Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Grief, Horror, Commitment to Act: Responding to Israeli Navy killings of civilians in ships on the high seas

This morning (Monday, Memorial Day, May 31, 2010), I awoke to news reports that the Israeli Navy had boarded and fired on ten small ships, bearing civilians from many countries, in international waters approaching the coast of Gaza, carrying humanitarian supplies for Palestinians who have been suffering an Israeli blockade of many (not all) civilian goods. [Tuesday, June 1: Please be sure to read the Follow-up Letter that we sent out this morning. It is posted in the "Comments" section at the end of this letter, reached by clicking on the "Read more"note.]

Some of the civilians aboard had been killed.

The Flotilla refused demands they dock at an Israeli port, because their journey was in part humanitarian in the narrow sense, and in part demanded that the blockade be ended and the Palestinians treated as a People worthy of respect and direct relationship, not mere mendicants hungry for a handout. That respect is what the Israeli government refused — and has refused for years.

This killing of international civilians in ships on the high seas must become a lightning flash illuminating the deepest dangers of leaving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved. As much a lightning flash of world danger arising in the Middle East as the Oil Disaster in the Gulf has become a lightning-flash illuminating the world-wide need to control the power and greed of Big Oil.

Only we can make this lightning flash in the Mediterranean into growing illumination and enlightenment, not just a passing glare.

So we must make it that.

Close to the end of this letter, you will see (in several bold blue paragraphs) an action I urge you to take in memory of these dead and in determination to prevent more deaths. Please take the ten minutes to do this. Whatever else you are doing for Memorial Day, please see this time as devoted to its deepest meaning: remembering the dead of war and striving to prevent more deaths.

Present reports indicate that between nine and fifteen people aboard these ships seem to have been killed, and dozens wounded. The people aboard included citizens of fifty different nations -- Ireland, the US, Britain, Turkey, France, many others. Some were members of their country's parliament; others, physicians, nurses, political activists. One Nobel Peace laureate.

The Israeli navy claims that as they boarded the ships to force them to turn toward Ashdod, an Israeli port, some of the civilians aboard lifted sticks or grabbed at Israeli weapons to stop them -- and they fired in response. Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, the crisis goes far deeper than what happened in those last moments .

We at The Shalom Center have been trying to focus on the deadly danger that the Climate Crisis and the top-down, pyramidal, unresponsive, irresponsible power of Big Oil and Big Coal are thrusting upon our children and grandchildren, upon America (N.B. the Gulf Disaster), upon our planet. As Jews, we know from Pharaohs and the Plagues they bring upon us - and these are modern Pharaohs.

BUT even as the Gulf disaster worsened, -- last weekend I watched with dread the approach of a Mediterranean disaster. I watched the Israeli government's rigid response to the approach of the flotilla. The Netanyahu government has increasingly seen only violence as an adequate tool for security -- evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, breaking up demonstrations by Israelis and others to defend those homes, preventing Noam Chomsky from speaking at a university in the West Bank. Even inciting "mere" violent words by obsessive supporters of Israeli government policy like Alan Dershowitz which themselves incited events like the attack on Rabbi Michael Lerner's home.

Out of my dread of a disaster --- and out of my fear that the Israeli government was bringing and would bring utter shame upon the Jewish people, was poisoning the bloodstream of Torah that every rabbi has a sacred obligation to defend -- I felt we need to act as the ships approached Gaza.

So I asked all our readers to write Israeli embassies and consulates in the US and Secretary of State Clinton to implore Israel to lift the blockade and let the ships land in Gaza.

Some of our readers and members did, and also wrote to thank me. Many are on much-needed restful long-weekend Memorial Day vacations and may never have even seen my letter. Some wrote berating me that since I don't live in Israel, I could not understand how Israelis feel and can't understand even that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But as I wrote yesterday, the Haaretz newspaper - which does live in Israel -- wrote in an editorial that --

"Moreover, the suffering that Israel is causing 1.5 million people for this purpose is not only inhuman, but extremely detrimental to Israel's status around the world."

