My Passover evolution

As an Orthodox Jew growing up in Philadelphia, Passover was my favorite holiday because children were an integral part of … Continued

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.

Herb Silverman
Written by

  • MRunkle23

    It is refreshing to hear from an atheist who appreciates religious tradition without the belief that it makes his or her incrowd superior and deserving of special treatment.

    I have transitioned from Christian, to agnostic, to pantheist. As a pantheist I try to overcome my individual perspective, which like everyone’s is limited. Instead, I try to realize and feel that we are all one with the universe simply because we are the universe. You cannot take the universe out of us anymore than you could take us out of the universe. Every atom in our bodies, was, is and always will be part of the eternal continuum of space and time. As a pantheist I can see a leaf is just as much tree as it is soil and water and sunlight. The interconnectedness of All creation means I cannot presume that all creation does not have as much right to exist as “me” since “me” includes all..

    On a personal level, with so few sharing my perspective, it makes very little actual dent in the world’s sorrows, sufferings, inequities and cruelties.

    But If this belief could become more universal, I surely think there would be dramatic change. The concept of might makes right permits the egocentric the freedom to deprive that which they do not consider “self.” For example, it permits ideas such as: I/We are the ” chosen people” therefore I/ we have the right to deprive “you/other” who are “not Children of God .” Joshua expressed this when he claimed God gave the Hebrews who had fled Egypt the right to slaughter the peoples who occupied the land. This limited “Self” misconception permits the “right” to destruction and murder and theft of what we consider to belond to “other” and allows our misconception of “self: to supercede the morality which we hypocritically profess is only due those who are “self”. It also drives the greed factor,a desire for more and more possessions and power.

    A pantheist believes all essential needs are one’s own and do not rip off species, peoples or ecosystems,

  • zbob.

    Of course, “god” is a concept that has been interpreted in many different manners by almost every different belief system and by different individuals within the belief systems. Could “god” be the collective consciousness of all space and time that exists in the transcendent order (see Einstein’s absolute space-time, David Bohm’s implicate order, Stephen Hawking’s time has no boundary proposal, etc.) which is actually “created” in the explicate order by conscious beings’ experiences. In other words do our impermanent conscious experiences in the historical dimension create the “god” of the transcendent ultimate dimension. While “god” may be irrelevant in Buddhist thought and practice, (especially as an interceding being) doesn’t the collective consciousness of the ultimate dimension (Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s terminology) lead to a similar transcendent, universal, absolute “being”? Does the seemingly illusory emotion of love that has become an aspect of human survival due to evolutionary change and adaptation actually “create” the love of “god” that exists in the implicate, transcendent, absolute order of reality?

    In my opinion, the central question to the inquiry into an “afterlife” is the determination of the nature of eternity. It appears that most people who are discussing this topic are presuming a “Newtonian” view of absolute time and excluding from the discussion the theory of absolute space-time as espoused by Einstein and Minkowski. While I will not attempt to explain the intricacies of the theories of relativity, suffice it to say that Einstein thought that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion. Every moment of spacetime is a timeless entity in and of itself.

  • zbob.

    Eternity may not be endless time but, instead, eternity may be the timelessness of each moment which never “passes away” from the overall existence within absolute spacetime. Therefore, if eternity is timelessness and our conscious experiences are eternal, then our actions and thoughts exist in this timeless eternity, not as an individualistic “afterlife” but as a part of the whole of existence.

    We have evolved to psychologically misinterpret much of “true” physical reality as Einstein and his progeny have expressed in not only the theories of relativity but also in quantum mechanics.

    Therefore, if eternity is timelessness and our conscious experiences are part of this timelessness, then do our actions and thoughts exist in this timeless eternity? As theoretical physicist David Bohm stated: “Ultimately, all moments are really one. Therefore now is eternity” Or as theoretical physicist Brian Greene says: “Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing too.”

    If you look at the ESSENCE of the consciousness teachings of all of the great spiritual teachers throughout history you will find an answer to the question of how to act and think in every moment of your life to touch YOUR subjective, relative part of the “kingdom of heaven” “nirvana”, “paradise” NOW