An earlier version of this post previously appeared in Secular Culture and Ideas.
When Secular and Humanistic 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 today!”
- “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 the downfall of one’s enemies, and striving to include more than just the Jewish people in the joy of freedom and the seder experience.
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:
- Sight: for instance the Seder plate, Elijah’s cup and place, the various symbols, and of course reading the haggadah.
- Taste/Smell/Touch: distinctive foods like matzo, bitter herbs, charoset, and parsley and salt water. Middle Eastern Jews often serve roasted lamb to recall the Temple Pesakh [Passover] sacrifice.
- Hearing: reading and singing the haggadah.
- Movement: reclining rather than sitting, opening the door, searching for the afikomen.
- Interpersonal 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 firstborn 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” [non-Jewish nations]; 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” [see Leo Pinsker’s 1882 work by this title] 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 celebrate.
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.