Passover is almost here, which means Jewish families are preparing once again to taste familiar tastes, ask familiar questions and hear the familiar answers that have united them through the ages. Why is matzoh the only bread at Passover? Because the Hebrews had no time to bake leavened bread as they fled Egypt. Why dip bitter herbs into chopped apples, dates, nuts and wine? Because this paste resembles the clay they used in slavery to make bricks. Why dip parsley into salt water? The parsley represents new life, mixed with tears.
This year, some liberal Jews will hear a new question during the ritual meals that define this weeklong season, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.
The question: "Why is there an orange on the Seder plate?"
The answer, in a new rite written by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer of New York, will please many unorthodox Jews.
"To remind us that all people have a legitimate place in Jewish life, no less than an orange on the Seder plate, regardless of gender or sexual identity," states "The Liberated Haggadah," a rite for "cultural, secular and humanistic" Jews. "And to teach us, too, how absurd it is to exclude anyone who wants to sit at our table, partake of our meal, and celebrate with us the gift of life and the gift of freedom."
The goal is to provide an enjoyable and educational Passover for Jews who are united by culture, art, music, literature, foods and folkways -- but not faith. Nearly half of American Jews, said Schweitzer, consider themselves "secular" or "cultural" Jews, as opposed to "religious" Jews.
"This is not some small offshoot, it is half of our Jewish world," stressed the rabbi, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, part of a network of 30 "secular Jewish communities" in North America.
"We have common values and experiences, even if we are not united in the practice of the Jewish religion. ... We still want to find a way to celebrate these rituals that define the major transition points in our lives and in the lives of Jewish people throughout our history."
However, Schweitzer faced a major challenge in writing this particular "Haggadah," which fits into a tradition of new Passover texts that honor specific moments in Jewish history and culture. Many families freely adapt pieces of different Seder texts to create their own unique rituals.
At the heart of Passover, is the biblical story of Moses and the spectacular series of miracles that helped the Jewish people escape from captivity in Egypt. However, the "Liberated Haggadah" argues that scholars have deconstructed most of the Exodus narrative, leaving modern Jews with a mere "myth" that is rich with symbolism and meaning, but not the gravity or authority of historical fact.
Even casual of participants in this new Seder are sure to notice that a big, big player is missing in this postmodern dinner drama.
Moses is still here and so is his sister, Miriam, along with a quiet character named Nahshon who may or may not have jumped into the Red Sea, which may or may not have parted to allow the Hebrews to escape. But the God of the Bible is gone.
"In early versions of the Haggadah," notes this text, "Moses makes only a passing appearance, and all of the credit for the escape goes to Moses' god Yahweh. Here, in this version we prefer to tell, Yahweh is the one who only gets a passing reference."
This is important, because many "secular" or "cultural" Jews are atheists and many are agnostics. Others, noted Schweitzer, believe in some form of divine power, but not in the kind of God who hears prayers and intervenes in human life.
Thus, traditional prayers are free to evolve into poems or meditations on "human empowerment." What was once an ancient story of divine liberation can become a story of human liberation to inspire all who suffer oppression and yearn for freedom.
"We want," the rabbi explained, "to say what we believe and to believe what we say. We think that people who do not believe should not have to use language in these rites that make it sound like they do, in fact, believe. ... Our goal is to live good, just, moral lives and we believe that we have the power to do that on our own."