Secular Passover Values
By RABBI ADAM CHALOM
When secular Jews consider their religious and cultural
tradition for inspiration, they experience three sorts of reactions:
“That’s wonderful—what a great moral value for today!”
“That’s terrible—thank goodness we’ve grown beyond that
“Not bad for its time, but with these few steps it
could be even better.”
All three are part of evaluating Passover: celebrating an
end to slavery, deploring both the suffering of innocents and glorying in their
downfall, and striving to include more than just the Jewish people in the joy
of freedom and the experience of the Seder.
There are, of course, values from a “traditional” Passover that retain their
resonance. Consider welcoming in all who hunger for the celebration at the very
beginning of the Seder, or the importance of children asking questions (the
Four Questions, the Four Sons/Children) while providing age-appropriate
answers. We even see the value of pre-modern “multi-media” learning—consider
all the senses and styles of learning mobilized by the Passover Seder:
instance the Seder plate, Elijah’s cup and place, the various symbols, and of
course reading the haggadah.
distinctive foods like matzo, bitter herbs, charoset, and parsley and salt
water. Sephardic Jews often served roasted lamb to recall the Temple Pesakh
reading and singing the haggadah.
reclining rather than sitting, opening the door, searching for the afikomen.
connection: coming together as family and friends for a special event.
But, being Jews, nothing is quite that simple.
Self-aware Secular and Humanistic Jews celebrate our tradition, but we are also
honest and clear as we do so—we do not need to apologize away or justify the
unethical, like the death of Egyptian children “from the firstborn of Pharaoh
who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon,
and all the first born of the livestock.” (Exodus 12:29) Thus some values of
the traditional haggadah are omitted
or modified: opening the door and asking God to pour out his “wrath on the goyim”;
praying to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple “speedily, in our days, soon”; using
the half of the haggadah after the meal to bless and praise God with no
mention of Moses or the Jewish historical experience.
This is one of two subtle shifts in the values of a secular celebration of
Passover—from God to people, and from a closed perspective of “what’s good for
the Jews” to an open perspective of “how can our Jewish experience enhance our
humanity?” The central character of the celebration is not the God character,
Yahweh, but the Jewish people. The central message is not chosenness, but
rather universal values to be learned from this particular myth and experience.
We are not grateful for divine liberation; we are inspired to
“auto-emancipation” and then to
use our freedom to help free others. Many traditional Seders remember the
plagues with gleeful speculation of how many plagues smote the Egyptians (up to
250), ending with “how many favors has God done for us.” For a Humanistic Seder,
the plagues expand sympathy for all human suffering, our Holocaust and
others—if we have seen suffering, we have learned to fight it. We also address
“plagues” in our own day not as cosmic punishments but rather as challenges
that demand human solutions.
For all of these changes, of course, the irony is that change itself is one of
the most central Passover traditions (see “Passover—An Evolving Holiday”). In
Exodus 12, the ritual of painting lamb’s blood on doorposts was to be performed
“forever,” including after arriving in the land of Israel. We no longer
sacrifice lambs at the Jerusalem Temple, though the original Four Questions
recorded in the Mishnah,
a century after the Temple was destroyed still asked “Why do we eat a roasted
lamb?” instead of “Why do we recline?” The mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew
throughout the traditional haggadah
shows changes over the centuries, including poetical or folklore additions like
“Echad Mi Yodea—Who Knows One” and “Had Gadya—One Goat.” The
beautiful tradition of illuminated haggadot
(see some examples here) has often
cast the events of the Exodus in the image of the contemporary artist and his
or her time. The truth is that change is
the Passover tradition, and a central value for secular and Humanistic Jews to
Surveys consistently show that small minorities of American Jews
keep kosher or light Shabbat candles, but large majorities participate in a
Passover Seder. Secular Jews don’t celebrate a “traditional” Seder; they
celebrate the tradition of holding a Seder, in every generation, from
generation to generation.