TIME faith

The Story Behind Passover

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The most celebrated home ceremony of the Jewish year is ultimately about living and experiencing a family story

Passover is many things. It’s a freedom from slavery story, a survival story, and a celebration of Spring story. But, as the most celebrated home ceremony of the Jewish year, sitting down at a Seder is ultimately about living and experiencing a family story.

Seder. The word literally means “order” but beyond the 15 rituals of the Passover dinner experience, including the retelling of the exodus from Egypt, there is the story created by every family during the eight day holiday.

As it states in the Old Testament (Exodus 10:2), when God commands Moses to speak to Pharoah, (he) says “And in order that you should tell into the ears of your children and grandchildren…” Explaining the meaning behind this statement, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Meir Bukiet wrote, “By telling the story, it comes to life for both the one who is telling the story and the one who is listening” for all the generations to come.

As I child, I was the one watching and listening and I always wondered why we were being subjected to the Jewish version of a holiday rerun. Every year it was the same TV producer who showed up in the guise of my mother with a “to do” list for preparation and planning for the days before and after the Seder. My step-father stood in for the TV announcer, rehearsing his lines and writing a new script each year.

It started the same way every year in the weeks leading up to Passover. Although the Jews in Egypt left hastily and most likely with little thought to the state of their homes or preparing food for the journey, getting ready for Passover in my home meant my mother would be orchestrating days of cleaning, cooking and carefully re-ordering our home.

This was followed by the spring shopping trip to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy new clothes and my annual “cutting out the label” ceremony as I didn’t want my classmates in our blue-collar school to know where my mother bought them.

Back at home, I watched my mother review her cookbooks, make a shopping list and unpack all the china, glassware and silver. Our house would become swathed in the sweet aroma of her matzah cereal, as she baked the nuts and honey, crumbled matzah and coconut together from a recipe that I thought was hers until a discovery many years later that it was from, The Complete Passover Cookbook by Frances R. AvRutick.

There was always great excitement on the night before Passover when my step-father would guide all of us by the hand in the dark with a candle, spoon and flashlight in the ancient tradition of finding the last Hametz (forbidden during Passover) in the form of breadcrumbs he had hidden around the house. Once found he would burn all of it inside a bag and we would mourn the loss of all bread until Passover ended.

Finally, we would sit down to a dinner which was different each year as my family personalized the ceremony sometimes with plays or magic tricks, poems or modern stories based on the holiday. I often complained that our Seder was so much longer than those at my friend’s homes, many of whom were using the Maxwell House Haggadah, one of the best marketing strategies ever created to encourage Jewish families to speed through the story and get to the “good to the last drop” coffee.

The morning after Seder, we eagerly awaited the first matzah brei breakfast — a sweet or savory treat — and the many leftover charoses and matzah sandwiches we’d enjoy. However, there was also the absolute embarrassment of packed matzoh sandwiches at school and the insistence of my parents to bring it into restaurants, thus assuring everyone in our small Texas town knew we were Jewish.

Looking back at these rituals of Passover, I realize they were as much a part of the story as the actual exodus tale. When I became a parent it was no surprise that I continued many of these same traditions and added my own twist on others.

We do clean our house for Passover but don’t often use china or silver as we prefer to be more casual or have dinner at our friend’s home. We do shop for new clothes (but not at SFA) and I have become known for making my mother’s Passover cereal as a gift. I have also, over the years, developed a tradition of making many different types of charoses from around the world including Sephardic, Egyptian, Israeli, and even a California charoses made with avocado.

We’ve done hunts in the dark for Hametz over the years but often turned it into a bread and candy discovery tour (a Jewish version of an Easter Egg hunt). Many times I have written my own Passover ceremony with poetry from Rabbi Sheryl Lewart’s book Blessings for the Journey or Celebrating the Jewish Holidays edited by Steven J. Rubin. And, I’ve collected props and songs for storytelling and scour the internet each year for alternative Haggadahs.

Our family rituals and traditions, along with travel and Study Abroad in Israel with Alexander Muss High School, have become part of the thread I’ve now woven into the Passover story for my children. Once we were slaves — once we dreamed about freedom and a nation in Israel. Now we are free, now we have a country and now we have the power to pass these stories and traditions (both religious and personal) onto our children and our grandchildren.

No matter what your tradition for Passover, when we say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we’re saying it because our ancestors made it possible.

Karen Rappaport is the Director of Admissions for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (www.amhsi.org), a Study Abroad program with more than 43,000 Alumni including her children. A member of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, CA, she has been an active congregant and participant in its popular Women’s Seder for many years. She prides herself on being the best haametz hunter and afikomen hider in the family and welcomes both Elijah and Miriam to her table. Her Passover claim to fame is the seven different types of charoses she makes for seder.

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Why Indiana’s Controversial Act Does Not Represent Religious Freedom

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act blurs important lines between authentic religious freedom and 'Christian freedom'

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Nearly 20 years ago, I was working at my local newspaper when a small controversy arose concerning religious freedom and gay rights. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) wanted to send speakers in to the local Catholic schools to give presentations; the school board said that this would violate their right to instruct students in accord with the teaching of the Church.

