This was my sermon from last Friday night April 18, 2014
Today Christians around the world marked Good Friday. This is the day when Jesus died at the hands of the Roman Empire on the cross that would then become the symbol of Christianity. On Sunday Christians will gather for Easter morning services to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his elevation to the status of God.
Easter however was a holiday that proceeded Jesus time. It was a spring holiday dedicated to the ancient near eastern Goddess Ishtar. (The same Goddess for who the good Queen Esther is named for). Ishtar or Astarte was worshipped throughout the ancient near east. She was a goddess of sexuality and fertility and war.
Like all good religions, once the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire and Christianity became the official religion, the early church adapted local customs so they would be observed by the people. In Greek the holy day of Jesus Resurrection is Pascha from the Hebrew for Passover. And so the adaptations continue into our time. There is more confluence of the mythic stories in various religions that often we would like to admit. The offerings for Ishtar were golden painted eggs that were buried. Of course on Easter, an egg hunt is always fun and of course we Jews have an egg on our Seder plate and a hunt for the hidden afikomen! Yes, we all take a little from here and a little from there.
But the convergence of Passover week and Christianity’s Holy Week share more than myth or eggs or children’s games of hide and seek. There is a dark underside to this week that has shown itself yet again. That dark underside is Anti-Semitism and violence against Jews
For centuries Easter Week was a dangerous and violent week for Jewish communities throughout Europe. Pogroms were common against Jews during this week. More than one shtetl burned as the locals accused the Jews of killing Jesus, words that word preached in their Church services. T
Since 1634 in the city of Oberammergau in Bavaria Germany, the Passion Play has been continuously performed. The text of the play is based on manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries and blames the Jews for Jesus death. The Christian Science Monitor, in its article, Capturing the Passion, explains that “historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the long-time church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. Violence against Jews as ‘Christ-killers’ often flared in their wake.” Christianity Today in Why some Jews fear The Passion (of the Christ) observed that “Outbreaks of Christian antisemitism related to the Passion narrative have been…numerous and destructive.”
This led to a change in many people’s Passover seder. There are two specific parts of the Seder , one where we open the door for Elijah. Many families in earlier generations were leery of attacks by Christians as many blood libels swirled in Medieval Times. The blood libel was that Jews used Christian baby blood to make the matzah. Opening the door was to check not for Elijah but to make sure that things were okay and calm.
And the following prayer was traditionally recited from Psalm 79 “Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon kingdoms that did not call upon Thy name. For they have consumed Jacob, and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Thy rage upon them, and let Thy fury overtake them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them, from under the heavens of the LORD.” Sometime before the 1200s the tradition was added, with both fear and anger borne of the Crusades and other assaults carried out against Jews by our neighbors. This anti-Christian prayer, was grown from the many violent and murderous attacks against the Jews during Passover and Easter.
This week we have experienced a bit of that violence as the week began with our attention turned toward Overland Park Kansas, when an Anti-Semitic gunman murdered three people, 2 at the Jewish Community Center and 1 at the Jewish Senior home called, Village Shalom. No denying it is a hate crime the suspect, yelled “Heil Hitler” when he was arrested and has a long history of associations with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. He was Jew Hunting during Passover Week and Holy Week on Palm Sunday. Ironically, he didn’t shoot a single Jew. The people he killed a grandfather, William Corporan and his 14 year old grandson Reat Underwood at the JCC were Methodists and the woman in her 50’s, Terri LaManno was visiting her mother at the Village Shalom was a Catholic. In America even Catholics put their mom in the Jewish Home and Methodists uses the Jewish Community Center facilities! This speaks to how much has changed on the one hand from Medieval Europe and on the other hand how much hatred and ignorance there still is in the world.
And of course the situation in the Ukraine and in particular in Crimea was not just some prank as a few news outlets have called it. A leaflet distributed to Jews coming out of the synagogues in Donestk by three masked men in uniforms waving a Russian flag, called upon Jewish citizens of Ukraine to appear at the town hall, to register, pay a $50 fee and detail their property. Both the local Russian backed Ukrainian officials denied that it was an official order and the Ukrainian government also denied it. But it is clear that this is exactly the kind of behavior that would happen all the time in the Ukraine during Holy Week and Passover. They would use the Jews and Anti-Semitism to incite others to riot. These are the same tactics the Nazis used, the same tactics the Cossacks used, the same tactics that were used by the Crusaders. The National Conference that Supports Jews in the FSU, said in a press release “NCSJ has contacted the Donetsk Jewish community leaders, who called the flyers a provocation. They said that all authorities have denied any connection to the flyers, and that Governor Dennis Pushilin has denied authorship,” the NCSJ says. “Several members of the community went to the Nationalities Commissioner, who repudiated the flyer, and said that the leaflets were distributed to cause unrest among the Jewish population.” Natan Schransky head of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, who is no stranger to Russian Anti-Semitism said “midst current political tensions, different forces are trying to take advantage of playing the “Jewish card” in these circumstances, and this is just another disturbing example of such incitement.”
The group adds that similar leaflets have been distributed targeting international students at the local university. But the specter of Anti-semitism has been used by both sides of the conflict for months. New reports from Khazakstan shows Anti-Semitism on the rise as well as in Hungary and well-documented cases in France.
This week we opened our doors easily to Elijah, most of us weren’t worried about a gunman or a Cossack on the other side. But for our fellow Jews in many places this is not the case. We can’t let ourselves be lulled into thinking that everywhere is like Los Angeles. And in the comfort of our own community where we easily wish our Christian neighbors Happy Easter without fear of reprisal, we must help out our fellow Jews who are living on this perilous edge. We should each take time this Pesach to give to the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Which supports our congregations in Ukraine and around the world The WUPJ has initiated an emergency campaign to support our communities throughout this crisis, and to provide urgently needed protection measures, supplies, equipment as well as assistance with the installation of security systems.
At this time, the most urgent short term needs are the physical state of the building in Simferopol, and tightening the security measures.. Please do what you can so our family in Ukraine can return to the task facing an entire generation – rebuilding Jewish life, which was lost over the last century. Please consider supporting the World Union of Progressive Judaism at wupj.org.
That would indeed make this a very Good Friday.