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."

Hot 50 American rabbis

For those marking their calendars far in advance, the next celebration of Passover will begin at sundown on April 19, 2008.

This means well-connected American Jews have almost a full year to lobby for their favorite rabbi to make the unofficial, but totally buzz-worthy, list of the nation's 50 top rabbis. The pre-Passover list in Newsweek was such a hit that the film-industry players who created it are already gearing up for the sequel.

The goal was to jump start discussions about what it means to be an "influential" rabbi today, said Jay Sanderson, head of the Jewish TV Network and producer of the PBS series "The Jewish Americans." But it's hard to talk about shepherds without discussing their flocks. That was the point.

"The whole concept of what it means to be an effective leader is changing so fast and this is certainly true for the Jews," he said. "So some people are talking about the fact that we didn't ask, 'Who is the most learned rabbi?' or 'Who has the most powerful pulpit? Instead, we specifically asked, 'Who is the most influential rabbi and what does that mean, today?'...

"Some of our rabbis are preaching in what can only be called 'virtual pulpits.' "

When it comes to buzz, it didn't hurt that the list was created by Sanderson and two other top mass-media executives -- Gary Ginsberg of News Corp. and Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton -- rather than by panels of community leaders and scholars.

The result was an earthquake in the Jewish blogosphere and wide coverage in the mainstream press.

It also didn't hurt that three of the top five picks were from Los Angeles, while the rabbi of the largest congregation in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 10 and the leader of New York City's largest congregation fell all the way to No. 23. The top pick was Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance and Moriah Films. The Top 50 list stressed that he is "one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head."

The 2007 edition began with a 100-candidate shortlist and its creators plan to cast their nets wider next year. Feminists were upset that only five women made the cut.

The project's guiding principles can be seen in the 100-point system used to rank the rabbis. First they asked if the rabbis were known around the world, as well as in America. (20 points) The other questions: Do they have media presence? (10 points) Are they leaders in their own cities? (10 points) Are they leaders within their branches of Judaism? (10 points) How many Jews, in one way or another, follow them? (10 points) Do they have political and social clout? (20 points) Have their careers had a major impact on Judaism (10 points) and the wider culture? (10 points)

In the first list, 18 of the top 50 were listed as Reform, 17 as Orthodox, 10 as Conservative, three as Reconstructionist and two as "Jewish Renewal" rabbis. Next time, said Sanderson, the team will make a stronger effort to identify rabbis with the various movements within that complex Orthodox camp.

After all, the Orthodox rabbi whose selection drew the most flack was Rabbi Yehuda Berg at No. 4, founder of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. He has become a cultural phenomenon by preaching red-string power to Madonna, Britney Spears and many other trendsetters. Some Jewish leaders content that Berg is not really a rabbi.

"Any list that has Yehuda Berg on it is a list that I do not want to be on," said an anonymous rabbi who made the list, but vented to the Jerusalem Post. "I think his name up there on the top tells you all you need to know about the Jewish sophistication of these folks."

Sanderson welcomes the ongoing debate. The key, he said, is that rabbis have to take their various takes on the ancient faith directly to modern Jews -- where they are.

"Picture a young Jewish woman on her treadmill watching the Today Show," he said. "How do you talk to her about Judaism? The answer is that you have to go on the Today Show, because she isn't going to be sitting in your congregation during the High Holy Days. That's the reality, right there."

Should Jews believe Judaism is true?

David Klinghoffer knew that his new book "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus" would make plenty of people angry.

After all, the Orthodox Jewish journalist argues that Jesus misunderstood centuries of Jewish tradition, twisted it or rejected it outright -- or all of the above. The Apostle Paul, he says, padded his Pharisee resume and may not even have been a Jew.

Truth is, Klinghoffer believes Judaism is "true," in every sense of that unpopular word. But he has discovered that many modern Jews get mad when someone has the chutzpah to openly proclaim that Judaism is rational and built on a binding covenant with God that is linked to eternal salvation.

"The Sinai covenant and its commandments, you see, are not compatible with every lifestyle," he said. "So if you try to tell many Jews that the covenant is still in effect they're going to bristle. They see those commandments as a judgment on their lives."

Klinghoffer paused and chose his words carefully: "If you say that one way of living is right, then that implies that another way of living must be wrong. ... If our beliefs clash, then we can't both be right. People don't like to talk about things alike that."

This weekend, millions of Jews will have a chance to talk about their beliefs and the ties that bind as they begin the weeklong Passover season, which recalls the Exodus from Egypt. This is the most widely celebrated of all Jewish holidays, with friends and loved ones gathering for the familiar rites of the symbolic Seder meals.

What Klinghoffer finds disturbing is that the doctrinal lessons of Passover are incomplete without those taught by Shavuot, a holiday that comes 50 days later. Shavuot recalls the revelation of the Jewish law -- the Torah -- to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Without Shavuot, he said, Passover is meaningless. Without the truth contained in the Torah, Jews have no identity.

Yet few Jews celebrate Shavuot and many hesitate to defend their own faith.

"I think it is interesting that when I speak to audiences of Christians and Jews, it's the Christians who say that they appreciate hearing from a Jew who isn't afraid to be honest," he said. "They don't want to settle for watered-down dialogues in which no one talks about the questions that divide us as well as the truths that unite us."