At the time I was an atheist in a lesbian relationship. So I called the school board and asked if they could explain why their decision was not just blatantly homophobic. They sent me a small pamphlet explaining Church sexual teaching. I read it, thought it was bizarre but coherent, and ended up writing an article defending the right of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine. My thinking was that although I disagreed completely with what the Church taught, I believed that religious freedom is an essential principle of liberal democracy.

One of the challenges of living in a liberal democracy is that you have to be willing to play nice and get along with people who you’d much rather kick in the eye. It doesn’t matter whether the disagreement is ideological or religious, philosophical or academic, visceral or personal. Part of the social contract that you accept as a citizen is that you agree not to force others to act in accord with your personal beliefs.

But there are places where this gets sticky. Every so often a conflict arises where the way that one person chooses to live impacts another person’s right to live in accord with their own beliefs. The present conflict over Senate Bill 101, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, concerns these kinds of situations.

What do you do, for example, if the only hospital in town is a Catholic hospital and a woman wants to have her tubes tied? Or if a nurse working at a secular hospital refuses, for religious reasons, to assist in abortions?

I think it’s important, on liberal grounds, to recognize that people’s right to act in conscience must be protected under the law. The fact that a woman wants a tubal ligation should not give her the right to force a doctor to perform surgery which he or she considers to be mutilation. An employer does not have the right to compel one of its employees to participate in an act that she or he believes to be murder. These are serious violations of the individual’s freedom of conscience, and in so far as Senate Bill 101 is intended to defend people’s rights in situations like this, it’s a very important piece of legislation – not just from a religious freedom perspective, but also as a defense of the core values of liberalism.

Unfortunately, SB 101 seems also intended, by some lobbyists behind the bill, to blur important lines of distinction as it equivocates between authentic religious freedom and “Christian freedom.” Eric Miller, the Founder and Executive Director of Advance America (an organization that provided much of the impetus for SB 101) says, “It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana…It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!”

Religious freedom is a much broader concept that includes mosques, Buddhist businesses, and Vedic beliefs. When “religious freedom” really only means Christian rights, it’s not religious freedom in the sense intended by the American Constitution, or by Catholic teaching.

Advance America gives three examples of situations where Senate Bill 101 will “help.” The first is the provision of peripheral services such as baking or flowers for gay marriages. The second is transgender bathroom use. The third is the use of church property for gay weddings.

The only one of these that really has anything to do with religious freedom is the last one. The other situations described have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They’re just blatant opportunities for public displays of discrimination.

It’s something that I’ve seen before. When I was growing up, my town experienced a major demographic shift: we went from being a primarily white, middle-class suburb to being one of the largest South-East Asian communities in North America. I remember hearing arguments about restricting signage to English and French (Canada’s two official languages), arguments that single-family housing should exclude extended families, arguments that prohibitions on head-gear at schools should be extended to turbans and hijabs. People claimed to be arguing about city planning, Canadian culture and school safety. They were really just being racist, and nobody was fooled.

The same is true in Christian communities that want to deny services to LGBTQ people. No one in these communities would actually want to live in a world where this kind of religiously-motivated service denial was the norm. A society in which Baptist wedding photographers refuse service to Catholics because they might have to take a photo including a statue of Mary. Where you stand in line forever at Walmart only to discover that your Jehovah’s Witness cashier won’t ring through your coffee. Where Muslim restaurant owners refuse to serve women unless they’re dressed according to Islamic standards of modesty.

The difference between a valid conscientious objection and an arbitrary refusal of service lies in the difference between material co-operation with an act, and superficial involvement with it. Refusing to dispense abortifacients, for example, might actually prevent an abortion from happening. Refusing to bake a cake, on the other hand, is just a needless annoyance that makes Christianity look bigoted, intolerant and petty.

Melinda Selmys is a convert to Catholicism, a contributor at Spiritual Friendship, and the author of 4 books including Sexual Authenticity and Eros and Thanatos.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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How to Get Over an Addiction to Facebook

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The key is to foster a contemplative relationship with social media, rather than an addictive one

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Hi. My name is Carl and I’m a Facebook addict.

(“Hi, Carl!”)

This past weekend, against my better judgment, I got into an unpleasant debate in a Facebook group with a young person whom I do not know. No need to go into details here — let’s just say that by the end, nobody was edified. Much of my weekend got swallowed up in a back-and-forth conversation that generated much more heat than light. I’m embarrassed that I allowed myself to get so thoroughly triggered, and that I kept going back for more, even once I realized that the conversation was not productive. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time. But hopefully, this was a “bottoming out” experience, that will force me to create a new relationship with social media: a contemplative relationship rather than a compulsive (addictive) one.

Monks like to say that the heart of monasticism is “I fall down, I get up; I fall down, I get up.” Apparently that’s true for social media as well—at least for me.

As a first step in my “recovery,” I’ve done something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now. I asked Facebook to convert my personal account (with thousands of friends, most of whom I have never met in real life) and merge it with my existing Facebook Page dedicated to my professional life as a writer and speaker. By doing so, in one fell swoop I have unjoined all the groups I was a member of, and my FB presence is now centered on my work life rather than my personal life. In essence, it’s wiping my slate clean so I can start fresh.

