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As an Orthodox Jew growing up in Philadelphia, Passover was my favorite holiday because children were an integral part of the ceremony, and I got to sit at the Seder table with grownups. After the Seder leader hid the Afikomen (a piece of matzo) during the meal, the child who found it received a small prize. I always enjoyed sipping the ritual wine, while my mother voiced her concern that I would become an alcoholic. (I now think that Manischevitz wine would be an effective one-step program to prevent alcoholism.)
I especially looked forward to the Mah nishtanah…, the question asked by a child, which translates to “Why is this night different from all the other nights?” The scripted answers from the leader represent the substance of the Seder. Though I no longer believe the answers, the question reminds me of my favorite Passover joke:
“Because of his generous charitable contributions in England, Morris was to become the first Jew knighted by the queen. As part of the ceremony, Morris spent a great deal of time memorizing what he would have to say in Latin. But when the queen approached, Morris panicked and forgot the Latin passage. So he blurted out a familiar foreign phrase, ‘Mah nishtana halyla hazeh meecol halaylos?’ Surprised, the puzzled queen whispered to a member of her entourage, ‘Why is this knight different from all the other knights?’”
Before accepting Seder invitations, I always make clear to the host that I am an atheist. I believe the traditional Passover story to be both fictional and horrible. Here’s why: There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Moses existed, that Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or that they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And that’s the good news. I find the Passover story of the Exodus is horribly inhumane: An insecure and sadistic God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why? So God could respond by bringing 10 plagues to Egypt, which culminated in killing innocent first-born Egyptian sons (but passing over Jewish households). Now and forever, we Jews are to thank God every Passover for creating plagues to benefit his “chosen” people.
In 1969, when I was a new faculty member at Clark University in Massachusetts, I accepted an invitation to the most religious Seder I had ever attended. An ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) colleague, Joseph, invited me to his home for a Seder. He, of course, knew my religious views. What I most remember from that evening was my near-marital experience. When Joseph’s aunt asked if I was married, I told her I wasn’t. She then asked me if I’d like to meet her lovely niece in Toronto. After casually saying, “Okay,” Joseph took me aside with a grin and explained, “If you like the niece, you’ll be expected to marry her.” Joseph and I agreed that I should find an excuse to cancel my “date.” I had my opportunity when the aunt approached me with a confession, “I must tell you that my niece is kosher, but not glatt kosher.” (Hasidim go beyond ordinary Orthodox Jews by requiring special rabbis to inspect the food according to a more stringent “glatt” standard of Jewish dietary law.) My response to the aunt was, “Well, in that case, I’m not interested.” Joseph could hardly contain his laughter.
I had neither arrived at nor left that Seder alone. Joseph had asked me to accompany a couple of female Orthodox students on a two-mile walk to the Seder. I agreed, knowing that Orthodox Jews don’t ride on holy days. On the way home from the Seder, I asked them how long they had been Orthodox. They said they weren’t Orthodox at all, but that their professor (Joseph) had told them I was, and he asked them to keep me company on the walk. Joseph sure told a lot of lies on one of his holiest days of the year.
For me, Passover now focuses on the present and future, rather than on the imaginary past celebrated in my youth. In our humanistic Passover celebrations, we emphasize the themes of human freedom and dignity, the ability of humans to change their destiny, and the power of hope. We recognize the struggles of millions of people to overcome oppression and achieve freedom and equality. We also look for ways to do our small part to make this happen.
For instance, in my hometown of Charleston where the Civil War began, we often talk about how the war helped bring freedom to African-American slaves and what we can do to promote equality and racial tolerance in our community. We might also talk about the plight of Palestinians, and our hope that Jews will place more emphasis on human rights and peace than on territory allegedly granted to them by a deity.
This year, I was on a book tour in Florida that overlapped Passover. Lou Altman, former president of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, invited me to his Congregation’s Seder in Sarasota. Our godless Haggadah (the script read during the Passover meal) transformed the miracle fables into meaningful stories that were consistent with my views.
Why was this Seder night different from all my other Seder nights? Because this Seder was held on the less common second night of Passover, since some participants attend more traditional family Seders on the first night. And because this Seder was by far the largest one I ever attended, with over 150 participants. I kept thinking how much I would like to see Humanistic Judaism grow, perhaps becoming more popular than Orthodox Judaism.
Yes, traditions are important, but sometimes they need to evolve to be meaningful. My current tradition and Passover hope is that all humans will work to bring peace to the world, equality to the marginalized, and freedom to the enslaved.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.