Passover of the Nations: Haggadot to Heal the World

The Exodus from Pharaoh's tyranny, the Passover Seder that recalls it, and the Haggadah ("Telling") that guides the Seder are at the heart of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. So it is not surprising that efforts to renew Judaism have, beginning in 1969, created a number of new Passover Seder rituals that are deliberately focused on healing some aspect of the wounded world.

Some remain available for those who are seeking to shape their own Haggadot and want to draw on them. (This not only includes Jews with a creative outlook on their own tradition, but increasing numbers of people from other spiritual paths who find some wisdom and empowerment in the Seder.)

On The Shalom Center’s Website you will find a quick report on these in three major categories:

• Haggadot focused on the Exodus issues of social justice, pharaonic power, class, race, ethnic oppression;

• Those focused on feminism, women's liberation, and the full presence and empowerment of women in Jewish life and in the world;

• And those that address mostly issues of peace and war – especially conflict and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Before I review this whole history, I want to point out two fruits of this history, available from The Shalom Center:

1. In our own generation, a sense of global ecological danger has stimulated the reinterpretation of the ten plagues as eco-catastrophes and the raising of two new questions to address during Passover in general and the Seder in particular:

What is the link between Pharaoh's oppressive rule over Egypt and its consequences in disastrous upheavals of the earth itself? And what aspect of our own egotistical internal pharaoh -- the "chameitz" or leavening that swells our egos - – is the overconsumption that damages the earth –- especially the overconsumption of fossil fuels that is leading to our global climate crisis?


2. The most recent reworking of the broad social-justice version of the Haggadah is the "New Freedom Seder," drawing especially on and drawing on the confluence in 2004 of Palm Sunday, Passover, and Martin Luther King's anniversaries. It was celebrated on April 4, 2004 by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by intertwining the story of the Palm-branch Demonstration against the Roman Empire -- led by a radical rabbi from the Galilee at Passover-time -- with the Seder itself, and with the teachings of Martin Luther King exactly one year before his death in his Riverside speech of April 4, 1967. That Haggadah is available on-line at –

and as a pamphlet from The Shalom Center (send a check for $19.95 to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119).

This last Haggadah is a transformed descendant of the original Freedom Seder, which I wrote for Passover 1969 and which initiated this last generation's flood of alternative Haggadot.

That Freedom Seder affirmed the ancient story of liberation from Pharaoh while broadening it to include other liberation struggles. Among them were not only other Jewish freedom struggles (especially resistance during the Holocaust) and -– for the first time in Jewish history, as near as I can tell -- the liberation struggles of other peoples, especially Black America.

The Freedom Seder also replaced the traditional rabbinic debate over how many plagues there were with a constructed debate among many voices, between violence and nonviolence as avenues toward freedom. And it included a remarkable passage by the American radical A. J. Muste on Moses as the organizer of "Brickmakers Union Local Number One."

It was published in a widely read religiously rooted progressive magazine of the day, Ramparts, and in a tiny pocket-book by Micah Press. (Odd side-light on history: many years later, we discovered that some letters ordering copies of the Freedom Seder were stolen by the FBI from mailboxes at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, where I worked, as part of their illegal COINTELPRO efforts to disrupt antiwar groups.)

The text of that initial version is available on The Shalom Center's Website at –

A second edition, considerably richer and fuller than the first, was published in 1970 by Holt Rinehart Winston. This one includes passages from Allen Ginsberg's Howl affirming gay liberation, and passages on Soviet Jewry and the Vietnam War, According to a Google search, a few copies seem to be available from used bookstores.

According to J. J. Goldberg (now editor of the Forward), writing in 2000 –

"[The] Freedom Seder has gone mainstream. It's begotten Soviet Jewry Haggadahs, environmental Haggadahs, Israeli-Palestinian Haggadahs and a half-dozen competing feminist Haggadahs. Its influence is clearly visible, too, in more conventional Haggadahs of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

"Black-Jewish freedom seders, meanwhile, are held everywhere, sponsored by Reform temples and Anti-Defamation League chapters. There are Jewish-Christian interfaith seders, gay seders, even diplomatic seders where foreign envoys sample matzah and liberation. Feminist third seders, the fastest-growing permutation, now draw thousands each year."

On the other hand, Robert Alter bitterly attacked the Freedom Seder in the February 1971 issue of Commentary magazine, as that magazine under Norman Podhoretz shifted from the arena where anarchist philosopher/ poet/ novelist Paul Goodman was often published to a stance we would now call :"neo-conservative." Alter said the Freedom Seder was a "perversion, a document of self-loathing and self-abasement masquerading as an expression of self-affirmation."

Even today, in a recently published book called My People's Passover Haggadah edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow (Jewish Lights, 2008), Arnow dismisses the Freedom Seder as "more a montage of peace songs and inspirational readings than it is a conventional Haggadah."