I’ve known a lot of people who have done variations on this: put their Facebook account on ice for Lent, or simply deleted a bloated account and starting fresh with a new one. Since all the conventional wisdom about being a freelance writer nowadays is that one must be on social media, I resisted the temptation to simply nuke my entire Facebook presence (but yes, I was tempted). After all, recovering from a social media addiction can be like recovery from overeating or compulsive spending: the goal is to form a new and healthier relationship with the addictive substance.

So what can someone like you or I do to foster a contemplative relationship with social media, rather than an addictive one where too much time is spent online or too much arguing and debate happens there? Here are a few thoughts on the matter, and I’d be curious to hear from others about what they think.

1. Follow the Rules. Facebook recommends its users only initiate (or accept) friend requests with “people who know you well, like friends, family and coworkers.” In a similar way, LinkedIn recommends only sending “Invitations to connect” to people “you know and trust.” Clearly, there’s no hard and fast rule about what this means — but in the past, I was too quick to accept friend requests from anyone who wandered by. Not only has this meant I’ve had to spend lots of time reading posts that weren’t relevant to my life, but also that I’ve had to deal with too many spammers and trolls. I’m an American and so I’m susceptible to our national dogma that “more is better” — but on Facebook, more friends is not necessarily better. Quality, not quantity.

2. Know the difference between an account and a page. Facebook frowns on using one’s personal account to promote a business, and suggests that if you have a product or a service you want others to know about — even if it’s just a blog — that you set up a public page to get the word out. I’ve had a public page for some time now, enabling me to keep my personal and professional lives separate (posting links to my blog on my page, pictures of my cats on my account) but the lines have often seemed too blurry. But it seems to me that Facebook guidelines can sort this out: the personal account is for a relatively small number of close friends, family and co-workers. The page is for everybody.

3. Be careful about joining groups. My unpleasant conversation this weekend took place in a group, and I should have known better: the group where it happened embodies a certain perspective and I was arguing for a point contrary to that position. No wonder it ended badly. But even when it’s all peace and love in a group, it can be the kind of setting where someone like me can invest a lot of time agreeing with people who agree with me. And then the weekend’s gone and the lawn never got mowed.

4. Manage the timeline. I have some family and friends who I love dearly, but in real life we don’t talk politics. So why do I allow myself to read their political rants on Facebook? All it does is make my blood boil, and there’s no point arguing back — the few times I’ve tried, it always just escalates. Facebook allows you to remain a friend with someone but to disallow their posts from showing up on your timeline. Obviously, if you want to stay in touch with someone this might not be an ideal option, but it can be a great way to keep loved ones in your FB circle while also protecting your blood pressure.

5. Make use of Facebook’s “Friends List” feature. Some people are close friends. Others, just acquaintances. Facebook allows us to invisibly mark each connection accordingly (we can also tag family members and set up custom lists). Then, when we post something, we can decide if the general public sees it, or just friends/acquaintances, or just close friends. It’s a good way to manage who gets to see pictures of the new kitten and who gets to read about our deepest hopes and fears.

6. Disengage. Obviously, from what happened this past weekend, I’m still working on this one. But it’s a simple principle: if someone posts something I vehemently disagree with, I don’t have to post a clever or snarky reply. I’m sorry to say it, but I find it’s all too easy to get argumentative with people online, usually about something I feel passionate about — but online arguing rarely does anybody any good. If I must post something, I’m going to try to be as objective/factual as possible, state my case, and then let it go. If the other person(s) tries to pick a fight with me? Disengage.

7. Forgive. When I make a mistake online — whether spending too much time on Facebook, or getting caught up in an unpleasant exchange — I have to remember to forgive myself; after all, we all do foolish or hurtful things from time to time. And when it involves somebody else, I need to forgive them too, if necessary. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I can avoid making positive changes — but it does mean I can let go of the sting of old mistakes when what’s done is done. I once heard a recording of Thomas Keating where he suggested that remorse is healthy only for about 30 seconds! The point behind remorse or contrition is that it impels us to make positive changes. After that, it has served its purpose and needs to be released. Forgiveness is how such release takes place.

8. Pray. It’s humbling for me to admit that, after having a Facebook account for six years, I still don’t do a very good job at limiting the amount of time I spend on it, or maintaining boundaries between my personal and professional lives, or avoiding getting into useless debates and arguments. Well, I’m only human: “I fall down, I get back up.” But maybe the single best strategy is to remember the Jesuit principle that we can find God in all things. Yes, even social media. If I can bear in mind that my time on Facebook or Twitter or Patheos is time spent in the presence of God, maybe that can help me to be a bit wiser, a bit more loving, a bit more present. Which leads to my final and most important point:

9. Be Silent. I’m still working this one out, but it’s becoming obvious to me that silence needs to be an ingredient in my social media engagement. I need time off from Facebook, whether that means a Sabbath day when the computer never gets turned on, or a “Great Silence” period of eight hours or so each evening/night to give it a rest. Just as important, silence needs to be an element of how I am present online: this is a corollary to #6 above, where I can choose to respond to inflammatory or triggering posts with the generosity of silence rather than the intensity of debate.

