Passover, which begins on the evening preceding the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, is the great spring celebration of the Jewish people. Passover began as a nature holiday, celebrating new life. In the priestly and rabbinic traditions, it became a commemoration of the biblical exodus and the escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. This familiar tale, contained in the traditional Haggada, is retold each year at the seder, the Passover celebration.
Humanistic Jews view the biblical Exodus story as one of the most powerful myths of the Jewish people, a tale that relates the courage and determination of a people fleeing slavery for freedom. Humanistic Judaism views Passover as a time to celebrate the modern, as well as the ancient, quest for freedom. A Humanist Haggada includes both the legendary tale of the exodus from Egypt and the modern Jewish exodus stories, as well as the themes of the holiday’s origin. Passover is also a celebration of human dignity and of the freedom that makes dignity possible.
A Humanistic Passover Celebration
Humanistic Jews question the traditional explanations of Pesakh. There is no evidence that the Exodus occurred or that the Hebrew people were in Egypt in the numbers described. The traditional Haggada includes an anthropomorphic, active, ethnocentric God and the passive deliverance by God of the Hebrews. There are few, if any, women in the traditional Passover story, and there are no daughters while four sons are described. A secular Passover relates a nontheistic tale. Humanistic Jews celebrate the actions people take to improve their own lives. A cultural Passover recognizes gender equality and the value of inclusivity so that both girls and boys, men and women feel connected to their history.
So what is meant by a Humanistic Passover celebration? For one thing, Humanistic Jews continue the tradition of telling the Exodus story, but they accept that it is a story, not history. Humanistic Jews also talk about the possible history behind the story, perhaps a small slave escape that grew in the retelling. The Humanistic Passover celebration emphasizes the themes of human freedom and dignity, the power of human beings to change their destiny, and the power of hope. Humanistic Jews recognize the power and value of many episodes in Jewish history, not only ancient times. Passover thus becomes a celebration of the many times and events when people have left their homes for a new life, honoring the human dignity and courage required by their actions. Events of the twentieth century record the courage of millions of Jews who left the land of their birth to escape persecution and seek freedom in Palestine and the land of Israel. Passover recognizes the struggles of millions of people to overcome oppression to achieve freedom and equality. Telling the story of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to America, perhaps the largest Jewish Exodus ever, is a powerful part of a Humanistic Passover. Even more significant, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis in 1943 began on the first night of Passover; including a commemoration of this struggle provides a meaningful true story of a people’s fight for dignity, using their own power to control their destinies. The departure of Refuseniks from the former Soviet Union for Israel and America, the successes of the labor, Civil Rights and women’s movements in the twentieth century – all of these find a place in the Humanistic Haggada. A Humanist Passover celebration is a celebration of human courage and human power, of the quest for human dignity and equality. This is what makes it one of the most meaningful and enduring Jewish holidays today.
The celebration of Passover lasts eight days. It begins with the seder, a gathering of family and friends for a holiday meal, at home or in your community or congregation, during which the Exodus tale is told. Seder literally means “order,” as in the “order of events” at the Passover dinner. Most celebrations reflect the ancient and traditional celebration of the holiday, while adding new meanings for today. Most Jews who participate in a seder retell the ancient stories and share the rich symbols of the holiday. Humanistic Jews add modern stories of human struggles and connect these with current issues and concerns.
To the listing of the 10 ancient plagues, a Humanist seder might add modern plagues that we are battling today. The ancient tale becomes the non-theistic story of a people’s quest for freedom, providing a symbol for later struggles for freedom. The Humanist seder becomes a celebration of human effort and achievements, a statement of what we can do to improve our world.
To the symbols on the traditional seder plate (haroset), bitter herbs (maror), roasted egg (beytsa), parsley (karpas), and lamb shankbone (pesakh), a modern seder plate might include:
- An orange, representing the historical marginalization of women, lesbians, and gay men. It also suggests the fruitfulness of all Jews who contribute to Judaism.
- A potato, symbolizing the exodus of Ethiopian Jews from oppression to freedom, from famine to plenty, and recognizing the suffering and starvation of those in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
- A beet as a substitute for the lamb shankbone for a vegetarian seder.
Humanistic Jews often add a cup of water for Miriam (who, legend says, traveled with a well of healing waters throughout the desert journey of the Hebrew people) next to the cup of wine for Elijah.
The singing of Dayenu (“it would be enough”) for Humanistic Jews might become Lo Dayenu (“it would not be enough”), changing the message from one of satisfaction to a statement that there is still more for us to do.
The retelling of our modern struggles for freedom from oppression contribute to make Passover a more meaningful and powerful celebration for Humanistic Jews.