"… Israel argues that there is no hunger in Gaza and that vital products enter the Strip regularly. Israel even said it was prepared to deliver the boats' contents to the Gaza Strip, but via Ashdod Port and using the Israel Defense Forces, not the boats directly.

"If so, this indicates that Israel is not opposed to the aid itself, but to the demonstration of support for Gaza's people. However, this show of support could have been prevented from the outset had Israel lifted the pointless blockade and allowed Gazans to live normal lives."

(Let us be clear: The insistence of the flotilla on landing in Gaza, not Ashdod, shows that they were intent not only on bringing medical supplies and desperately needed home-building materials to persons in Gaza, but on making direct contact with the People of Gaza -- seeing them as a People entitled to dignity and recognition. That is what Jewish and universal ethics call for, and that is what the Israeli government refuses to allow.)

Bottom line of the Haaretz editorial:
"The government has to decide right away to resume indirect talks with Hamas, to be more flexible about releasing prisoners and to lift the siege on Gaza."

As the very existence of that editorial itself shows, there is much that is valuable and decent and sensible in Israeli society. But its present government, which tries to drape itself in Jewish history and Jewish religion, is a disgrace to the Jewish people, an abomination to human ethics, and a danger to the peace of the whole world -- including the United States.

That government will not change on its own. Although Hamas has in the last year shown some readiness to change, after the events of this weekend it will be much harder for Hamas to change on its own.

Only the United States government has the power and the potential for commitment both to Israel's safety and to Palestine's freedom to bring about the crucial changes.

As General David Petraeus warned even before this horrifying incident, the close alliance between the US and the Israeli government sparks anger throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds not only against Israel but also against the US. In the wake of the killings of this past weekend, this rage will almost certainly increase - perhaps explosively.

So the US government's obligation to keep the American people safe from explosive violence throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds should lead it to insist on a regional peace settlement that affirms the legitimacy of Israel; frees the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to create their own state living peacefully alongside Israel; and achieves peace and full recognition for and among Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states.

What does the word "insist" mean? It means that the US must use its power, not just jawbone. In a proposal I wrote two months ago, I sketched out how US power could be used with commitment, caring, and compassion. To see it, and if you choose sign it and endorse it, click here.

And meanwhile, what should American Jews be doing? We should denounce in the clearest terms this violent attack by the Israeli government on ships at sea and human beings of fifty different nations. We should grieve the dead killed by this attack just as we grieve Israeli dead killed by terrorists. We should quote Haaretz. We should call for US action, not just speeches.

I have taken the liberty - the chutzpah -- to draft a letter that I invite you to modify in your own words and send several crucial leaders of the American Jewish community. I am listing those leaders and their emails for you to send them something like this letter. (You can simply clip and paste it into your own email, modify it as you like, and send to their addresses.)

(Please note that in the follow-up letter shown in the comments below, I suggest also writing Members of Congress, Senators, and President Obama with the same message: To see the "draft model text" we have supplied, please click here. )

I hope you will add to our “draft model text” your own words and thoughts.

What follows now is the version we suggest you send the five Jewish leaders named below.

Dear [insert title and name],

I am writing in great urgency to ask you to take the following steps in the wake of the Israeli government's horrifying attack upon the flotilla of ships bearing humanitarian supplies to Gaza:

1. Call for all Jewish and other communities to mourn the deaths aboard these ships, as we grieve the deaths of Israeli civilians killed by others' violence.

2. Denounce the violation of Jewish values and worldwide human ethics involved in these killings on the high seas.

3. Publicly affirm the call of Haaretz, in its editorial of May 28, 2010: "The government has to decide right away to resume indirect talks with Hamas, to be more flexible about releasing prisoners and to lift the siege on Gaza"

4. Call for immediately ending the Israeli blockade of all civilian items from entering Gaza, while continuing inspections to prevent weapons themselves from entering.

5. Call for the US government to use all its diplomatic influence and economic power to bring about a regional peace conference in which the governments of Israel and all Arab states, and a Palestinian government of national unity, achieve a regional peace settlement that protects Israel, frees a peaceful Palestine, and calms the region while ending the rage now felt by many Arabs against the US.