Okay, this is a work in progress. I’d love to know your thoughts: what do you do to maintain a contemplative relationship with social media?

Carl McColman is a life-professed Lay Cistercian — a layperson under formal spiritual guidance at a Trappist monastery. He is also an instructor with Emory University’s certificate program in creative writing, and regularly teaches the craft of nonfiction, as well as writing and journaling as a spiritual practice.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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‘So This Is Selma?’

Fifty years on, Selma's progress has been more symbolic than substantive

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Patheos Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the March from Selma: Fifty Years Later. Read other perspectives here.

“So this is Selma?” Every time we make the drive from Dallas to my hometown of Georgiana, Alabama, my husband asks the same question — the same way. His tone, reflecting a bitter surprise, reveals his constant struggle to reconcile the Selma of history and the Selma of today.

Despite knowing this about his question, I immediately get defensive.

Southerners often, Alabamians always, get defensive when outsiders say anything about anything in our state or region. Even as I am rattling off the statistics and history of our LA region (Lower Alabama for the uninitiated) better than any visitor’s bureau could do, I know in my heart that every time we turn on US 80 and encounter this gray city full of rundown shops and shuttered homes, I whisper his question as an indictment not only on the city of Selma but on the entirety of the movement of which it is one of the crown jewels — “So this is Selma?”

Let me concede the obvious. Yes, progress has been made. The fact that an interracial couple can drive through Selma and raise not one eyebrow; while discussing the fact that the Black congresswoman who represents Selma was a part of Billy Tate’s multiple championship debate teams at Selma High; in an America that has a bi-racial president is progress. Yet, like the preparations that are being made to welcome the world to Selma this week for the fiftieth-year celebrations of the March to Montgomery — in the face of the stark reality of African Americans in America — our progress has been more cosmetic than structural.

This week, as in times past, the black and white films will be shown. John Lewis’ scars will be bared for the world to see, and white folks and black folks will decry the ugly past and point to a progressive future. We will divide the world into the evil and the saved; we will pat ourselves on the back; we will sing about how we shall overcome and the first and third verse of the Negro National Anthem (only Bill Clinton can sing the whole thing without notes) — all without really asking, “So fifty years later…what do we really have?”

In the win column, we can put President Obama and Congresswoman Terri Sewell; my ability to attend and graduate from the University of Alabama; my choice to marry a white man and not face a lynching mob; and our ability to sit with family and friends of all colors in a fine restaurant in Butler County, Alabama to celebrate my mother’s life. Seventy-seven percent of residents of color in LA have a high school education; 60 percent of them own their own home — much higher than the national average — a definite win. Television shows written, produced, and starring African Americans occupy the top twenty-five shows in American viewership — win.

But if we are keeping score, then the points in the loss column are numerous. The industries that closed their doors in Dallas County, Alabama when the city government of Selma become increasingly black — loss; 35 percent of Dallas County’s residents below the poverty line — loss; only sixty-three building permits in the entire county in 2013 — loss. Looking nationally, one can only become more saddened. Only 50 percent of African Americans own their home — loss. Thirty-three percent of African American children are raised in poverty — loss. Thirty-eight percent of African Americans of working age are not in the workforce, which means that while the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering at 5.3 percent, African American unemployment remains in the double digits at just above 10 percent — another loss. The number of black-owned business is less than 7 percent and the incarceration rate for black men and women is double that statistic — another loss.

Here is the deal: I could keep going but I don’t want to depress myself, nor do I want to get so angry that I turn over a table in the Admirals Club where I am writing this. It is a complex thing being black in America in the 21st century. If you are a part of the families that struggled to get by, climb over obstacles, and move into the middle class mainstream, you are tempted to see the world as half full. But when you look at the structural barriers that are necessary to facilitate “making it” you realize the system at best is designed just to allow a few to get out, to become “freaks of nature,” and rhetorical weapons to be used against those who are chained to the realities of a world designed for their erasure.

For every Maria Dixon, Terri Sewell, Ben Carson, and Oprah Winfrey, there are thousands who struggle in schools with substandard resources, in forgotten neighborhoods, with health care only for necessities rather than prevention, and in food deserts where finding a bottle of Jim Beam and a lotto ticket are easier than a piece of fresh fruit. In no other context would we accept a 40-50 percent failure rate, yet when it comes to the lives of African Americans we celebrate the exceptions rather than the reality. We point to the “lucky ones” and reassure ourselves that the “movement” was a success (then always with the codicil that more needs to be done) and wonder aloud why the others can’t just pull up their pants and move forward.

Don’t get me wrong — there is a huge role for personal responsibility. Poverty and oppression does not equal a lack of self-respect or dignity. However, a first-year communication student can tell you that when the message that “you are inferior and other” is structured into the laws, economy, politics, and culture and reified over two centuries, it shapes both the way in which you are treated by others and, more importantly, how you see yourself.

As a scholar of organizational rhetoric, I must say with a sick admiration that neither the Babylonians nor the Romans could totally destroy a native people’s ability to resist and organize systematically the way that America destroyed whole tribes of African descent. The destruction of culture, language, religion, and most of all self-confidence, was so complete that there is celebration of minor victories while ignoring the defeats that render the population unable to engage in systemic change. The beatings on the Edmund Pettis Bridge were mercifully short compared to the constant onslaught of messages that remind African American children every day that if they make it, it will be because just this once the odds were in their favor.

