Religion professor explains the meaning of Passover

April 02, 2004|JIM LOGAN

When schools, civic groups or reporters need some perspective on Judaism, Beth Glazier-McDonald is the first person they go to. It's not because she's a recognized authority on all things Jewish - although she is - but rather because the curious who live in this area have strikingly few options.

"I'm the one you ask because I'm the one there is," she said.

In an area with a relatively small Jewish population, it's tempting to suggest that Glazier-McDonald, a professor of religion at Centre College since 1988, is nearly alone in the wilderness of the Bible Belt.

Although a melancholy metaphor, it seems particularly appropriate given that the eight days of Passover - an intensely communal holiday that speaks to the essence of Jewish identity - begin Monday.

Celebrating the Jews' escape from slavery

Called Pesach in Hebrew, Passover celebrates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of the Exodus under Moses' leadership. The holiday gets its name from the tradition that God "passed over" the houses of Jews when he set out to kill the first-born of the Egyptians.


It's a time for families, friends and congregations to gather for the Seder, the ritualized meal that commemorates the Israelites' hasty flight from the land of the pharaohs.

More than 3,000 years old, the tale of the Exodus is a great, enduring story.

"You've got an oppressed people, they're making bricks, and you've got a god who redeems people from slavery, and you've got a good guy, Moses, who goes and stands up for his rights before the pharaoh - it doesn't get much better than that."

The story also set the Jews apart, culturally and theologically. They became God's chosen people and began a three-millennium-long quest for their promised homeland. Their sense of otherness was ordained.

"Jews were never called to be like everyone else," Glazier-McDonald said. "They were always called to be a peculiar people ... to uphold Jewish traditions and values. And that means, in a sense, separating from the world. But it's easier to separate when you separate as a community."

The difficulty of Passover in Central Kentucky

And therein lies the difficulty of Passover in Central Kentucky.

There is no Jewish congregation in Danville or any of the counties that surround it. The closest temples are in Lexington. For someone like Glazier-McDonald, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., in a lively Jewish community, being isolated can be hard.

"Here, there's a very small community to fall back on," she said. "I know that there's a part of me that misses it."

Ultimately, though, Passover is at its heart a kind of theological cure for isolation. Whether shared with family or congregation, it celebrates the essence of being Jewish.

"It's not just a family celebration," Glazier-McDonald said. "I think it's a community celebration, which is what the congregational celebration brings out: That you're celebrating with the Jewish community.

"And you remember who you are. ... To remember in Judaism isn't just to think back on, it's to recreate the past. And so in that sense one recreates this marvelous movement, this marvelous redemption from slavery to freedom."

Rabbi sees Passover as bridge between religions

Rabbi Mark Kline of Temple Adath Israel in Lexington also sees Passover as a bridge between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each shares in the message of delivery from bondage.

"It's really a great way to show that this isn't really a Jewish holiday," Kline said, noting that it's traditional to invite a non-Jew to Seder "to share the miraculous blessing of life."

Passover, he said, celebrates "the march from oppression into freedom. It's the story of any oppressed people who throw the shackles off and create a more peaceful world."

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