Psalm 79

Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. (79:6)

This verse from Psalm 79 was added to the Passover Seder in the Middle Ages, sometime after the ugly series of persecutions beginning with the crusades in 1096 CE. We recite these words as we open the door for Elijah at the time when the Seder begins to come to a close with Messianic overtones of redemption. An early modern addition (probably from the late 19th century) supplies the inverse of our verse, “Pour out your love upon the nations that know you and on kingdoms who call Your name.”

Some liberal-leaning Jews omit the verse from Psalm 79, disliking its violent nature. They might understand it as a Judeo-centric call for God to eliminate all non-Jews from the world, or perhaps they understand it as a verse to protect Jews and Christians but eliminate all others. Perhaps might include Moslems in the “protected” category, reading the verse as a call to eliminate only non-monotheists. In any case, there is a tendency among some religious liberals to eliminate liturgy that they find offensive, and if you read this verse as a call for the wholesale slaughter of groups of people by God, it is certainly offensive.

I read the verse differently, not as a call for God to engage in slaughter or for Jews to do so in God’s name. When reading the verse, I don’t think of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, or followers of non-monotheistic religion, all people who either reject God, are indifferent about God, or envision a different kind of Divine than the one in the Hebrew Bible which guides my life. I think of people who commit atrocities in the name of God. Such people disgrace God’s name. Even though I am fully aware that God is not going to strike out at them with a carefully-directed bolt of lightning, I want it known that the God in whom I believe has nothing to do with the false god in whose name those people murder, rape, steal, cheat, and in other ways subjugate and oppress others. To those who desecrate God’s name by such acts, I avow that God has nothing to do with you.

Therefore, I read this line at the Seder in a loud voice – certainly not in a whisper, as if I’m embarrassed by it. The door is wide open at this point so, symbolically, I am shouting out to the world my desire that God wipe out those evil people who, despite their professed faith, don’t really know God. And, of course, I also read the inverse paragraph praising people who do acts of courage and conviction and love in God’s name.

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