Jewish rituals can be revitalized and transformed by activism as uplifting and effective vessels of social transformation.
Fifty years after the original Freedom SederThe Freedom Seder by Arthur Ocean Waskow, Micah Press, 1970 in 1969, thousands of Jews all across the United States observed Tisha B’Av in a new way. Traditionally, it was the mid-summer fast day, mourning the destruction of two ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem. In 2019, they observed the day by demonstrating against a major high-priority policy action of the then government of the United States — its oppressive and deadly treatment of refugees and immigrants. In some of these demonstrations, dozens of Jews were arrested as part of the protests.
There were two remarkable aspects of these events: that for the first time in history, large numbers of Jews and many of their major institutions publicly, clearly, vigorously and concertedly opposed a major policy priority of the U.S. government; and that in doing so, they drew on the religious teachings and spiritual practices of a Jewish holy day in an effort to change public policy.
In many of these gatherings, the participants spoke of the Jews who had been driven from shattered Jerusalem into death marches towards exile in Babylon and towards enslavement in the Roman Empire. They mentioned dozens of passages of Torah demanding love and decency towards refugees and immigrants, and they cited thousands of years when Jews were expelled from various countries and became refugees. They remembered how the United States had rejected refugees from Nazi Germany, and sent them back to concentration camps and then death camps, and they recalled how their own grandparents and great-grandparents had immigrated in terror and poverty to America.
All these memories were about the specific life-experience of Jews and the Jewish people. Yet the protests were focused far more universally — towards an oppressive U.S. government and the oppression of a non-Jewish ethnic group. “Never Again Means Anyone” and “Never Again Means Now” were watchwords of the protests.
Why would I bring this up at the end of a book about liberating the Passover Seder?
Because the Freedom Seder also liberated a new way of thinking about all the Jewish festivals and fast days. The wall between “ritual” and “politics,” between “spirituality” and “social justice,” first began to crumble, then came crashing down.
In 1969, nowhere that I have been able to find did any Jewish community think or act as if Tisha B’Av had to do with anything other than those ancient Temples. By 1972, the same group of people in Washington, D.C. — about 40 altogether — who had organized and led the Freedom Seder were gathering on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to fast in sorrow for and opposition to the U.S. War Against Vietnam. They drew an analogy between the Roman Empire’s salting the soil of what Rome called “Palestine” so that the Jewish farmers could not grow food and the U.S. government’s pouring Agent Orange onto the forests of Vietnam, thinking that to kill the forests would kill the Vietnamese revolution.
Earlier in 1972, the same small band of Jews had sparked a somewhat broader celebration of Tu B’Shvat, the midwinter Jewish festival of the Rebirth Day of Trees and of the Divine Tree of Life, by condemning the destruction of those trees in Vietnam. They pointed out that the Torah explicitly forbids the killing of “enemy” trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) even or especially in time of war. So they organized “Trees and Life for Vietnam,” convinced the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to become Honorary Chair of the campaign, raised money to support reforestation in Vietnam and sent delegates to Paris to give the money in equal shares to representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the National Liberation Front and a group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks led by Thich Nhat Hanh. On Tu B’Shvat itself and its adjacent days, they brought the feminist and strongly progressive Congresswoman Bella Abzug and neo-Hassidic Rebbe Shlomo Carlebach to speak at different times on Judaism and the war. This time it was a reinterpretation of both a medieval mystical celebration of God as the Tree of Life and the modern Zionist redefinition of the day as a time to plant trees in the Land of Israel — moving them in a universal direction.
By the summer of 2010, the universalization of Tisha B’Av had taken a small step forward, beyond 1972. Earlier in the summer, the BP “Big Oil” blowout of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico had engulfed and killed 11 BP workers on the oil rig, and tens of thousands of fish and birds in the Gulf region, leaving many businesses along the Gulf shores in financial downfall. The U.S. government was doing little to help, especially little to protect the future of Earth’s oceans, marine workers and businesses from similar disasters.
So about 300 people, led by Jews using the symbols and practices of Tisha B’Av but including many adherents of other religious and spiritual traditions and many secular environmentalists, gathered on the steps of the Capitol. They spoke of the destruction being imposed on Temple Earth. They heard and joined in the wailing chant of a new “Lament for Earth” written by (now Rabbi) Tamara Cohen in the style and wailing melody of the ancient book of Lamentations. The use of Rabbi Cohen’s text for a more universal Tisha B’Av slowly made its way into the more experimental arenas of Jewish life.
In 1969, the original Freedom Seder was like a crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. Many parts of the American Jewish community, especially but not only many of its young people, had soaked themselves deeply in the need to turn away from America’s “original sin” — racism — and the need to end an illegitimate and obscene war. Although many Jewish institutions had to some extent supported the Black-led freedom movement in the South, very few were willing to condemn the U.S. War Against Vietnam. Yet many outside the official leadership burned with passion to redress those wrongs, and they were convinced that the values they espoused were rooted in Torah and in Jewish history.
So the Freedom Seder crystallized those urgent feelings, and the result was a sudden transformation in the ways in which many Jews thought and felt about “ritual” as a frame for social activism. The first result was a profusion of activist Haggadahs that were utterly clear about their Jewish roots and strongly committed to their universalist flowering. The new understanding of “activist ritual” kept cooking in the community. And for many young Jews, half a century after the original wave of Seders, the encounter at Standing Rock with Native/Indigenous spirituality fused with resistance to corporate plans for earth-wounding oil pipelines once more soaked the community in the passion for activist ritual.
