Passover should make us uncomfortable

Freedom Seders Old & New

Remember the Maxwell House haggadah?

How about Bartons’ Candies Haggadah?

Those were the haggadot of my childhood – and, if you are of a certain age, yours as well.

I don’t remember anything about those haggadot, other than some of the illustrations, and the matzah crumbs and the wine stains that gave silent testimony to the family seders of the past.

I certainly don’t remember the texts being particularly meaningful. They were not intended to be; you brought your own meaning to the seder.

No one thought about “meaning” in those days, anyway.

That is – until the creation of what might be called the first “meaningful,” “relevant” haggadah – the Freedom Seder, written almost fifty years ago by Arthur Waskow.

Arthur Waskow is a true American Jewish original – the alte zeyde (sorry, Arthur – the old grandpa!) of radical Jewish social activism.

It remains a powerful witness to turbulent times.

Think of it: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – which, that year, was only five days before Pesach.

Waskow’s Freedom Seder was originally published a year after Dr. King’s assasination (and the subsequent urban riots).

It came out in 1969, in Ramparts Magazine (of blessed memory; I would love to find some copies on Ebay) – to coincide with Dr. King’s first yahrzeit.

The Freedom Seder successfully connected the original story of the Exodus with the social issues that were gripping American during those dark days.

Many of which — racism, materialism, militarism, and sexism – continue unabated.

To thumb through the original Freedom Seder is to encounter the voices of Dr. King, Thoreau, Gandhi, Emanuel Ringelblum of the Warsaw Ghetto, Nat Turner, among others.

Today, some of the haggadah’s voices, such as Eldridge Cleaver and Allen Ginsberg, would be considered problematic.

Arthur could not have known that he was creating a whole new Jewish cottage industry.

In the wake of the Freedom Seder, there was a spate of new haggadot and new rituals: anti-Viet Nam war seders, Soviet Jewry seders, feminist seders, environmental seders, LGBT seders, etc.

Arthur, undaunted and unfaded at 84 years old, has just come out with a new version of the Freedom Seder

It is a worthy successor to the original version –- if only because the issues, half a century later, are no less urgent.

Because the plagues are no less pervasive. Consider the plague of climate change and sea level rise – which this reading addresses.

Let us leap forward for a moment to our own generation:

The stones are crying out.

The icebergs are groaning as they melt.

The mountains of West Virginia are moaning as they are destroyed in order to produce more coal.

The Coral Reefs are wailing as they blanch and die.

As the planet scorches and the corn parches, the price of food climbs.

Those who were hungry, starve.

The children whose bellies swelled from hunger, whose voices wailed from famine, grow silent.

Dying. Dead.

And all these silent, silenced voices call on us to speak.

Not only to speak but to act…


They are the Caesars of our day, the Pharaohs of our day.

The Pontius Pilates and Abu-Jahls of our day—

The Empires of Oil, Tar, Coal, Unnatural Gas.

The Pharaohs of Pharma, Fracking, and Banking.

Granted: this might not be everyone’s taste. We sometimes flee from an overdose of relevance, which some people call “political.”

But (and this is key):

  • Do we really think that God liberating a nation from the grip of oppression — and creating a covenant with that nation — saying, in essence: “You work for Me, not for Pharaoh!” — can that be anything other than political?
  • And — if we fail to update the texts, words, and ideas that originally animated Pesach for our ancestors, we will have petrified the tradition.

That is simply not what our sacred texts are supposed to be. Neither are they what those texts have ever been.

We are not the frozen chosen.

Personally, I would risk pushing the envelope and bringing our festival of freedom into the present, and making it relevant. If people want to yell and scream and argue about those texts at the seder table — well, that’s what Jews do.

The alternative?

The seder goes forth without any meaning. Oh, maybe the four questions — to give the children something to do.

The seder becomes a mere Jewish spring time Thanksgiving meal – a nice dinner with family, but with no real content.

Because these are two passages that Waskow includes in the new haggadah – and they speak to me, deeply.

First, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1970)

And, Dr. King:

 We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,  are incapable of being conquered. (Dr. Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967)

 Yasher koach, Arthur.

In the words of Rabbi Bob Dylan: “May you stay forever young.”

And may we continue to keep Pesach — forever young.

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