Passover 2009, minus God

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."

Sinners on the counterattack

The panic may strike in the shelter of a Starbucks, when a customer realizes that a quote from evangelical superstar Rick "The Purpose Driven Life" Warren is printed on some of coffee cups.

This would cause any latte-sipping liberal to mutter "Oh my goddess" and worry about legions of Focus on the Family donors invading Wiccan book clubs in Unitarian sanctuaries from sea to shining sea.

Does thinking about this give you sweaty palms? If so, writer Robert Lanham of New York City believes you may be suffering from "Evangophobia."

"It's a healthy fear. ... The evangelical right isn't the new counterculture. It's the new mainstream culture," notes Lanham, in his book "The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right."

"Worst of all, many evangelicals aren't content watching The 700 Club and attending laser-light projections of the crucifixion at the local megachurch. They want to transform the culture you consume to fit their standards. ... And compounded by the fact that evangelicals often share similar goals with conservative Jews, Catholics and Bill O'Reilly, we may soon witness a ratings' sweeps plotline where Will marries Grace after attending a gay deprogramming class."

Lanham realizes that evangelical politicos haven't won many national victories on the hot-button issues that worry him the most -- gay rights and abortion. Nevertheless, he is convinced that alliances between conservative believers and secular conservatives have resulted in "trickle down" policies on taxes, health care, environmental laws and strategies in the Middle East.

"Fundamentalists of every kind," he said, "keep clinging to beliefs that can be very destructive. They are advocating religious teachings that divide people, rather than bind them together. ... They are always on the attack and if we don't buckle down, the next thing you know, they will be running the country -- again."

It helps to understand that Lanham grew up in a non-dancing Southern Baptist home in Richmond, Va. Things got even worse, he said, when he was a teen-ager and his parents joined the kind of Pentecostal flock that "used live camels in the Easter pageant."

Virginia Commonwealth University beckoned, where Lanham majored in English and religion and soon discovered that his activities on Fridays and Saturdays were trumping beliefs he had been taught on Sundays. Before long he was writing "The Hipster Handbook" and his fiction trilogy "Pre-Coitus," "Coitus" and "Aftermath."

The new book on evangelicals contains more of what Publisher's Weekly called his unique brand of "caricature assassination." Thus, there are angry mini-profiles of alpha males like Dr. James Dobson ("The Evangelical Pope"), Tim LaHaye ("The Evangelical Stephen King") and the young Joel Osteen ("The Evangelical P. Diddy"). Along the way, he mocks the doctrine of the Trinity, rips into the Gospel of John and, with a note of sadness, confesses that liberal mainline churches have become fading enclaves for

"old people and pansies" who use hymnals.

Lanham stressed that he really doesn't hate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews and other traditionalists. He does, however, believe that most evangelicals are guilty of "dumbing down the faith" and consuming shoddy Christian consumer goods that deserve ridicule. Thus, his list of modern evangelical commandments includes statements such as:

* "Thou shalt live in the suburbs, eat at the Olive Garden and wear clothes made from polyblend fabrics."

* "Thou shalt become aware of pop culture trends eight years after the fact and co-opt these trends for Christian culture."

* "Thou shalt own a support the troops car magnet, a fish bumper sticker and/or an embroidered flag sweater."

* "Thou shalt not speak ill of they neighbor, unless thy neighbor is gay. Then it's okay."

The key, said Lanham, is that he -- along with many others on the religious left -- cannot accept the ancient belief that the Christian Gospel is the unique pathway to salvation. This is the kind of doctrine

that he believes creates fear and division.

Also, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, there is one issue that towers over all others today.

"It does seem that the evangelical right has set out to repeal the values of the Woodstock generation," he said. "The key issue is gay rights. I decided that I couldn't stand back and let the James Dobsons of this world continue to attack gay people. That's the issue that has made people like me want to take the gloves off and fight back."