A Secular Jewish Passover Celebration


Some years back, a leading L.A. rabbi/author alarmed his congregation and caused a furor in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles: it made the L.A. Times, as I recall.

What was the hoo-ha? The rabbi told his congregation what historians, biblical scholars, archaeologists, and folklorists had known for a century: that the bondage in Egypt and the Exodus were mythological… not historical in any sense.

In fact, one of the most popular Jewish history books, A History of the Jews, by Dr. Abram L. Sachar, included: “Even if the whole episode was a myth…a tiny revolution, which may never have occurred...”

The L.A. rabbi’s congregation, and many others in the Jewish community, accused him of shaking their faith and, perhaps worse, ruining their Passover Seders. What were they to do with the Maxwell House haggadahs that have been, for almost a century, a major religious text in most American Jewish homes?

As it happens, the hoo-ha occurred at about the same time that The Sholem Community, one of L.A.’s leading progressive secular groups and its Sunday School, were updating their hagada from the previous ad hoc photocopied, stapled versions to a full-color, richly illustrated, lay-flat, spiral-bound booklet on (almost) wine-stain-repellant paper. Its introduction makes no bones:

This hagada reflects growing awareness of the mythological nature of the Exodus story… At the same time, it honors the folk traditions that took inspiration from the legend to imbue generations with a commitment to social justice and equality.

The Sholem Family Hagada For a Secular Celebration of Peysakh provides for “the children [to] retell the legend of our bondage” and includes in the children’s narrative that

the story reminds us that we must never forget what freedom means… bikhol dor vidor: From each generation to the next. The freedom story of the Jewish people has become the story of all peoples who have been enslaved and oppressed. The enslaved have been of all colors: black and brown, red and yellow, white. They have spoken in all the languages of Earth. And all have sung their freedom songs in the same freedom key.

This is followed by the singing of the African-American spiritual, "Go Down, Moses."

In essence, then, the Sholem Family Hagada remains true to the historical approach of Secular Jewishness. This approach was enunciated early in the 20th century by one of its leading framers, Dr. Haim Zhitlovski. He wrote, as quoted in Philadelphia’s Sholom Aleichem Club’s Haggadah for a Secular Celebration of Pesach—which has sold some 20,000 copies since 1975:

It must be accepted that this holiday is much older than the Jewish people; that it is an ancient Semitic spring festival. A whole chain of legends has grown up around the essentially human core of the story… about a people that languished in slavery… and then found the strength to throw off its yoke… All of humanity would do well to celebrate the spirit of peysakh. Shall we forget it?

Emblematic of the broad range of concepts and approaches among Secular Jews is the 2008 hagode (haggadah) of the Southern California Arbeter Ring/ Workmen’s Circle (SoCal AR/WC). Unlike the two discussed above, it was not intended for use beyond the 40 or so adult attendees at its annual Third Seder. And, like many family-created haggadahs, it is rewritten each year to reflect immediate issues and concerns, while carrying over a general format—especially, of its songs—from year to year.

Thus, the SoCal AR/WC ‘08 hagode asked “How Green Is My Seder?” and focused on environmental issues:

On this day we gather to celebrate the essential right of all living beings to… enjoy their full natural evolutionary span, without threat of extinction or genetic mutation, starvation or disease. We join to honor the holiday of Peysakh, anticipating the liberation of all living things and people. Gut yontef! Gut yontef!

At the same time, the hagode reflects the themes common to most secular versions, including recognition that the historical and emotional impact of Passover outweighs the biblical mythology:

Today, as through the centuries, peysakh still calls the Jewish people to hold steadfast to our sacred conviction that justice and freedom for all people will yet prevail on the face of the Earth… The Exodus saga—even if the invention of a people’s imagination—has a broader meaning as well. For people in all generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, it has been a symbol of their own quest for liberty, and a promise that the freedom they desire can be won.

So, once again at Passover, Secular Jews provide viable answers to the dilemmas that often face all Jews: finding new, relevant meanings through scientific knowledge of the primitive and ancient roots of human festivals, plus an appreciation of the “historical” connections made in later centuries and the folk traditions woven around them through the millennia.

Simply put: Jewish holiday traditions—as the traditions of many other cultures—change constantly to meet contemporary needs. This generation needs no one’s permission, and need not fear, to adopt what seems meaningful and to adapt the archaic to new forms and content.

Given this Secular approach, the adherents of that upscale L.A. Temple might have been spared their anguish. But I’m not sure they’d be able to hold on to their Maxwell House haggadahs

Final note: the Sholem Family Hagada and the Sholom Aleichem Club’s Haggadah are available at http://csjo.org/pages/publications.htm

Full disclosure: the author is the co-editor, with Jeffrey Kaye, of the Sholem Family Hagada.