“Aren’t they supposed to be getting ready for a big celebration?” my husband asked as we drove through Selma last weekend. “Yes,” I said sharply. “Doesn’t look like they are making much progress,” he said sadly. No it doesn’t but it will get better — please Jesus let it get better.

Maria Dixon Hall is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is an academic, consultant, and theologian that believes that strategic communication is at the heart of every successful endeavor.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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Is There a Future for Jews in Europe?

The fight against anti-Semitism in Europe is linked to the fight against Islamophobia

A young girl’s bat mitzvah is cut short. The life of a volunteer security guard is permanently cut short. The Jewish community of Copenhagen is only the latest in Europe to face the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence. It is almost impossible to comprehend how a community that still within living memory experienced the most systemic attempt at their genocide in history, now once again, faces the fear of terrorist attacks. This time though it is very different. Despite the strong emotional resonance this is not the 1930s all over again. Instead of state governments actively acting as the agents of death and destruction, they are working to protect their Jewish communities. Brian Lehrer on New York Public Radio noted how much of a difference this is in contrast to the past two millennia of European government behavior toward the Jewish communities within their borders. This is not the 1930s.

Yet, it is hard to deny the palpable fear of those within the communities under assault. The Jewish Agency, the organization responsible for facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel posted the following tweet from France last week:

There are thousands, possible tens of thousands, of European Jews now seriously contemplating immigration to Israel. To be sure this is not the only picture. There are countless pictures of people defiantly proud of the places of their birth and determined not to leave. When I visited the French city of Marseille in the summer of 2013 as part of an interfaith conference I met with members of the Jewish community who despite regular acts of intimidation and assault remained determined to stay. The story of thousands lining up to attend seminars on immigration to Israel is as honest a depiction of the current Jewish reality as are the countless stories of those who will not leave. Both stories are true. It is within that framing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the following words to the Danish Jewish community in the wake of the shooting at the synagogue:

“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe… To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”

Was Netanyahu right to call for a mass wave of immigration of European (and indeed worldwide) Jewry to Israel? Was this within his responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel? Should he have offered support in other ways? Was this only political maneuvering as the upcoming elections in Israel loom large?

The Chief Rabbi of Denmark, Jair Melchior, responded critically to Netanyahu: “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel.” Others have praised his call as courageous and the right thing to do as the Prime Minister of Israel.

Is there a future for Jews in Europe?

First, it needs to be said as clearly as possible: The fight against anti-Semitism in Europe is linked to the fight against Islamophobia. They are the same fight. I wrote about their connection last week.

In regards to the question of whether the Jews of Europe have a future in Europe, I pray that there is a clear answer to that question but alas there is not. Do the Jews of Europe have the absolute right to live in their countries freely and safely? Yes. Is there a valuable role for a vibrant Jewish diaspora, not only in North America but elsewhere? Yes. Should the Jews of Europe stay? I do not know.

As I think about that question I keep on being haunted by the image of my great-aunt sitting in my parents living room crying about our family who chose not to leave Vienna before it became too late. I am haunted by the historical record of rabbis, community leaders and others reassuring the European Jewish community it would all be fine. I am reminded of the recent retrieval from the New York Times’ archive of its first article on the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1922 that claimed:

“But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.”

Yes, this is clearly not the Europe of the 1930s. Yes, we are blessed to have European states striving to protect all of its citizens, Jews included. Yes, as Prime Minister Valls of France said “France without its Jews is not France.” This is all true, but just because it is not the 1930s does not mean it is not the rise of something new and something we did not predict.

I do not know if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments were merely opportunistic, misguided or insensitive. I simply know that if I am ever asked the question should I stay or should I go, I do not want to be the one who says stay and need to live with the possible horrible consequences of that advice.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is Director of Programs at Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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The Problem With #AshTag on Ash Wednesday

The Church is in danger of stripping its rituals of their solemnity and meaning for the fleeting, ephemeral popularity of a social media event

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Let’s just go all the way this Ash Wednesday and stop imposing ashen crosses on foreheads all together.

Instead, let’s simply impose hashtags made of ash.

Because, if we are honest, that’s largely what this day has become about.

The #AshTag, not the ashes.

The virtual, not the real.

The immortal digital, not the mortal flesh.

Ash Wednesday is no longer about repentance and self-examination but about retweets and selfies.

Welcome to #Ashtag Wednesday. Last year, we saw the rise of Ash Wednesday as a trending social media event instead of a solemn service. Clergy mugged for cameras in sacristies with ash on their foreheads. Parishioners shared selfies with the world.

The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.

It is a frustrating trend. A dear friend once said she loved Ash Wednesday because, unlike Easter or Christmas, it was the one day on the Christian calendar that couldn’t be commodified by popular culture.

But what is impossible for man is certainly possible with the church.

Get your #AshTag in church. Where will you get your #AshTag? Post your Ash Wednesday selfie and you might be one of 50 lucky people to win a book!

