The Passover Egg

What exactly is the egg doing on the seder plate? Why do we serve eggs on Passover?

The roasted orb has been a guest of honor for generations and hardly a word has been spoken in its direction. The matzah, the shank bone, the bitter herbs — they generate the buzz year after year. But what would you say about the egg?

After polling some of my friends, I came up with a list of things we’ve heard about the neglected egg. At the top, of course, was “The egg is a symbol of life.” Other comments: “The egg is symbolic of the Temple sacrifice” (historic), “The egg reminds us that God has no beginning and no end” (theological), “The egg is the food of mourning” (psychological) and “The egg is a symbol of springtime and rebirth” (seasonal).

Then there’s this rather unusual observation: “Eggs are like the Jews — the more time they spend in oppressive heat the tougher they get.”

Where do these references come from? It came as a shock to me that none of these explanations of the egg appear in either the Bible or the Talmud. In fact, the only mention we have from ancient sources is from some rather creative wordplay. In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud — the word for egg, “beya,” is the same word as the word for “please.”

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a suggestion that on Passover the egg be presented together with the shoulder bone: “Please, God, lift us up from slavery!”

What this tells us is that the various observations that I culled from my friends are relatively new. As Jews in Calcutta, Crakow, Chadera, Caracas and Cleveland have placed eggs on their seder plates, they’ve creatively interpreted the meaning of these oval delicacies. Creating new meanings for the foods eaten on Passover night has become an important tradition.

With that historical context in mind, here’s a new ritual for the seder table — one that helps seder participants reflect on eggs and the other foods that aren’t part of the Haggadah’s telling.

Here’s how it’s done:

Ask the people at your seder table to think for a moment about eggs. As you point to the egg, or pass it around, ask your guests to connect their thoughts on eggs to the Passover story. They might say, “Peeling an egg is done to free the egg from its shell –but this peeling is a difficult task, just like the peeling away of the slavery mentality of our ancestors.”

Or someone might say, “An egg, due to its shape, cannot stand without help. From this we learn that our ancestors needed help to stand up against Pharaoh.” Guests might speak of the egg itself or, for example, they might pair the egg with matzah or with the parsley and speak about how these foods are connected.

After that, ask people to suggest connections to any of the other foods your family shares: the rosemary chicken, macaroons, figs or sesame candies. Are there memories of specific family or friends to whom these foods connect you? Can you creatively relate these foods to the themes of the Passover seder?

Asking these questions can certainly be a way to add a dose of spontaneity to your seder. And who knows, maybe in years to come Passover seders will include some of your family’s insights.

Over the years, the Passover seder has grown from a simple meal of meat and herbs on matzah to an elaborate feast. This has happened, in part, because in each generation and in each region, Jews have creatively added on to the set of foods used to tell the story. These new practices were not seen as a challenge to the tradition — they were seen as enhancing it.

That said, I would not be surprised if someday my great-grandchildren’s seder plate has a few extra circles — and maybe even some macaroons. The Haggadah of the future might read: “These coconut treats remind us that what is hard to crack on the outside is often sweet on the inside. Once our ancestors broke free from oppression, they could taste the sweetness of freedom.”

Questioning Darwin

I’ve got a new essay running up on the Huffington Post. You can find it here if you’d like to read it and all the bizarre commentaries that follow it. Or for the text, see below…

“If I started talking about science from the pulpit,” a seasoned Methodist minister sitting to my left said, “my wife would shoot a spitball from the choir!” As Anthony Thomas’ new documentary about the rise of creationism entitled Questioning Darwin is about to air on HBO, I’ve been thinking about a thought provoking seminar I took part in seven years ago
at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City called: Evolution, DNA and the Soul.

Needless to say, this was not your typical preaching course. First off, it was taught by a biologist from Columbia University, Bob Pollack, who drew maps of DNA on the board that looked like offensive plays of the Seattle Sehawks. Second, the class was a diverse mix of religious traditions and denominations — there was a retired Catholic priest, a young Presbyterian just starting his ordination process, a Rabbi of a small synagogue, a hospital chaplain pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, a young Muslim who shared Koranic verses on Eden — and they all came with a desire to learn science. The tough questions were all out on the table: How do scientists know that life emerges from totally random processes? Can science really tell us about the beginning of the world? Are we even close to explaining consciousness?

Pollack, who sported a gnome-like beard and the grin to go with it, was blunt:

The world had its beginning in a tiny particle fourteen and a half billion years ago; life and consciousness arose from a series of random mutations and energy transfers, and the whole thing will eventually have its end in a lukewarm soup of electrons. And yes, we have the data to prove it.
Needless to say, this made me and the other clergy around the room rather restless.

“But we are not simply chemicals,” a minister who works for an inter-denominational church organization replied: “I have experienced, in my life, moments when I knew that I was connected to the One — to the spirit which is beyond the physical — and that is what I mean when I talk about God — that universal spirit.”

The retired priest put it another way. “You can not reduce the mind and heart to a mathematical equation.” A Unitarian educator took another tactic: “Isn’t science a myth just like religion is a myth?”

It looked like the religious folks — even the Unitarians — were fleeing from the cold facts of science at the speed of light. And with each comment, Pollack’s restlessness and hostility toward the notion of “the spiritual” was physically evident. His knees bobbed up and down. He drew his arms around his chest. His head nodded in that “keep talking, because I am going to make you eat your words” pose. I thought the guy was going to snap.

But Pollack suppressed his anger in a most surprising way. He pulled out a Bible.

