The Founder’s Seder
A civic ritual for our time Passover in the Jewish year 5779 (2020)
In the past six-plus decades, I have participated in over 100 seders celebrating Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation from pharaoh's Egypt. In the Haggadah (the fable) and the current Hebrew use, Egypt is known as Mitzra-yim, the narrow places. As a secular Jewish person, I have experienced some of the deepest and richest moments of my Jewishness
through engagement with family, friends, community and strangers around the real and metaphorical seder table. While the contours and framework of the Haggadah, the road map for the unfolding of the seder’s course, rituals, food and songs, generally remained the same, each seder seemed to have its own energy and create a unique tapestry reflecting the narrow places created by personal, cultural and political dynamic that shape each of us at that moment.
With the story of the exodus from Egypt as an anchor, and the commandment for each generation to retell the story as if they were leaving Egypt, participant’s lives were reflected on and shared. The narratives, addressing universal themes that maintain their relevance today, are woven into our own liberating experience and personal growth. This Passover in the Jewish year 5779 (2020) was very different. As the global community is experiencing the plague of COVID 19 and the failed political response in the US, I have come to believe that the narrow places that constrict us and are in need of liberation stem from our current political system, and more specifically the political structures that constrict individuals and communities from thriving. Systemic, institutional actors and ideas that maintain our Egypt and prevent the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence offered as a foundation for the social compact at the birth of the US republic in 1776 and codified in 1787 in the Constitution are all in play in 21th century America. Similar to the founding fathers (all white men) of the United States who met in Philadelphia in 1776 to author the Declaration of Independence in response to British monarchy rule and to the framers of the Constitution who met in the summer of 1787 in secrecy at Independence Hall to form a better union, the rabbis (teachers/sages) that form the narrative for the foundation for the first recorded telling of the Haggadah, were reportedly plotting to liberate the Jewish nation from the Romans that had ruled Palestine at the time. Their dialogue, focused on the liberation from Egyptian (Pharoah’s) oppression, continues to be read as part of the Seder. The tradition of the seder and the wisdom of the Haggadah have withstood centuries, different political systems and a multitude of genocidal oppressors, sustaining the Jewish nation and perpetuating longing for liberation and social justice of its adherents.
The story of individuals seeking freedom and equality, the challenge of maintaining individual agency within a community, persisting as a community, maintaining the framework of liberty through generations in a radically changing world provides inspiration to people struggling for freedom from oppression everywhere. The seder has facilitated conversations that engage members of the community in the multi-generational dialogue across thousands of years. Built into the structure of the seder is the imperative for incorporating the voices of more contemporary participants. Through the centuries, the experience of individuals reflecting on the themes of the passover story have enriched the voices of the rabbis, reflecting and addressing the important questions for their time. During the past decade, I have come to appreciate the challenges and vulnerability of the social/ political fabric that is inherent in the body politic of the remarkable, yet flawed creation that is the United States. This year, as our body politic is fractured, the Federal government is experienced as corrupt and unresponsive to most Americans, inequality is at near record level, hatred among groups is fatal, despair is experienced by more and more Americans, the threat of climate change is becoming existential, social cultural divisions are weaponized, I have been exploring the potential of using the Haggadah’s wisdom to tell the story of American liberation and to help transcend the divisions and hatred that has permeated the citizenry.
In recent years, a number of commentators have suggested the potential for a civic ritual such as the seder, be established in order to unite the diverse populations that make up the American Republic. A national ritual, reflecting the shared American creed, can help affirm the social contract established and fought for by prior generations of Americans. Many religions and other social institutions have established rituals that sustain them from generation to generation. The passover seder or similar cultural rituals can serve as a framework for a national ritual. A civic Haggadah, can be built on the wisdom of generations of individuals who shaped and were shaped by the American experience. Using shared documents, symbols, songs and food that is meaningful for specific groups and the “identity of the users” provides an opportunity for civic reflection and strengthens ties among individuals, families, communities and nations.
The ritual allows for patriotic reflection and sharing of hope allowing for a more intimate sharing of common bonds. While a national ritual can have a positive short lived impact for the participants, it can also serve as a launching pad for more meaningful exploration of freedom and liberty in the 21st century and develop modern expression of citizenship. By celebrating America’s origins, aspirations and common creed we can develop strategies that promote shared American values. The founding of the American Republic “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. At this point in history, the American experiment in republican democracy as a vehicle for individual thriving and flourishing, seems shaky, and the collective future, unpredictable.
As we head into a federal election cycle that will further sharpen the narrow places of our politics, I suggest developing a national ritual, a seder of sorts, that celebrates the centrality of the citizen within the body politic and the republican democracy that has provided a fairly stable structure to our social contract over the past 240 years. The Haggadah calls on the participants of the seder to imagine as if they were among the people being liberated from Egypt- the narrow places. Building on the recognition expressed in the Haggadah’s story of the four children; a recognition of the need to address participants where they are cognitively and emotionally, I’m developing a “Civic Haggadah” that can serve as a guide to honor and celebrate the American experiment.
The Haggadah, addresses various types of citizens (based on their involvement in the body politic), using text, and stories from the collective past, such as the DOI, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Washington’s Farewell Address to the people of the US, the Gettysburg address, Martin Luther King I have a dream speech and other texts. The 55 delegates who met in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, and eventually agreed on a document, the US Constitution, launched the revolutionary American experiment in self government. Their product stands as a remarkable achievement in human liberation. However the framers recognized the fragility of the political entity they were seeking to create. They understood that it will be up to the citizens, liberated from divine and royal authority to define their pursuit of happiness. Benjamin Franklin, reportedly replied when asked at the end of the constitutional convention, “what have you brought?” he replied “ a republic if you can keep it”.
I invite fellow citizens to collectively develop a framework for a shared ritual, a civic Haggadah, that reflects on the process of the nation’s creation (including the vast contradictions) and explore the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”