These are actual pitches this year — by religious organizations — for Ash Wednesday services.

These churches, leaders or organizations aren’t encouraging people to receive ashes as part of the liturgy, as a way to enter into Lent, or as a way to ponder our mortality or the sobering reminder that we are dust and will return to dust.

Rather, they are implicitly encouraging people to come to church in order to post of selfie. It fetishizes ashes. It centers the purpose of ashes in the public consumption of photos and social media rather than in reminding us of our mortality. The systemic push within the church for Ash Wedneday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards. That’s the unfortunate context of the call to “get your #Ashtag.”

So, while I truly hope people don’t post their Ash Wednesday selfies this year, I really can’t blame them. This isn’t about the individuals posting selfies. It’s about the church itself, which is promoting it, driving it, and attempting to create cool trends rather than to call people into deeper meaning for the season of Lent.

In doing so, the Church is in danger of stripping its rituals of their solemnity and meaning for the fleeting, ephemeral popularity of a social media event.

Ash Wednesday is, if nothing else, a reminder of our mortality. How ironic that now there is a rush to immortalize our piety on this day through the eternal digital life where neither rust destroys nor moth consumes.

We store up these treasures on Twitter.

We have hollowed out the holy call for self-examination with narcissism.

We’ve exchanged the sacred for the selfie.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Parenting

Christians and Spanking Culture: How and Why to Stop It

Given who we are and how we act, why do we have such impossibly high expectations for our children?

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The “cool pope” is speaking out in favor of physical discipline, bringing spanking back into the news.

Though I come from an evangelical background, I admire the pope, and so found his latest comments frustrating.

I don’t spank my children. (Full disclosure: my children are still quite young—but so far, so good.)

My relatives all spank their children with reckless impunity. To them I know it seems so simple: the actions of the child who has disobeyed is immediately met with the power and authority of their mighty hand, by which the child immediately learns that he or she has done wrong.

But I don’t discipline my kids that way. And people judge me for that. One relative mentioned casually to my husband, “You guys can get away with not spanking, because your kids listen—but my kid won’t do anything unless she’s spanked.”

I wanted to argue; I wanted to answer, “That’s because you’ve trained your child to be completely unresponsive to any form of discipline other than spanking. Your child knows that when you simply ask her to do something, you don’t mean it—you only mean it when you spank. (And no, my kids do not always listen.)”

The idea that not spanking is some sort of easy, overly lenient parental response is baffling to me. It would be much simpler to smack my kids every time they did something wrong (especially when I’m angry at them) than it is to consistently treat them like human beings deserving of the same respect that I believe I’m entitled to.

So many parents make discipline a battle for control, when anyone who has researched effective conflict resolution knows that compromise and empathy, not forceful demanding, is the solution to problem-solving.

Spanked throughout my own childhood, I wasn’t taught anything about non-violent parenting until, curious about what other options might be available to me, I researched the matter myself. The number of experts who tell us (with decades of peer-reviewed research studies and staggering statistics to support their findings) that spanking is at worst harmful and at best simply ineffective is enormous.

But people don’t listen to that overwhelming evidence—often for the same reasons they ignore the science behind climate change and vaccinations. They don’t want to be told what to do, and so find it easy to ignore research that doesn’t fit in with their personal philosophies.

We expect our children to act like adults. We think they should be able to sit still for hours, listen to every command, follow all the rules, never speak above a whisper, and never express any negative emotion to a situation they find upsetting. We think their problems don’t matter, and we don’t value their feelings.

The truth is that we adults can’t even meet the standards of behavior most of us set for our kids. I lash out at my spouse when I’m frustrated. I may break speeding laws on occasion. I don’t think I’ve ever spent a day at work where I haven’t deviated from my duties and goofed off online, if just for a few minutes.

Given who we are and how we act, why do we have such impossibly high expectations for our children?

Proverbs 13:24 says, “Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.” Rather than take the Book of Proverbs as simple suggestions, written thousands of years ago for a specific community in a specific time period, conservative Christians think of it—and especially its passages on child-rearing—as living, breathing words written directly to them. What they hear in the words above is, “If I don’t spank my children, I hate them.” So, for them, not spanking their children brings them instant guilt for failing as parents.

The problem is that, even if you take the Bible at face value, the Hebrew translation the for word rod is shevet—a stick or staff used to guide and lead sheep, like a shepherd’s crook. The word shevet appears in one of the most beloved passages in the Bible, in Psalms 23: “Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.”

The rod—the shevet—is not an object of pain. It is an object of comfort, love and protection. This is the sort of vision I have for my children when I raise them. I don’t need their absolute obedience. My goals for them are that they grow up with the fruits of the spirit. I want them to be understanding and empathetic to the effect their actions have on others around them. Violent, authoritative parenting is not the way in which it will be possible for me to meet this goal.

Most conservative Christians—especially God-fearing, red-blooded Americans who want their children to grow up respectful and reverent of authority–believe that honoring and obeying one’s parents means honoring and obeying God. Well, I do want my children to honor and obey me—but not because they are physically afraid of me. I want them to feel about me the way I feel about God, which is that I honor and obey Him because I know that he loves me, cares for me, and would never harm me.