Look at Genesis. In Genesis the entire universe is made from words. The earth and sky and every plant and animal are made through God’s speech. But humans are not made in this way — God synthesizes humans from nature, from dirt, from a mix of organic and inorganic. In other words, we are made of live things and dead things. And we are the first example of chemistry and of transformation. As a result, we are the first species to have developed the ability to understand the bio-chemistry of the natural world. For this reason we are called “in God’s image.”
The scientist was preaching. In one stunning move of theological archeology, Pollack had dug to the heart of the text and unearthed a revelation — the God of Genesis is not only the creator that brought the universe into being with the power of language, but the first bio-chemist who conducts experiments with complex organisms. Adam and Eve eating of the tree — knowing that they would “be like gods” — was the birth not of sin, but of science.

As part of the course we all took a field trip to the Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. While the throngs of public school kids tapped the glass of the lizard exhibit, we clergy stared into a small case displaying the leather-bound Bible Darwin read on the Beagle.

Can everything be reduced to an equation? Theoretically, yes. But since neither eating of the Tree of Knowledge, nor devoting one’s life to neuro-scientific research, is going to produce a satisfying equation that accurately embodies the intricately complex system that we term human consciousness, the question is actually not so important. The important question, we clergy folk discovered, was the one that Pollack posed to us after the short bible study: “So what knowledge other than scientific knowledge do we need to thrive as humans?”

For those of us who have felt the power of religious ritual, the embrace of religious communities, the prophetic call to a path of righteousness, and the reverberations of life-changing moments of deep connection with the Holy Blessed One, there is another type of knowledge.

On the last day of our week together, both types of knowledge, scientific and religious, were in dialogue with one another. And we asked ourselves what it would mean to be clergy who not only respected science’s vision of a random, non-designed universe, but who preached the importance of taking a fresh look at our traditional theologies in the light of Darwin’s brilliant discoveries. I haven’t heard yet from my Methodist friend, but I hear he’s practicing his skills at dodging spitballs.

Believer, Beware now available as an E-Book!

I was fortunate to be part of this fantastic anthology of writers. And now…for those of you who tire of ink on sliced trees…we are entering cyberspace.

Kindlers and nookers and ipaders rejoice! Visit
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Killing the Buddha Publishes “Exhilarating” E-Book Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith Selected by Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseau and the editors of Killing the Buddha e-book edited by Gordon Haber and Brook Wilensky-Lanford Cover art by Danica Novgorodoff

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The editors of Killing the Buddha, the online magazine of religious ambivalence, are pleased to announce that the 2009 anthology Believer, Beware, First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith is now available as an e-book. Pundits and demagogues pretend that religion is black and white, but we think most people actually live in the grey. In Believer, Beware today’s best religion writers grapple with the ambiguities of their traditions in witty, heartfelt and irreverent confessions. How can the Three Stooges help with your Zen meditation? How do you talk to your family when they’re speaking in tongues? Where do you go when you’re the only Jew for miles? And how do you mourn a loved one when you don’t share their faith? Those answers—and many other questions—can be had for just $4.99. All proceeds go to sustain Killing the Buddha, an independent online religion magazine for people made anxious by churches. We’ve been publishing first-person dispatches from the margins of faith like these since 2000. Come join us! Catherine Allgor, The Doctrine of Sugar Daniel Brenner, Please Don’t Feed The Prophet Seth Castleman, Way Past Jersey Jill Hamburg Coplan, Searching for Sufis Mark Dery, Jesus is Just Alright Patton Dodd, I Am a Sea Rebecca Donner, The Only Truth That Mattered Elizabeth Frankenberger, Sects & the City Gordon Haber, The Only Jew For Miles Erik Hanson, Bible Porn Bia Lowe, Seeing Things Ashley Makar, My Holy Ghost People Peter Manseau, Jew Like Me Paul W. Morris, Ouga Chaka Zen Quince Mountain, Cowboy for Christ Danica Novgorodoff, Cover Art EJ Park, Joy of Dissent Michael Allen Potter, God is Electric, Jesus Electrochemical Stephen Prothero, Niche of Prayer Irina Reyn, I Was a Pre-pubescent Messiah Ben Rutter, Agnostic Front Naomi Seidman, Raised by Jews Jeff Sharlet, Everybody Has A Mother, And They All Die Laurel Snyder, Pardon All Our Fucking Iniquities Meera Subramanian, Banana Slug Psalm Danielle Trussoni, The Temple Door Tim Tyson, The Cross and the Color Line Mary Valle, The Mucus Jesse Vega-Frey, Hunger is Godís Food Hasdai Westbrook, Dreading the Buzzer Jeff Wilson, Barbershop Dharma

Photo Journey in Guatemala

20130526_095022My beloved and I just returned from an amazing five-day trek in Guatemala. Visiting our friends in Antigua, traveling to Lake Atitlan to visit Santiago – it was an amazing journey.

Here are the top 100 of the 1,000 photos I took. 

As part of the trip, we spent time with a Mayan woman (actually a Tz’utujil Mayan) named Dolores Ratzun. You can read about her life here. If you go to Atitlan, hire her for a tour – she is a superb guide.

She took us to two Mayan shrines and to Mass at the Catholic Church in Atitlan (built with the steps of the old Mayan shrine) and then to her parents’ home. As her mother showed us her two looms for weaving ritual cloth, Dolores asked me about cloth in Jewish life.

I told her about the Tallit, tzitzit, and techelet and she shared the symbolism of the cloth that her mother had woven. Dolores – who is a healer and shaman -wanted to learn more about the tallit so I am sending her some youtube clips.

Meeting her reminded me of one of the most powerful experiences that I had as a child in Jewish Day School. We made our own tallesim, choosing the cloth and then learning to tie the tzitzit. My tallis, made of a light denim fabric with a rainbow trim, is now one of the objects I consider most sacred in my life.

It took traveling to Guatemala for me to realize how important it is to retain the connection to sacred fabric and to the quiet power of interwoven strings. I’ll think of her mother’s loom as I make the “al tzitzit” blessing.