out [his] wrath and indignation upon the heathen who will not acknowledge him, who have devoured Jacob and laid waste to his dwelling.” On the other hand, we have a cautionary piece of advice from elsewhere in the Haggadah: “If God had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born—dayenu, it would have been enough!” In other words, let’s not be bloodthirsty.

Until the birth of the modern State of Israel, Jews were historically powerless and disenfranchised. We could only fantasize that God would pull off what we couldn’t. As a secular humanist Jew, who does not believe in outsourcing jobs to God, however, I believe the onus today falls on our own shoulders to stand tall and oppose contemporary enemies and plagues. These might include xenophobia, lies, white supremacy, Russian interference in our elections, climate change denial, assaults on human rights—the list goes on.

But unlike our oppressed ancestors, we actually have power—specifically in the voting booth. We have the power to support amazing first-time candidates who are stepping forward to speak truth to power; to support a groundswell of activism, particularly led by women; and to support all sorts of causes and organizations (American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, to name a few) that are carrying on the fight.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY

INDEPENDENT

In the second century C.E., Rabbi Meir was upset that some hooligans living nearby were harassing people, so he prayed against them. His wife, the famous sage Beruriah, overheard him praying and reciting from Psalms 104:35: “Rid the earth of the wrongdoers and let the wicked be no more.” She said, “My dear husband, if you read the verse the way you do, it makes little sense, for of course the wicked will be no more if God rids the world of wrongdoers. Rather, read it this way— ‘Rid the earth of all wrong doings! For then will the wicked be no more,’ for they will repent their evil ways.” He did as she advised and prayed for them instead of against them. Within a few months, they repented and changed their behavior.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA

RENEWAL

On the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special Torah passage that asks us to “blot out the name of Amalek; don’t forget!” When I say those words, I am thinking about what Amalek represents, rather than about an individual leader or tribe of people. Ultimately, it is the injustices Amalek exemplifies—kicking those who are down, committing dishonorable acts of war and attacking from behind rather than face to face—that are worth blotting out.

Similarly, at the seder, we ask God to smite those who don’t recognize God. Such people become identified as our “enemies” because their values are anathema to our own. In reality, though, our true enemies are not people but bad values, such as excessive materialism, immoral acts and behaviors, and worldviews that dishonor the sanctity of life. Such enemies are worthy of our best efforts to abolish them. And they are worthy of our prayers that God erase them—and even smite them.

Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein
Beth El Congregation
Akron, OH

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

I certainly understand an anguished cry of revenge at a time of extreme and brutal oppression. However, understanding that cry and ritualizing it are two different things. What justification would there be to call down God’s wrath today on our neighbors and friends, when what we need is to work together as allies against oppression of all sorts, committed by many nations and peoples—including our own?

Some of those neighbors and friends are sitting side by side with us at our seders, supporting us and celebrating with us during this beautiful and inspiring holiday. How would we feel if such a verse were said about us in another people’s religious ritual? And while we have been victims of brutal oppression and have experienced the darkest side of human evil in the Shoah, we also call to mind the gentiles who risked their and their families’ lives to save our brothers and sisters during that time.

I therefore think that in the Haggadah, this passage should be footnoted and relegated to the margins of the page. At this point late in the seder, after having said a prayer of gratitude for our food and just before we sing the Hallel praising God for our many blessings, it would be a better time to reach out in love, rather than separate ourselves in ritualized anger. I would use one of the alternative passages used in some modern Haggadot that begin “Shefoch ahavatecha…” “Pour out your love…” As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The Torah’s teaching of love was one of his inspirations. May it be ours as well.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA

REFORM

Passover is yet another time we confront a troubling piece of our historical narrative. The deaths of innocent Egyptians along with the oppressors challenge our understanding of God, of who we are and the values we espouse. Our texts provide some measured approaches to marking our liberation in light of this tension.

We read in Proverbs 24:17 that we should not rejoice at the downfall of our enemies. Some say this is why the story told at the seder emphasizes our redemption from slavery rather than the defeat of our Egyptian oppressors.

Another interpretation suggests that when Moses instructed the Israelites that future generations would remember the liberation from Egypt by eating unleavened bread for seven days (Exodus 12), he did so before they had even left Egypt. If the instructions had been given after the liberation, the Israelites might have considered the holiday to be a celebration of the death of the Egyptians at the sea.

Many are familiar with the custom of removing wine from our glasses during the reading of the Ten Plagues as a symbolic gesture of diminishing our joy in light of those Egyptian deaths. As we gather around seder tables and consider how the Exodus pertains to us today, this troubling piece of our historical narrative compels us to ask, “What is the cost of freedom?”