In the context of the Hoffman-Arnow book, this outlook is not surprising: The book assigns commentators to look at the Haggadah from the standpoint of Hassidism, Halakha, feminism, theology, personal spirituality, and various historical periods. Not a single commentator was asked to look at the Haggadah from the standpoint of social justice -- social class, the nature of centralized pharaonic power, the bitterness of slavery and poverty, the rights of workers, or the treatment of foreigners and scorned ethnic or racial groups—though these are the very guts of the biblical story.

Nor are there references to the labor-oriented seders sponsored nowadays by the Jewish Labor Committee. Or to the 1997 Seder for Tibet in which the Dalai Lama joined with leaders of Reform and Renewal Judaism. Or to Haggadot that include major readings on social justice and social action or to Haggadah supplements on various aspects of social action that are sent out each year by Tikkun magazine and The Shalom Center. For references to these, see – (see "Upcoming Events" on the Labor Seders)

As J. J Goldberg noted, feminist Haggadot have been the most widely reworked version of the Exodus story. Maida Solomon's article "Feminism and Judaism in Women's Haggadot," pp. 225-227 in Joyce Antler, Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture (Brandeis University Press, 1998), describes in detail how publication of the Freedom Seder helped stir Jewish women to begin creating feminist Haggadot.

Perhaps the first, shaped in 1971 by women in Portland Oregon, was called the "Rice-paper Haggadah" and in 1976 was sent forth to a much wider public by a leading feminist journal of the day, Off Our Backs, in an article titled, "Next Year in Brooklyn; A Seder to Celebrate Ourselves,"

Then in March 1977, MS magazine published "A Women's Haggadah " by Esther M. Broner and Naomi Nimrod. In 1994, the text and story of that Haggadah and the Seder Sisters who celebrated it again and again for many years was published as a book: The Telling by E.M. Broner and Naomi Nimrod (HarperCollins, 1994).

More recently, Ma'yan in New York pioneered the creation of feminist seders held before Passover so as to encourage the introduction of feminist themes into the actual Passover celebrations.

After a dozen years, Ma'yan has decided this will be its last such seder, because the task of catalyzing feminist transformations of the Haggadah and Seder has been accomplished.

Meanwhile, the crystallization of the movement for Jewish renewal made available fuller views of how to enrich and embody freedom in the Seder night. For the journal I founded in 1979 and edited for 18 years, Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal, I edited and focused a talk by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's and published it as “Notes Toward Freeing the Seder” in April 1982.

In the usual Reb Zalman style, it encourages looking beneath the words of the Haggadah to their emotional and spiritual intention, and then to work out ways to express those underlying concerns in our own words and actions. That commentary is now available at --

Perhaps the most radical transformation of the Haggadah text arose out of a class I taught on the festival cycle in 1982-1983 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I had for many years, quite apart from my work on the festival cycle in Seasons of Our Joy, been writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the light of the tales of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Isaac, and Ishmael. Three rabbinical students -- Devorah Bartnoff, zichrona livracha; Mordechai Liebling; and Brian Walt –- proposed to create as a project for the course a Passover Haggadah using the traditional symbols of matzah, maror, etc., but retelling not the story of the Exodus but the story of the conflict within Abraham's families and their reconciliation, intertwined with the story of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the hope of reconciliation.

I agreed, and they worked with Cat Essoyan, an Armenian-American whose family had lived for years in Beirut, to write the "Seder of the Children of Abraham." It was published as one of a collection of three Haggadot called The Shalom Seders, gathered by New Jewish Agenda and published by Adamah Books in 1984.

(The other two were a much deeper, broader, and more sophisticated version of my earlier work, called now "The Rainbow Seder," with a special concern about the dangers of the nuclear arms race and the need for world peace, and a broadly liberatory Seder created by a women's group in Seattle.)

In 1999 I decided to take the basic idea of the "Seder of the Children of Abraham" and bring into it some new interpretations of the Seder questions and symbols and new stories of conflict and reconciliation among Palestinians and Israelis. The resulting quite different Haggadah, Seder for the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, was published by Tikkun magazine in 1999 and is now available at --

Let me end this quick review as I began – with the need for kol adam, all humankind --- to fulfill the call of the Haggadah by seeking the freedom and healing of kol adamah – the whole earth.


The Haggadah passage that says, "In every generation, kol adam –- every human being -- must ourselves go forth from slavery to freedom" must at last be read not "every human being" but "all humanity," because together we are all threatened by the disaster that is choking kol adamah –- all the earth. Pharaoh's top-down, unaccountable, irresponsible power now brings plagues upon us all, beginning with the "maid-servant pushing the millstone" -- the hardest working, poorest paid, most disempowered of the earth.

And Pharaoh fails. Pharaoh falls. Our fear becomes our freedom. Somehow we must bring this wisdom into the "Telling" of our lives. All lives. The bitter herb, the hasty matzah, the joyful wine belong to everyone.

Shalom, salaam, peace –


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