Removing the Leaven from Passover

The Passover stuff is already out at the grocery store. At the other end of the store, an even greater selection of pastel-colored candy and related items.

But Pesach is still several weeks away, and first I have another bat mitzvah to think of. My Beloved will finally herself be called to the Torah in an adult bat mitzvah. Better late than never, as they say.

We’re all helping out. Our younger daughter is laining the day’s maftir portion. Our elder daughter is canting as chazzanit. And I am laining the New Testament reading for the day, which is from First Corinthians chapter 5:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little khametz leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old khametz, so that you might be a fresh batch of dough, in the same way as you are unleavened. For our Passover lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old khametz, nor with the leaven of ill-will and malice, but with the matzah of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Okay, so I took a little liberty with the translation. But those of you who have read Walking in the Moment between Tick and Tock will be used to it by now.

The reason we read this on this particular Sabbath is because it’s Shabbat HaChodesh, literally, “the Sabbath of the Month,” called such because it is the last Sabbath before the Hebrew month of Nisan. According to Exodus 12, this is when God started the Hebrew year and instructed the Israelites on how to prepare for the coming Passover, two weeks later. And so in our Messianic Jewish synagogue, we also read 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, because Paul uses the metaphor of preparing for the Passover, of cleaning out all the chametz, all the leaven, from one’s home, and replacing it with Passover matzah, unleavened bread.

But I have a problem with this passage.

What problem could I possibly have with this?

After all, this short paragraph is all about getting rid of the hate and meanness from our lives and plowing forward toward the light of truth. Every year, around this time, somewhere in the country, some Jewish rabbi will preach that sermon. And they’re absolutely right: that’s part of the symbolism of Passover. And that’s the part of the symbolism that Paul is calling on here.

But if we continue reading, Paul will quickly yank us back to his intended message:

I wrote to you not to associate with those who indulge in illicit sexual intercourse—not at all meaning those of this world who do so… but… if someone calls himself a fellow Christian, but engages in illicit sexual intercourse, or is greedy or an idolater, or is abusive or a drunkard or a swindler— Do not even eat with such people! (vv. 9-11)

Paul here is not talking about just getting the bad behavior out of our own lives. He’s talking about ostracizing people. Granted, these are people whose identity is wrapped up in certain unethical behaviors. But human beings nonetheless.

Perhaps a post for another day involves going down this laundry list and examining how conservative Christian churches in the US in practice deal with them (or ignore them), especially items like greed, abuse, and the art of the swindle.

For the most part, however, conservative Christians focus on the first item in this list, which I’ve translated “illicit sexual intercourse.” It refers to the Greek word porneia, usually translated “sexual immorality.” The problem here is that with the term “sexual immorality,” we immediately load into porneia, all modern social conservatives’ restrictions on sex, along with our modern understanding of the morality system, neither of which Paul had access to. Paul knew first-century Jewish ethics, of course, and he had access to the Greek and Roman ethicists. But he didn’t know there would ever even be a Thomas Aquinas, much less an Immanuel Kant.

And this is where the story get interesting, ugly, and painful, but in the opposite order.

(Click here for part 2.)