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

One of my favorite moments of the seder comes after the meal, just as we are about to open the door for Elijah. The traditional text known as “Pour out Your wrath…” is a series of three verses from Psalms and Lamentations. In them, we implore God to destroy those who do not know God and who have devoured the Jewish people. I know many are offended by this expression of anger. I am not. I actually find it cathartic.

This portion of the Haggadah speaks to the human condition. It was not until the bloody Crusades that biblical verses of divine anger were added to the Haggadah, for pogroms typically occurred on Easter/Passover. The rabbinic tradition recognizes that the anger must be expressed. But notice that the rabbis remind us to turn to God. The texts do not suggest that we Jews should take revenge on our enemies.

There is a parallel prayer, a unique addition to a medieval Haggadah. It appears side by side with “Pour out Your wrath.” Although scholars debate the authenticity of this text, it is generally attributed to Rashi’s descendants and appeared first in a 1521 manuscript from Worms. At my seder, I like to recite both texts. It reads: “Pour out Your love on the nations who have known You and on the kingdoms who call upon Your name. For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend Your people Israel from those who would devour them alive. May they live to see the sukkah of peace spread over Your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of Your nations.”

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

Our contemporary civil discourse is uncomfortable talking about death, bloodshed or revenge. Behaviorally, our era may be just as bloodthirsty as the past, but in language and cultural mores it is embarrassed by violence. This is why some people would like to remove pleas that God smite our enemies from the seder ritual. Since the seder existed before our time and we hope will last beyond our civilization, I would urge that the text not be censored. Instead, think of the pleas to God to destroy our enemies as the cries of a powerless people, in exile, lacking sovereignty or civil rights. Unable to defend themselves from persecution and pogroms, the Jews lashed out verbally, calling on God to avenge them.

We live in a time when Jewry, like all of humanity, is developing greater abilities to repair the world, end oppression and engage in self-defense. By God’s invitation, humans have become more active and responsible partners in tikkun olam. Now, when we call upon God to smite our enemies, we do so knowing that we are not asking for magical defeat of our foes. Rather, we are setting out our goals and human responsibilities to defeat evil and uphold life in this world.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

One of the most intriguing elements of Jewish history is that when Jews have had the opportunity to take revenge on our enemies, usually we’re not so interested. There’s a big Holocaust literature on it. Generally, Jews have had a capacity for moving on and building better lives. As for revenge, better to leave it to God, who does a far better job and has far better resources. This particular verse comes exactly where the focus of the seder switches from the past, the history of the Jewish people, to the messianic future described in the second half of the Hallel. The Shulchan Aruch says that you open the door to show that this is a leyl shimurim, a night of divine protection, and that God will now address the problem of “those nations who refuse to know You.” It’s basic to Judaism to believe that once free will is given to mankind, there will be both individuals and societies that make use of that free will in a negative manner, and that before there can be complete messianic redemption, some will offer a very ungodly resistance. The prayer here is nothing more than saying, “God, clear the path for the final, universal recognition of who You are.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

CHABAD

Did the Jews ask G-d to bring 10 plagues down upon the Egyptians? No. Since the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people have been tasked with the mission of perfecting the world and making it a worthy “home” for G-d by fulfilling G-d’s commandments. Our mission is to educate and infuse the world with example and concrete action. We were taught to act like our forefather Abraham, exhibiting unconditional love to Jew and non-Jew alike. But what happens when a brutal philosophy arises and wishes to physically destroy the Jewish people or uproot our spiritual mission in this world? If a person discovers he or she has cancer, it is up to the doctor to choose the medication, and some of the methods chosen might be quite violent—chemotherapy, say, or radiation. Would the patient pray for the radiation to “smite” the cancer, the body’s enemy? Of course!

At the seder, remembering what the Egyptians did to us, we say “Pour out Your wrath” on those who have continued the Egyptians’ goals. How should the world become rid of obstacles to our collective mission to perfect humankind? That, we leave up to G-d. We visualize the coming of Moshiach and ultimate peace. “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Rabbi Chaim Mentz
Chabad of Bel Air
Bel Air, CA

SEPHARDIC

The question has two elements. Should we ask God to smite our enemies? And should we do it at the seder? I believe that we should ask—but only as a reminder that the world is imperfect, since the last time God smote our enemies was in the biblical era. Since then, it has mostly been up to us. The idea of such a prayer is to remember that we have enemies and that we must fight evil. Sure, we can ask God to restore the humanity of the wicked and make them repent instead of punishing them, but meanwhile, we must eradicate evil, and pretending that we live in a world of peace and harmony does not help.

The answer to the second question, however, is that such a prayer probably does not belong at the seder. Pesach is a time to celebrate freedom and redemption. We remember the bondage in Egypt, yet we know that our taskmasters have long gone. The inclusion of the request to smite our enemies in the seder liturgy was a direct result of the horrors of the Crusades, which coincided  with Pesach. It’s about time to put them aside and focus on the positive.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD

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