Jennifer C. Martin is a writer in Richmond, Virginia.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME faith

The Christian Case for Vaccinating Your Kids

A bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on Jan. 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images A bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on Jan. 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida.

Maybe it’s time we love our neighbors’ children as well as we love our own

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Look, I get that nostalgia is big right now.

We’ve got more 19th century beards, vinyl records, backyard gardens, and banjo music in the United States than at any other time in probably the past 50 years.

It’s a throwback to those halcyon days of previous generations.

But do you know what I’m not nostalgic for?

Measles.

Like not in the least.

I’d be just fine without a new revival of one of the world’s most infectious diseases.

Or any other disease, for that matter, preventable by a readily available vaccine.

Of course, nostalgia, like the decision not to vaccinate one’s children, tends to be primarily an indulgence of the white and wealthy. Parents who refuse vaccines tend to be in both of those demographics. Any time a trend like this, with such clear and dire public health consequences, skews white and wealthy, then we must acknowledge that it’s also a race and class issue.

Some, though, want to frame this as an issue about personal choice. It’s about what individual parents are compelled to do with their own children by the government, some argue.

For Christians, however, this selfish individualistic mentality — the what’s good for me and mine and who cares about anyone else — goes against the core teachings of Jesus. One clear ethic resounding throughout the life of Jesus and his teachings is that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring each other. Instead, we have a responsibility to care for each other.

Vaccines aren’t about individual choices or even individuals. It’s not about you and your children. It’s about us. All of us.

It isn’t about how best to love and protect my children.

It’s about how best to love and protect all of our children.

It’s about us as species finally making headway against killer diseases after millions of years of evolution and high child mortality.

It’s about us as a human family, joining hands to protect each other and particularly the vulnerable whose compromised or weakened immune systems can’t handle vaccines.

So maybe it’s time we love our neighbors’ children as well as we love our own.

So, if you are a Christian, and you are wondering whether you should vaccinated your children, look at the teachings of Jesus. That’s right, I think Jesus would have been pro-vaccine. He was a healer, after all. Vaccines have prevented scores of disabling and deadly diseases in children. And had they had vaccines in first-century Galilee, it might have cut down on Jesus’ miracle workload, which he seemed to dislike anyway.

In fact, the vaccines that have prevented polio or the measles might well seem like miracles to people who remember when those diseases ravaged lives, when they could not be stopped by science and vaccines but only prayed against in desperate hope.

So, when you take your children to the doctor, check your privilege as a white, wealthy, or healthy person.

Don’t let your privilege and personal choice harm others or put the vulnerable at risk.

Indulging in nostalgia is fine, really, just so long as you aren’t endangering your neighbor.

So spin your vinyl.

Pluck your banjo.

Grow your beard.

Plant your vegetables.

But love your neighbor.

And vaccinate your children.

David R. Henson is a priest in the Episcopal church.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME faith

10 Ways to Make the Internet a Better Place

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Try to listen, no matter how hard

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Lately I’ve been lamenting at what a toxic place the internet can be. But instead of lament, I would like to contribute something more helpful to make dialoging with people on the internet a little less toxic, and a little more right. Here’s 10 things we can do to make the internet a better place for everyone:

1. Remember that avatars aren’t just avatars — but are real people with a real story.

It’s easy to lose sight of an individual’s humanity on the internet, but remember, this is a real person with a real story — and you don’t know their story. Try to remember that you’re not really talking to a cartoon avatar, but a real, live, human being who has their own story that led up to their nasty comment.

2. Know that you’re probably not seeing the individual’s true personality.

I am convinced that 99% of the nasty people you encounter on the internet probably aren’t like that in real life. They’re probably people who love their kids, don’t kick their dog, are generally kind to others, and who would be treating you completely different if you were sitting in their living room.

3. Remember that people are more than simply their position on a single issue.

When we encounter folks on the internet, it’s usually in response to a post that is dealing with one specific issue. Remember that you cannot gauge the totality of their personhood by their position on one, single issue. If you were to sit down with them, you might find a host of other things you agree on or have in common.

4. Consider that mean people are often feeling scared, insecure, or threatened.

When people lash out online, there’s usually good reason —and that reason most likely could be linked to feelings of fear, insecurity, or that their worldview is being threatened. Many people are afraid that if they discover one area of their belief system is wrong, everything else could collapse on them too (even though that’s rarely the case). For these folks, there is a need of self preservation to defend and argue, because they’re trying to protect their worldview from falling apart.

5. Don’t say things that you know will needlessly escalate a person.

Some of us are better at pushing people’s buttons than others, but we all know how to do it. Remember that a human being is not a toy to be maliciously played with, and saying things that you know will have a high likelihood of setting them off for no good reason should probably remain unsaid.

6. Remember that gentle responses often disarm.

This won’t be the case 100% of the time, but quite often you’ll find that if you respond to someone gently and kindly, they’ll soften up a bit to the point where you might be able to have a real conversation with each other.

7. Remember that responding with a defensive attitude can make you look as obnoxious as the person you’re talking to.

The best way to go from the receiving end of nastiness to the giving end of it, is to respond defensively. I get it — no one likes to feel attacked. But, the best thing you can do is to walk away when you’re feeling defensive because commenting from a defensive posture before you’ve had time to sit with your thoughts is a fast-track to becoming as nasty as they are.