With blessings of shalom, [your name and if you like, title & organization],

Here are the Jewish addresses we recommend and urge you to write.
You can of course add others whom you know.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, at:

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at:

Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, at:

Debra DeLee, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, at:

These letters will matter to those who receive them. Please take the time -- about two minutes each - to send them. Whatever else you are doing for Memorial Day, please see this time as devoted to its deepest meaning: remembering the dead of war and striving to prevent more deaths.

With blessings of shalom, salaam - Peace!



Photo of

The oil-well disaster on the Gulf Coast of the United States may seem utterly the product of modern technology. But there are many teachings in Torah about precisely the spiritual failings that give rise to such disasters. The Jewish community could now take those teachings far more seriously and act far more vigorously to prevent such disasters than it has so far.

Torah’s description of the earliest experience of the human race in the Garden of Eden affirms on the one hand that God has made overflowing bounty available to humanity in the earth’s abundance — and on the other, warns us not to gobble up all this abundance but to show self-restraint in what we eat. If we do gobble everything in sight, says the story, we lose the abundance: humanity must then toil with the sweat pouring down its face to wring barely enough to eat from an earth that grows mostly thorns and thistles.

Many other passages of tradition reinforce the lesson. Yet in our world today, the human race — led by giant corporations that try to wring every drop of abundance from the earth without any forethought for the future -- is bringing upon itself the disasters Torah warns against, through worship of the “afterthought gods (elohim acherim)" of greed and power.

The same voracious forces that sought to devour every drop of oil in the deepest levels of the Gulf have foiled strong Congressional action to reduce the voracious over-use of fossil fuels and with them, the emission of gases that heat the earth and bring on climate crisis -- drought, desertification, rising sea levels, the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate regions, the disruption of crops.

Only grass-roots energy can move Congress. So the Jewish community should unite in a campaign that calls out to ourselves and our leaders -- “GOD’S EARTH IS NOT FOR BURNING.”

The Jewish community should urge the President and Congress not only to prohibit any new oil-well drilling off our coasts, but also to shut down all offshore oil wells that have not received new safety certification by July 4, 2011, after rigorous safety tests, and all off-shore oil wells by July 4, 2020, and to abolish all Federal and state subsidies to all oil and coal producers. (Those dates are symbolic affirmations of the independence of the American people from domination and abuse by Big Oil.)

And the Jewish community should call for the swift passage of a climate / energy bill that --

(a) sets a strong cap on emissions of planet-heating gases (carbon dioxide and methane);

(b) permits EPA and the states to limit emissions further;

(c) charges a yearly rising fee for carbon credits to several hundred US companies that are primary producers of these gases, based on auctions of carbon credits with the US Government as owner/auctioneer;

(d) prevents the resale of these credits as financial derivatives to enrich Wall Street;

(e) returns 75% of the income from these fees in a yearly dividend of equal amounts to every legal resident of the United States; and

(f) appropriates the remaining 25% of the income from these fees, plus any additional money necessary to make up a total of one hundred billion dollars a year, to meet the following three needs in equal amounts:

the creation of green jobs, with special help to workers in regions and industries in the US that are especially damaged by the shift from old energy sources;

research, development, and emplacement of solar and wind energy;

and help to poverty-stricken nations both to meet the disasters already afflicting them as a result of climate change, and to follow a non-fossil path of economic development.

To put the necessary grass-roots power behind these demands, the Jewish community should carry some of our sacred moments into public space. For example, Tisha B'Av (this year July 19-20) should include public prayerful grieving for the ongoing destruction of the Holy Temple of our Earth itself, and action toward the birth of a new sustainable society.

And the Jewish community should – as it did in 2009 -- each year set aside the week when we read the Torah story of Noah, the Flood, the Ark, and the Rainbow –- (in 2010, Sunday, October 3, through Shabbat, October 9), as Climate Healing Week.

