Saturday, March 23, 2013

Passover for Atheists and Hangers On

At our house we’re getting ready for Passover Seder on Monday.  We’ll be joined by a minyan of friends.  It’s one of my favorite holidays. 

Passover is the story of God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery with a mighty hand.  And lots of magic.  There is a talking burning bush, turning water into blood, and parting of the sea.  It’s about the Jews as a chosen people, and a promised land. 

I don’t understand any of it.  There’s the fact I’m not a Jew, although I’m married to one.  What does it mean to be a chosen people?   If I join the chosen people do I become chosen?  Chosen by whom? Chosen for what?

What sense does this ritual make for an atheist non-Jew?  What sense do stories make?  It’s a mystery.  It’s easy to invite people to Passover.  There is that.  If you invite them they will come.  I know that would not be true for a reading of Hamlet.  The Hamlet reading requires more lobbying, it’s not a tradition.  And at the Hamlet reading our guests wouldn’t put up with what can rightly be perceived as preachy, or spiritual gobbledygook.  As I said, I don’t understand any of it. 

But then there’s so much I don’t understand. Take the theory of relativity, or the Higgs Boson.  I don’t understand them.  I don’t understand where the world comes from or where it’s going to.  Although I understand a little bit of the law, every other time I think I have it right some judge tells me no I don’t.  I don’t understand why we all just can’t get along.  As the cartoon goes, there’s so much we don’t understand about carburetors.

Yet, through it all we come back to the Passover Seder year after year.  We’ve been doing it a long time.  God or no god, we don’t chuck it overboard.  Even though we understand it not, and we won’t ever understand it, there is something nourishing about the Seder and the retelling of this old story with family and friends.  In all the shifting sands of partial knowledge, illusions, uncertainty and mystery, the ritual remains constant, and mysterious to us all in our different ways.  It’s reason enough to keep it going.   

An Irish-Kenyan-Hawaiian-non-Jewish Seder


  1. We are having our Seder at our nephew Eli's house. We are having it on Sunday. It is our preseason Seder. Several years ago, we moved to a weekend Seder so we wouldn't have to start so late and I could help with the cooking.

    What has evolved in a lovely gathering, some ritual, some retelling.

    What I remember as a child is the Maxwell House literal translation of the Haggadah that we used in our family.It took hours to finish.

    I was particularly entranced by the rabbi discussion regarding the 10 plagues.

    "Thus you must now say that in Egypt they were struck by fifty plagues, and at the sea they were stricken by two hundred and fifty plagues."

    You go from 10 to 250 plagues just because of argument and discussion.

    I have been particularly close to the Almighty these last few days, Roland, and He still believes in you!

    Chag Sameach as President Obama would say.

  2. Probably makes more sense to most of us to parse this strange story like you any work of literature - there are the obvious themes of imprisonment/oppression and liberation, and who among us has not felt imprisoned by our circumstances or our past or even just our thoughts?
    Then, just as it seems that you are doomed to suffering, the waters part and a new life is possible...
    Happy Passover btw!