The Original Crowd

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I’d like to skip past any hint of commentary on religion, per se, and talk about Judaism’s Passover holiday as the most brilliant ever crowdsourcing campaign.

Passover is the annual retelling of the story of Exodus, which most of us are familiar with thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic movie The 10 Commandments: Lots of good-looking Jewish slaves were working on Pharaoh’s construction projects when their savior, Moses, kicks Edward G. Robinson’s butt, whacks the Egyptians with ugly plagues, and leads his people to freedom.

The get the Ten Commandments on their way to their future home in Canaan, where God would help them slaughter the locals and King David would unite them so his son Solomon could build the First Temple (well, that’s not in the movie, but it’s in the book version).

None of it happened, or at least there’s no convincing ex-biblical proof that it did. The archeological evidence tells a different story.

Sometime around 14th century BCE a smattering of nomads set up shop on the hardscrabble hilltops and plains between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. It seems as though they loosely organized into twelve “kingdoms” that were really tribes, each accounting for a territory about the size of your nearest suburb. They did business with the more powerful empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt…that is, when they weren’t getting killed or imprisoned by them. Around the 6th century BCE they wrote down their oral traditions, which included a story that elevated the founders of their nation from a group of destitute squatters to being God’s Chosen People.

This empowered them to do what all of their neighbors had been doing for centuries, which was to create the institutions and rituals of a state religion. Temples, well-heeled priests, secretive shrines, and complicated rituals and bureaucracies defined most pagans’ relationships with their gods. It was impactful stuff, for sure, as initiates to the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries claimed their experiences were life-changing. Judaism had its Ark of the Covenant, which purported to contain the rubble of the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been scrawled. It was kept hidden in the Holies of Holy section of the temple, shrouded by curtains and guarded by priests.

But when all those early civilizations perished, their established religions disappeared with them, so when the Romans razed Jerusalem and its religious institutions in the late first century CE, Judaism should have disappeared, too. The Ark was lost, the priestly class either dead or permanently unemployed. Only it didn’t, and I think it’s because of Passover.

The ceremony takes place at home. Anybody can host one, and everyone at the table participates (especially children). Other than retelling Cecil B. DeMille’s narrative there’s no script, really, except one that has been added or subtracted to over the centuries. Nearly everything about the ceremony can be customized after basics of ritual foods and prayers get covered. So there are seders (the guide to the service) in medieval Spanish and Esperanto. Seders are configured for gay couples and extended families. You can add songs, substitute favorite dishes, and do just about anything to it as long as you do it and, in doing so, perpetuate the story’s survival.

It was history’s first crowdsourced holiday campaign.

This gets at what defines truth in experience, whether religious or otherwise:

  • It’s based on shared content over which nobody holds centralized control or passes judgment.
  • You can’t do it wrong, really.
  • It has different meanings for different people, even as its core tenets of plot are identical, and
  • It’s not just a commemoration or celebration but rather an actual service, owned and operated by the users. The mechanics of worship are literally put into the hands of the faithful.

Too bad we can’t talk about religion anymore without risking offending one another. I think there’s a lot we communicators could learn from Passover, as well as the nature of religious experience overall.

(Image credit: “So it is written, so it is done!”)

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