Bar/bat mitzvah preparation should include families' drawing on “Elijah’s Covenant between the Generations” (Malachi 3) in curricula and ceremonies to prevent the destruction of our earth.

If we let the Gulf Coast regional disaster awaken us, we can not only prevent it from becoming a global disaster; we can turn our knowledge to creating a joyful, sustainable future for our grandchildren.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

What makes the Arts "Prophetic"?

On April 25, 2005, The Shalom Center honored Prophetic Voices in the Arts.

Arlene Goldbard, president of the Board of The Shalom Center and a community-arts activist, spoke briefly and powerfully on the value of the transformative arts in making a decent society. Her keynote is posted below.

Tony Kushner, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," was interviewed by Ilana Trachtman, award-winning director of the film documentary "Praying with Lior." We will post our videotape of the interview on line during the next days and let you know when it is available.

We also honored Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Lynne Iser, especially for their work in shaping the family background of "Praying with Lior" and their work in carrying the film into the world of support for those with cognitive disabilities; and Cantor Jack Kessler, organizer of Atzilut, a musical ensemble made up of Jewish and Arab musicians who do Arab and Jewish music, in venues across America and Europe.

And we published a pamphlet on "The Prophetic Arts in Philadelphia" that reported the arts venues in the city that give special attention to justice, peace, and healing of the earth. We have posted that too, and will encourage the creation of such guides for other cities.

We arranged with the Wilma Theater –- a boldly innovative and experimental theater -- and the Pew Theater Initiative -- for Tony Kushner to teach a master class to young playwrights and actor in the city.

This is the text of Arlene Goldbard's introduction:

Every Prophetic Voices event is a delight: it feels wonderful to honor people who have stood in our society for the awakening of conscience and possibility, especially when the daily news offers so much temptation to go back to sleep.

But I am especially thrilled to be here tonight because this year’s honors are very close to my mission in life, which is to shift our understanding of the public interest in art and culture from the margins to the center of our awareness, where it belongs. Tonight, we honor people who understand that the way we tell our stories—through theater, film, music and other forms—the way we tell our stories shapes our lives.

Making art is the essence of being human. We do it in marble palaces and grass huts, every time we mark the unfolding of our lives. Even under the worst possible conditions, in SuperMax prisons and concentration camps, people save precious crumbs or scrape up mud to make sculptures. They scratch on prison walls with rocks or bits of charcoal. Herbert Zipper led a clandestine orchestra in Dachau. Our ancestors gathered around campfires, huddling against the darkness to share stories of the hunt, the trek, the storm and their meanings. Today we sit in auditoriums, warming ourselves by the light of more complicated stories. But underneath, we are the same. Making stories, images, songs and structures is as essential to us as breathing.

Prophetic artists ask, “What stories need telling now?” They see that to survive the crisis in democracy, to achieve humane and sustainable community, we need the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s place and make choices driven by more than crude self-interest; and the social imagination to envisage new solutions to stubborn social problems. We need stories that draw the connections between public choices and actual human lives, stories that cultivate awareness and compassion.

Empathy and social imagination cannot be learned through intellect alone. Through film, theater, dance, music, literature, and visual art, through sharing our stories of resourcefulness and resilience, through sharing our own creativity, human beings have always learned to know and care for each other, to strengthen our communities and to face down challenges.

To my continuing frustration, while progressives often see art as nice but unnecessary to real democracy, the right sees artists clearly, as in possession of powerful skills of expression and communication, almost always in the service of freedom, equity, diversity and inclusion. The right understands that creativity and public purpose are a potent combination. They passionately want their story to predominate: that this country belongs to white Americans who think as they do, and that their ownership confers the right to exclude, discredit and scapegoat others by any means necessary.

Consequently, they are willing to do anything to disrupt the counter-narrative of art and public purpose. Racism and other forms of discrimination have clearly been one animating force behind right-wing scapegoating: most of their targets have been African American, or gay, or belonged to other vilified categories. But another is the invidious prejudice against artists as exemplars of freedom in action. In media blowhards’ arsenal, artists have been a weapon of choice for far too long.

