It was the first night of Passover last night and as usual we joined in a family seder with friends. I guess I'm a bit of a religious mongrel, really: brought up an Anglo-Catholic, married into a Jewish family with a tradition of observing the Friday services and the holidays, an atheist by conviction and a Buddhist in daily practice, I still find a great deal of soul resonance in the rituals and liturgies of religion. There's something comforting and moving about words and practices that have been repeated by countless numbers of people for centuries, and the Passover seder is no exception.
We used a Haggadah (a form of service) that I had compiled for a seder at our own house a number of years ago. I had rescued it from my computer and had put it aside days ago for us to think about taking with us, but Ellie and I had both postponed reading it until the last moment, just a couple of hours before we were due to leave for the evening. Finding that we both still rather liked it, I set about copying the nearly twenty pages on our pokey office machine... which made us late starting out and late arriving at our seder. Still, sight unseen, our hosts graciously agreed to use my Haggadah, so we got the chance to see it in action once again.
Haggadahs come in countless manifestations. As a non-Jew--or less politely, a goy--I had compiled this particular version in part for my fellow goyim, to make things clear and simple, and in part for my own satisfaction. The haggadahs I was familiar with tended to fall into one of two categories: either they were very traditional, somewhat slow and stodgily religious, or they went too far to the opposite extreme, becoming loudly political or fashionably hip. I liked a lot of the old language, but also wanted to clarify the relevance of the ritual to the current situation of a world where social injustice and all forms of violence persist--up to and including genocide.
The festival of Passover is, after all, intended to celebrate that liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, about which we read in the Bible. It received a cruel and unwanted update in relevance in the 20th century, when Hitler and his Nazi Germany "enslaved"--and, of course, murdered--millions of innocent Jews, along with untold masses of gypsies, communists, homosexuals and others deemed undesirable in the wisdom of that oppressive state. The scourge of human bondage continues to this day with relative impunity, with girls and women being sold world-wide into prostitution, and boys being commandeered from their villages to carry arms and kill in greed- and ego-driven wars.
But I wanted to see slavery in a still larger context. I wanted to recall, in my Haggadah, that millions more are enslaved today without their realizing it, to swell corporate coffers and obey the powerful who exercise their control in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I think of the power of the lobbyists in our government, of the role of money in matters of public policy in everything from health care to environmental pollution. I think of the power of the commercial media and the willingness of the powerful to exploit them in bending us to their will.
And then there's the matter of personal liberation. The Haggadah reminds us that it's the responsibility of each of us to assure our own. I know something of the habits and unconscious patterns of behavior that keep me in some basic way "enslaved," and the role of mindfulness in freeing myself from the unhealthy or unskillful ones. And I think of our alienating consumer society, where so many are addicted to so many different "needs": to drugs or alcohol, to food, or sex, or shopping. Do we not allow ourselves too easily, as a society, to be enslaved? Do we not, in some way, welcome and encourage it?
All this, then, was a part of my thinking as I put together my own concept of what a Haggadah might look like in the contemporary world. Going through it last night, I realized that if I were to rewrite it today, I would reinstate more of the ritual aspects that had somehow been lost or downplayed in the text I had created. All in all, though, I was pleased with the directness and clarity of much of what I had done, and was happy to have it back in use after hiding in the depths of my computer files for so many years.
No matter, the seder was, as always, a very special night. Thanks to our hosts for including us, and for all the work that went into the preparations. There's a common human bond that manifests itself on such occasions, and it's a wonderful feeling to recognize and participate in it. At this time of year, I think of my father, an Anglican priest, and Ellie's father, a Jewish pater familias, coming together over a seder at her parents' house, and how my father found so much in the service that connected with his own experience and faith. For him, this first seder he had ever attended was the Last Supper reenacted. And for all of us, a joy to bring our families together from across the ocean and across cultural divides.