As a handbook of “how” to liberate Passover, this book has drawn on many experiments in the past half-century. I want to end by turning our gaze into the future:
Some world-spanning banks invest hundreds of billions of dollars in corporations that burn Earth, destroy communities and kill people. On Sukkot, the earthy harvest festival, Jews celebrate by building temporary, vulnerable, open-to-Earth huts with leafy, leaky roofs. We wave in the seven directions of the universe the Four Species [branches of palm, willow and myrtle, and a lemony etrog (citron)]. We chant prayers called “Hosha Na — Please save” Earth from locusts, droughts, invasive worms and other plagues.
What would happen if groups of Jews walked into offices and branches of those banks waving the branches, singing songs of sacred Earth, chanting prayers to save us from burning fossil fuels, demanding that the banks stop lending money to the Carbon Pharaohs and instead lend it to neighborhood solar co-ops, to companies building wind farms, to projects of reforestation?
In American society, every other year Sukkot comes a few weeks before a major national election. What if we were to commit ourselves to “Share Sukkot/Green and Grow the Vote” as part of the Jewish observance of the holy day? What if the building of sukkot in all our communities were connected with the values inherent in the festival and with outreach to make sure that undervoting communities — our own youth, the poor and those racially marginalized — were especially encouraged and aided to vote?
What are those values? Torah teaches that the band of runaway slaves that made up the refugees from the Tight and Narrow Place (Mitzrayim, Egypt) lived in sukkot. What does that mean Sukkot teaches about responding to refugees? Sukkot is about the harvest. What does that teach about feeding the hungry? The Hoshanot “Save us, Save Earth” prayers, what do they teach us about saving Earth from CO2 and methane from “forever plastics” and carcinogenic chemicals?
Traditionally, the offering of 70 bulls during Sukkot was connected to prayer for the prosperity of all the “70 nations of the world.” And we pray, “Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha — Spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.” What if we were to hear the truth that it is the very vulnerability of the sukkah, not the seeming impregnability of a fortress, that — when shared with others — makes for peace? Together, these two teachings make the foundation of a loving and respectful “foreign” policy.
On Yom Kippur, Jews read aloud a passage from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 57: 14-58) that cries out,
Do you think that when God called you to fast on Yom Kippur, that meant drooping your head like a bulrush, wearing sackcloth and ashes? No! It meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, breaking the handcuffs clamped on those imprisoned by the powerful.
What would happen if in many synagogues, at that point in the regular service, groups of people went out from their synagogues into the streets, chanting these passages from Isaiah, picketing a business that is stealing its workers’ wages, standing in tears at a prison notorious for its physical and psychological abuse of prisoners?
At the synagogue celebration of B’Mitzvah, what would happen if the young persons growing into more responsibility, together with their families, integrated into their celebration an outcry from the last of the ancient Hebrew Prophets (Malachi 3: 23-24):
I will send you the Prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest the Breath of Life come as a Hurricane of Destruction and smite Earth with utter desolation.
What if the adults and youngsters present on that day said aloud that they would take on the mission of Elijah, and they named one act to save Earth that they would commit to doing?
Let us in fear, hope and the trembling that infuses both of them reexamine our celebrations of Pesakh. What does it mean for the American Jewish community to celebrate the Festival of Freedom in a society still caught in the history of slavery and racism? We began with memories of a Freedom Seder that took some partial account of this reality by weaving other struggles for freedom, especially the Black American struggle, with the ancient celebration of liberation from slavery to Pharaoh. In America, the triumphant observance of that freedom is for Jews the crowning achievement of that ancient struggle. For Jews! But for Blacks? For the Indigenous Peoples? For brown-skinned Spanish-speakers? For Muslims? For the rural “old Americans,” forgotten and left with dwindling life-spans to die of alcohol and drugs and despair? What would Pesakh become if Lo dayenu — “NOT enough for us” — were as important as Dayenu?
In short, what would it mean if large parts of the Jewish community, working with other communities to heal sufferings that afflict all peoples, were to re-energize the powerful rituals that were themselves originally crystals of life and point them towards seeking justice, compassion, healing and peace?
Up until now, I have asked, “What would it mean?” from the “outside” of spiritual experience — adopting spiritual practice to meet a “political” need. Suppose we ask what would its meaning be, from the inside out? That is, what is the spiritual truth of a reconfiguring of these rituals into activist change?
Often, I hear people contrasting spirituality and politics: spirituality as an individual’s experience of awe towards something fuller than the self — beyond self and society — contrasted with politics as filled with fearful defenses against being overwhelmed by something in society that is bigger than one’s self.
I think this is a misperception. I suggest that we think of spirituality as both an individual and a social/political possibility. As a single person, I can feel awe at the astonishing complexity and grandeur of my community and of the universe, of each of which I am a sacred and a necessary part. (The “sacred and necessary” does not permit me to oppress or be oppressed.) If I can experience and affirm this role, the expression of it is my individual “spirituality.”
As a society, the same: With our unique culture, if we affirm the unique cultures of other communities within the One and affirm for each its own reach towards the One — its own pursuit of its own spirituality — then we can together strive towards a “communal spirituality.” That striving is my society’s politics.
The goal of that striving is not a God Who is Adonai or Melekh, Lord or King. It is a theology of ecology as worldview, social and cultural, as well as biological — not a worldview grounded in hierarchy and subjugation. We each in our own culture need to look inwards, as well as beyond ourselves, to encourage the language and symbols and behaviors that call forth that response.
At our best, this is how “ritual” and “politics” fit together. Each is an expression of its own and of the other’s spiritual life.
This essay will be one in an anthology co-edited by Rabbi Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman, How to Liberate Your Passover Seder. And he dedicates it as a contribution in Jewish “liberation theology,” to a celebration of the “retirement” of Rabbi Mordechai Liebling from his work on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to other work in liberation of America.
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