Art’s essence is its ability to engage us fully in body, emotions, mind and spirit, to create beauty and meaning, to cultivate imaginative empathy, to disturb the peace, to enable grief in the face of loss and hope in the face of grief. The great James Baldwin said that, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” My definition of a life worth living is one marked by a congruence of inner and outer realities, in which actions are shaped by the questions that truly matter most.

No one can guarantee that we will get what we want. All we can do is discover what ignites our passion, offer up our best efforts in its service, and surrender to the processes that have produced so many astounding surprises in the course of human history. As every artist knows, the pleasure is in the doing, at least as much as the result. I salute tonight’s honorees for embodying these truths with such power and persistence.


ACTION: Urge Senators to Support Strong US INSISTENCE on 2-State/ Regional M.E. Peace

Thomas Friedman , columnist for the NY Times and a stodgy middle-of-the-roader, says that the Israeli government has become a drunk driver, addicted to swallowing up more and more territory at the cost of any decent peace with Palestine.

The Torah did not know about "drunken drivers." But it did know that some people might thirst to swallow up their neighbors' land and houses: "Cursed be he who moves back his neighbor's territory-marker. And all the people shall say, 'Amen!' " (Deut 27: 17)

And of course it knew the most profound alternative to that kind of greed: "When a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. … He shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Narrows. I YHWH, the Breath of Life, am your God." (Lev. 19:27.)

Until now, US governments have firmly opposed only those Palestinians who have been addicted to violence, but not an Israeli government addicted to land-grabs and to wronging their neighbors.

It seems that the Obama administration may at last be ready to confront the drunk drivers in the Israeli government as well as the violence-addicts among some Palestinian leaders. May.

I say "may" because what we --- the American people -- do is crucial. The White House will back down if it sees little public support. It might stay firm if it hears public acclaim.

Friends, it is said, don't let their friends drive drunk. Will you back up a decision by the White House to stop drunk driving by our friends?

If you will, The Shalom Center has prepared a model letter to Senators, urging them to support firm action for peace. You can add your own words and sign it by clicking here.

Please also keep in mind: For a deeper discussion of these issues, please click to see the article "What Strategy for Middle East Peace? Grass-roots organizing -- for what?"

The basic issue is simple:

1. For Israel to have peace and security, there must be a viable, free, and secure Palestine alongside Israel, along with a peace treaty between all Arab states and Israel.

2. For that to happen, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza from receiving civilian goods must end.

3. There cannot and will not be a real Palestinian state unless East Jerusalem is its capital -- for economic, cultural, and political reasons. In such a peace settlement, West Jerusalem can and will be recognized as the capital of Israel, but the annexation of East Jerusalem must end if there is to be peace. The Israeli government must end all efforts to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, to force Palestinians to move out, and to settle Israeli Jews there.

Now back to the drunk driver. So far all the US government has done is wring its hands about the deadly results of the drunk driving. What could the US do?

If you have been paying about three billion dollars a year for your friend's gasoline AND his alcohol and you decide that his drunk driving is endangering your own life and the lives of many many people who live in your city, maybe you just cancel the credit card you gave him, and let him start going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings until he gets his head screwed on right.

Now what does it mean to cut off the credit card for gasoline and alcohol, while making sure nobody takes advantage of your friend while he's going through rehab?

In 2002 and again in 2007, the Arab League proposed a regional peace treaty that would give Israel peace and security with all Arab states, in exchange for the Israeli recognition of a new Palestine on approximately the 1967 boundaries. The Arab League proposal included unclear references to the rights of Palestinian refugees, but also made clear that the package could be negotiated. The Israeli government, with the approval of the Bush Administration, ignored the proposal. Now the Obama Administration seems (see above) to be moving toward supporting it.

Only the US government has the power and influence to work with the Arab League and its proposal for a regional peace treaty; with the Palestinian leadership, including those elements of Hamas that have said that if the Palestinian people votes for a two-state solution, they will accept it; and above all with the government of Israel, whose military policy depends on US military aid.