Klinghoffer's book is making waves because it bluntly states and defends the arguments used by Jews -- from ancient times until today -- as they rejected Christian claims that Jesus was the Messiah and the source of salvation for all humankind. Rather than providing ammunition for anti-Semites, he said his intention was to help traditional Jews and Christians be candid.

For example, Christians have for centuries pondered the unique Jewish role in "salvation history," a mystery often summed up in the familiar statement, "How odd of God to choose the Jews." Meanwhile, Jewish scholars have faced a paradox of their own. As the Jewish intellectual Franz Rosenzweig once said: "Israel can bring the world to God only through Christianity."

Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. But without Christianity, Klinghoffer argues, there would be no Western civilization as the world knows it and, without Christendom, Europe would have remained pagan and almost certainly fallen to Islam.

Despite their many differences, Klinghoffer is convinced that traditional Jews and Christians can find unity on many controversial questions -- from abortion to euthanasia, and many hot moral issues in between. Christians and Jews are supposed to believe that "we can say, with a straight face, that there is such a thing as 'truth,' " he said.

This matters in an era in which many want to blur the doctrinal lines between world religions. Others want to deny the existence of religious truth altogether.

"This raises all kinds of questions," said Klinghoffer. "Who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? Does God get to play a role in those decisions or do we just put that up to a vote among ourselves? Where does moral authority come from? Do we just pluck it out of the air or does it come from somewhere?

"When we start asking these kinds of questions, Jewish and Christian believers can stand side by side."

Passover questions for 2004

The lobby contains what security experts call a "mantrap."

Guards monitor these bomb-proof doors, along with exterior video cameras and a device that sniffs the mail. Windows are laminated with plastic, so an explosion would not send glass shards slicing into offices. Massive concrete barriers could stop a truck.

Welcome to the American Jewish Committee's home in New York. This isn't mere "ethnic panic." No, "lethal anti-Semitism" is on the rise, even in places long thought to be safe, noted Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor at Commentary magazine.

This will not be an ordinary Passover.

"More synagogues have been destroyed in France in the past five years by acts of desecration

Next year in Jerusalem?

Germany has the world's fastest-growing Jewish population.

One of Judaism's hottest schools of spiritual renewal has its roots in Argentina.

Jews in Atlanta set out to raise $25 million and ended up with $50 million, including nearly $5 million poured into the project by Coca-Cola -- a corporate pillar of the old Protestant South.

These are snapshots of modern Judaism. Get used to it.

"Obviously, when people think of Judaism they think of Israel and that's as it should be," said journalist Larry Tye, author of a provocative travelogue entitled "Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora."

"But right now, anyone who wants to see what is happening in Judaism needs to look outside of Israel. If you just focus on Israel, you can't see the big picture."

When Tye talks about the diaspora, he is referring to Jewish communities that exist and often thrive outside of Israel. While Israel remains the unique homeland, the Boston Globe veteran is convinced most Jews increasingly feel at home in a wide variety of lands. In fact, the diaspora Jewish communities have "more in common with each other than with the Jewish state as they search for spiritual and religious meaning in a largely non-Jewish world."

Nevertheless, the Passover Seders that start next week -- the season begins Wednesday at sundown -- will end with Jewish believers reciting this vow: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

"The words will stay the same, but the meaning is changing," said Tye. "Most Jews don't want to move to Jerusalem. They are doing just fine where they are."

If Tye sounds upbeat about modern Judaism, that's because he is. While researching his book, he traveled from Germany to Ukraine, from Argentina to Ireland, and from France to the United States -- the Bible-Belt South as well as the urban Northeast.

But he knows many do not share his optimism. Debates about the health of Judaism have been driven by two statistics -- soaring intermarriage rates and the falling numbers of Jews in pews. There are 20 percent fewer Jews today than when the Holocaust began. Then again, notes Tye, there are three times as many Jews right now than there were a century before the Holocaust.

"Everything I heard said that these numbers were going way down and that they would keep going down," he said, during a South Florida pilgrimage. "Yet I kept visiting Jewish communities around the world and what I was seeing with my own eyes was not jibing with what I was hearing. ... I know that the bad news stories are real. But there is good news out there, too."

Yes, an infamous 1990 survey of American Jews found that the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews had topped 50 percent. Then again, researchers found that the intermarriage rate had actually fallen 10 percent among those who openly claimed and practiced their Jewish faith.

Here's another Tye snapshot. Half of Atlanta's Jews have no ties that bind them to any Jewish institution. That's bad. But the other half of the Jewish community is so active in worship and educational activities that it seems everyone is building a new synagogue. That's good.

"Where does that leave us? The overall number of Jews probably will continue to decline, while many of those at the periphery will continue drifting away to atheism, Buddhism or nothing at all," according to Tye. Yet wherever he traveled, Jewish leaders rejoiced at the growth of their cultural and, yes, even their religious programs. When asked about the future, Jewish leaders around the world recited variations on this mantra: "Fewer Jews, but better Jews."

Tye is convinced this surge in diaspora energy and innovation will eventually lead to changes in Israel. After all, there are four times as many Israelis living in America as there are American Jews living in Israel. New ideas flow both ways, now.

"Again we see the role of the diaspora in Judaism today," he said. "Israel is increasingly looking to the diaspora to learn how to have a healthy, pluralistic Jewish community. ... For many modern Jews, Israel has come to represent hierarchy and law. Meanwhile, life in the diaspora has come to represent the freedom of the individual and a kind of creative chaos."