8. Try to listen, no matter how hard.

A lot of nasty people just want to be heard, but haven’t quite caught on yet to the concept that they’re more likely to be heard if they knock off the obnoxious behavior. Consider taking the first step — help them by listening to what they’re really trying to say. Perhaps being heard will help them to cool down a bit.

9. Don’t engage when you’re in bad space.

When you’re in bad space, that bleeds into your comments regardless of whether or not you can always see it. You’re less patient, less kind… less everything that’s good in the world. The best bet is to just avoid participating in the comment section when you’re in a bad mood.

10. Remember that you’ve done that too.

It’s easy to judge that nasty person you encounter online, but remember: there’s a good chance that someone else has a story where you were the nasty person. We all have our bad days. We’ve all done it. Just remember that the person you’re talking to might be just like you, but on a bad day.

We both have good days, and we both have bad days — but let’s try some of these 10 items and see if we can make the internet a better place for all of us.

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME faith

No, God Will Not Determine the Outcome of the Super Bowl

The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium
Gene Lower—AP The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium, host of the 2015 Super Bowl, in Phoenix, Arizona.

According to a recent survey, one in four Americans believe that God determines the outcome

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Stop giving glory to God after athletic events.

You are going to make the baby Jesus cry.

Honestly, you are going to make every version of Jesus cry (except for Republican Jesus). Republican Jesus wants you to give glory to God after utterly defeating another team. We’ll get to why in just a minute.

But first a little theological ground work.

The “Providence of God” is fancy seminary talk for how involved God is on a day to day basis in making stuff happen. There are all kinds of biblically supported stances on this, from God having a very high involvement to God having no involvement at all.

For example, if you give God thanks for getting the parking spot closest to the doors at Wal-Mart, you have a very high understanding of the Providence of God. Essentially, you are saying in spite of all the bad crap that happens in the world (wars, starvation, painful diseases, death, torture) God is more interested in making sure you don’t have to walk too far to get a cut-rate deal on pants with an elastic waist made by people around the world working for slave wages.

I’m here to tell you, looking at the realities of this world, a God with a high Providence is not a God you actually want to worship.

Let me talk you through this.

Let’s go back to that sports example. As a matter of fact, let’s get real specific.

When the Seattle Seahawks made a stunning comeback to make it into this year’s Super Bowl, after the game their quarterback, Russell Wilson (reportedly an all-around good guy), told reporters asking about their win, “God is good, all the time, every time.”

When I heard that I immediately posted to my Facebook page: “Dear Russell Wilson, great comeback but please stop saying “just… God is good.” I promise you, God had nothing to do with it.”

The responses came rolling in.

Some were very supportive and hundreds of people “liked” the status.

But some were not supportive; and others were, shall we say, a bit aggressive.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Service tells us that one in four Americans believe that God will determine the outcome of the Super Bowl.

Many of the folks who had a problem with my post were disappointed that I was being so down on someone thanking God for success at their career.

But, let me ask you: what does that say about God?

Do you ever hear the losing team thanking God or do you hear the person who just lost their job because of something someone else did thanking God?

Now we are beginning to get at the problem of a high Providence of God.

If God helped you win the game or be good at your job (or helped you with whatever), what does that say about the losers of the game or the person who got fired?

Did an all-loving God not help them in the same way that you were helped? If not, why? Are you that much more deserving than they are?

At this point, we usually hear someone say, “But God’s ways are mysterious.”

One: That is such a copout. Two: Even if God’s ways are mysterious, I see the end results and I still don’t think that’s a God worth worshiping.

Take the high Providence of God and blow it up to a global scale.

Whether we like it or not, whether we mean for it to or not, thanking God for what we get in life implies something about God’s relationship with and care of those who aren’t as fortunate as we are.

By simple virtue of being born in a first world nation, most of us find ourselves living lives that folks born into less favorable circumstances would see as living as kings and queens. From the simple day-to-day conveniences of indoor plumbing to the often overlooked security of not having to worry about an actual war breaking out in our city, we live lives that many would call blessed.

Should we give thanks to God for it? Should we imagine that God has placed us where we are with the benefits that we have, and left others to walk for miles simply to get clean water for that day?

Should we imply that God helps some and causes others to suffer?

Is that what an all-loving God looks like to you?

That’s not what it looks like to me.

It is, however, a God that Republican Jesus would like.

That Republican Jesus is a God who finds some people to be more deserving, more blessed than others — a God who believes some nations are far superior to others. That’s a God who is just fine with some nations winning the global economic battle while others struggle to feed their people.

Shouldn’t we give thanks to God for our successes?

Honestly, I don’t think so.

Not because of what it says about us, but because of what it says about those who aren’t fortunate enough to have the same blessings.

More specifically, I don’t think so because of what it says about God. It says that God’s hand is in everything and that God chooses to bless some people more than others.

That’s not a God that I’m going to worship – “mysterious ways” or not.

So, please stop giving thanks to God after winning sporting events.

I promise you, God had nothing to do with it.

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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