That aid amounts to at least three billion dollars a year. Imagine the US saying that it will put its aid in escrow, dollar for dollar for the cost of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The US announces that the money will be made available only to pay the costs of resettling the 400,000 Israelis who are now living in Palestinian land beyond the 1967 borders, and will be paid in one-fifth sums when (a) the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza is restricted to preventing only actual weapons from being imported into Gaza; and (b) chunks of 100,000 settlers at a time have left the West Bank and returned to Israel proper.

Meanwhile, the US should be offering aid to a nascent Palestine on condition that leaders from at least some of Hamas and Fatah join in a government of national unity, take vigorous steps to prevent attacks on Israel, and agree to take part in a regional peace conference with the goal of achieving peace with Israel within approximately the 1967 boundaries.

This is a policy to protect and affirm the real Israel, while ending its government's addiction to wronging its neighbors.

Can we build public support in the US for this policy?

As I have written before, I think that depends on whether local and national coalitions can be built of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to that purpose.

We can start right now. If you click here you will find a model letter to your Senators: Please add your own words and send it!

Once you've done that -- please stop and ask yourself -- Is that really enough? Please consider the possibility of inviting rabbis, ministers, priests, and imams where you live to meet quietly to discuss what they can and cannot agree to do for peace, either together or individually, publicly or privately. Their conversation might be eased if they read together some writing from the Abrahamic communities (e.g. The Tent of Abraham from Beacon) and used it as a framework for conversation.

Ask them to listen to each other first as they say what their sense of God's will and desire is for the Middle East and for American efforts to help achieve peace there. Of course this requires care for each others' hopes and compassion for each others' pain. So after each person speaks, hold silence for a full minute to share the Breath of Life. If these conversations help people move forward, try to arrange meetings with your Congressperson or Senator.

Blessings that you be able to take some firm and gentle steps toward making peace for the families of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah. -- Shalom, salaam, peace -- Arthur

For a fuller discussion of these issues, please click to see the article "What Strategy for Middle East Peace? Grass-roots organizing -- for what?" .)


What Strategy for Middle East Peace? Grass-roots organizing -- for what?

Should a grass-roots movement to make peace in the Middle East focus on US pressure for region-wide peace including Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states -- or on boycotting/ divesting from Israel?

On March 4, 2010,  I was interviewed on "Democracy Now!"  -- a progressive nationally viewed TV  news show hosted by Amy Goodman  -- for a 15-minute debate with Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian-American professor.  The topic: "BDS," short-hand for "Boycott, Divest, Sanctions" aimed against Israel.   

Mr. Barghouti defined BDS as a boycott of all Israeli life, including universities, music, businesses, etc., aimed at ending not only the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, but also ending discrimination  within Israel against its citizens of Palestinian origin, and  enforcing the "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees into Israel..

It seems to me that Mr. Barghouti's version of the means and goals of BDS might depend on and would be likely to result in first demonizing and then dissolving Israel. (See below for why i think so.) I think that is an unethical goal, and therefore unachievable -- and if that were to become the goal and a totalistic version of BDS were to become the practice of those who seek a decent peace in the Middle East, it would prevent the achievement of what would be both ethical and possible -- a regional peace treaty encompassing Israel, a new Palestinian state, and all the Arab states.

I therefore support a very different strategy -- also a grass-roots American movement, but this one aimed to bring the US government to insist on ending the occupation, ending the state of war most Arab states still hold against Israel, and bringing about a just peace between Israel, Palestine, and all the other Arab states. (I can imagine a laser-beam tactic of boycotting specific enterprises most related to the occupation that would fit into this approach-- but that is not the totalistic strategy proposed by the BDS ""movement" and Mr. Barghouti. For details of a laser-beam tactic, see below.)

Indeed, Mr. Barghouti explicitly rejected ending the occupation as the principal goal of his version of BDS. He insisted the key issue is what he calls "the right of return." He made clear that his goal is resettling a million Palestinians -- not only real refugees from 1948 but their children & grandchildren -- to return to what is now Israel inside the Green Line (rather than to the Palestinian state, where of course they should be welcome).

