This Normal Life: A Seder for non-believers

So let’s use the Haggada as a framework to deliberate not pseudohistory but contemporary personal, political and professional concerns.

After treatment: Colorfully illustrated French- and Hebrew-language Haggada, Vienna, 1933 (photo credit: US NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)
After treatment: Colorfully illustrated French- and Hebrew-language Haggada, Vienna, 1933
Jewish tradition commands Passover Seder participants to imagine that they themselves had been enslaved in Egypt and were redeemed through the Exodus.
But what happens if you don’t believe that there were Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus was a real historical occurrence? What do you do on Seder night if your personal take on the quintessential origin story of the Jewish people is something entirely devoid of the supernatural? How can you stay intellectually authentic while not ditching the entire ceremony?
That’s the dilemma I’ve faced for the past several years as Passover approaches while my religious skepticism has steadily grown.
Just going through the motions of reciting the Haggada line-by-line, no matter how lively the discussion and delicious the chicken soup, simply doesn’t work for me anymore, not when the words on the page refer to events that most scholars say are probably not true.
Take the Exodus itself. Forget about the “magic” of the story – the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. As Julia Fridman wrote last year in an essay surveying what we do and don’t know about that time in the Middle East, “one would expect that a large group of people wandering around the desert for 40 years would have left some kind of material evidence. If they did, we haven’t found it.”
What did happen? Academics who study ancient Egypt have plenty of theories. I’m fond of Egyptologist Prof. Donald Redford’s 1987 paper in which he analyzed the 40-yearold excavations at Tel El Dab’a in Egypt and concluded that the Exodus story is more likely a memory of how the Egyptians overthrew and expelled the Hyksos, another ancient Semitic tribe that ruled over the Nile Delta region.
Some of those Hyksos may have subsequently made their way into Canaan, where their dramatic tale fused with the emerging independent identity of a coalition of local farmers and nomadic shepherds. Embellished and modified over centuries, those stories eventually settled into an Israelite oral tradition that formed the basis of the Hebrew Bible we know to this day.
BUT THAT’S not the point. The problem is that when history, text and commandments clash, it leaves me unsure of how to relate to the Haggada. I don’t want to say words I don’t believe, but I’m not a hard-core humanist either, who wants to change the text to something so convoluted and nuanced as to bear no resemblance to the original.
“You think too much,” my friend Shelley joked.
“It’s just one night. Just do what most Israelis do at the Seder – read through the Haggada quickly and move on to the food.
The point is being together with family.”
I received similar advice from San Francisco- based Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller several years ago when my father died and I was having trouble saying the Kaddish.
“Your problem is that you know just a little too much Hebrew,” she said. Most of her congregants don’t dwell on the meaning of words they don’t fully understand, “but they appreciate the tradition and act accordingly,” she said.
I don’t think that “just doing it” is the right approach, though. What message does that send to my children about being true to their own beliefs? (See my column “In Praise of Datlashim,” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, June 5, 2015). Maybe my personal struggle can help them forge their own paths melding tradition with honesty… if not now, then when they’re deciding how – or whether – to do a Seder of their own.
There must be a more authentic way of holding down the Passover fort that keeps the framework of the Haggada while not treating supernatural stories with a reverence they don’t deserve.
SO, THIS year, I’m going to try something new.
What is a Seder if not a “structured conversation?” If there’s anything our family knows how to do, it’s make good conversation.
On Passover, the Haggada directs us towards certain topics, which we then discuss.
So let’s use the Haggada as a framework to deliberate not pseudo-history, but contemporary personal, political and professional concerns. The conversation itself will be the focus; we might read a line or two from the Haggada to launch into the topic, but rote reciting of the whole text is out.
How might this work? I’ll pick a few themes from the Haggada, three or four at the most, preferably with memorable images or tastes like plagues or horseradish, then lead a (hopefully) meaningful, modern dialogue around them.
Here are some examples: Instead of a rabbinical analysis heavy on medieval commentary on why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we could explore what are the biggest challenges plaguing us in the world today… or plaguing participants in their personal growth (if they’re comfortable sharing).
When we point to the shank bone on the Seder plate, we can discuss ethical treatment of animals and everything from growing veganism in Israel to a future of “cultured chicken” – meat grown in a test tube, better for the planet and more kosher than Soylent Green (from the 1973 science-fiction movie of that name).
The rabbis long ago identified matza as a symbol for anti-hubris, lacking the leavening that causes the ego to rise inside us. So, let’s go around the table and each talk about times when our own egos have overtaken our better judgment. Or pick an example from politics. It’s going to come up at some point, so this would be as good a time as any to talk Trump or bash Bibi.
How about climate change and the grim specter of the resulting food shortages? The Haggada has a trigger for that, too, in the section on ha lahma anya, the bread of the poor, the bread of affliction. Maybe this would be a good time to talk about social justice. Has capitalism gone too far? Do people of privilege bear personal responsibility for the widening spread of poverty?
THE MAGID may be long, but it’s a trigger worthy of at least a shorter discussion: the importance of storytelling as a means for preserving family or national history. Are we living lives that generate the kinds of stories we want to transmit? Are there family feuds that will seem petty in the years to come? (Laban and Jacob could be the prompt here.)
Hallel – traditionally giving praise to God – is an ideal opportunity to do a gratitude circle. We always try to bring some token of mindfulness into any family gathering.
There are so many more topics worthy of discussion that the scaffolding of the Haggada can prompt: the role of gender, the place of religion, the lure of travel, the value of aliya and service to your country, the use and misuse of power.
We won’t forget to drink our four cups of wine and sing. Yes, even some of the traditional songs with the words that I don’t believe in. Because music has its own power to transcend, to create bonds and memories. What’s a Seder anyway without belting out a good dayenu! (But maybe before that, we’ll say something about what we’ve had enough of in our lives or things that we’d like to overcome.)
I’ll need to drop any apprehensions I might have as to how it will all play out. Just let it flow, whether the Seder lasts one hour or three.
Will it work? I’m already bracing for my kids rolling their eyes. I haven’t decided if I should tell them what I’m planning to do in advance (so they can prepare), or let it be a surprise and evolve organically. (Well, if they’re reading this column, I guess I’ve blown that already.)
But I’m feeling excited. Rather than dreading the cognitive dissonance that comes when we temporarily shelve our critical thinking selves when confronting the supernatural stories of the Seder, my Passover for nonbelievers could be the start of something truly new, “an experience that evokes our hearts and souls,” as Rabbi Aryeh Ben David of the educational institute Ayeka says, referring to what he calls the true purpose of the Seder.
And isn’t that how traditions are really made? 
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