But that result would shatter any possibility of Israel's having a special relationship with the Jewish people. To create such a state was why Israel came into existence. Dissolving it is so far from acceptable to Israelis that it means a No-Go on all negotiations. Mr. Barghouti said he has no objection to a "Jewish state," but that's meaningless under the conditions he proposed. His totalistic attack aimed at all aspects of Israeli society is integrally connected with a totalistic demand for dismantling the only purpose for Israel's existence.

This ethical failing is connected with the impossibility of getting a majority for this in the US public, and therefore any change in the crucial factor -- US government action. Or in Israeli society and policy.

I'm sorry that I didn’t say it as clearly as that on the program. (To see it, click here.)
Meanwhile, I have learned that during the next few weeks two major umbrella organizations of the official "established" Jewish institutional structures in America - the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs - are planning efforts to combat what they call "the delegitimization of Israel." BDS is one of their targets; the other is efforts to bring the Israeli government before the bar of international law.

I have a totally different strategy about that too. My way of preventing delegitimization of Israel would be to insist that the Israeli government stop acting in specific illegitimate ways. I will take up those specific points below.

During the interview and in the hours since, I have kept remembering an extraordinary story from the Book of Joshua.

In the story, Joshua, who has inherited leadership of the Israelite people after the death of Moses; who has led the people in crossing the Jordan; and who seems to have every reason to think God wants the Israelites to conquer the Land of Canaan, meets an awesome figure in full battle dress.
He calls out to this figure, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"
And the figure answers, "NO!"
Think for a moment about that "No!" 

I hear it to mean, "I am not here to support either one of you in your war against each other, nor do I support the conflict itself."   - And now the awesome figure continues in its own voice - " For I am a captain in the Army of YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life."
To the extent that in my life I can clumsily try to walk the path of serving only in God's Army, the Infinite Host of that One Whose breathing gives life to all beings --  I understand this to mean:

 I am not to blindly support my own government  -- or its enemies - when they clash in unjust conflict with each other. Not the US government when it attacks half a dozen Muslim countries, nor Al Qaeda when it attacks America. I am to hear instead the trumpet-blast of peace that is rooted in justice, the trumpet that awakens the troops of God's Own army.

 I am not to give blind support to the government of Israel or those Americans (Jews or others) who bow to its policies - nor am I to support those who demonize Israeli society and try to bring disaster on its people.
Instead, I see my task as seeking to bring about an independent, God-centered vision of a just peace. I understand God's desire --  command --  to be ending the wars, not winning victories for either side over the other.

It is now clear that neither the divided government of Palestine nor the government of Israel can take the necessary steps to make peace. They are like two hostile adults, thrown in a room together after childhoods of  terrible abuse. They take out their traumas on each other. Only an outsider can break into the cycle and help a different process emerge.

That requires focusing the power and influence of the United States to bring about a decent peace among the warring parties in the Middle East  -- Israel, Palestine, all the other Arab states, and the US itself.  Unlike the South African case, which BDS supporters often cite in support of the effectiveness of BDS, the US government - not private banks and companies - is the main economic support for the Israeli occupation.

For me, the notion of a two-state peace settlement means that the "right of return" for Palestinians should be exercised chiefly in and with the new Palestine, while Israel like all other sovereign states defines its own immigration policy; and the discrimination against Israeli Palestinians should be dealt with chiefly by Israelis in an atmosphere of peace, no longer dominated by fear of the Arab "enemy."
How do we get to this point? The Obama Administration seems to believe, as a matter of rhetoric, in the regional peace settlement I have sketched. But rhetoric is not enough. The Arab League has offered to negotiate, with such a regional peace settlement as the goal. But the Israeli government will  not end the occupation and make peace with Palestine, Syria, and other Arab states when met with US rhetoric alone. And so far, only some parts of Hamas seem willing to consider such a peace settlement.
The US government -- and only the US government - does have the power and influence to work with the Arab League and its proposal for a regional peace treaty; with the Palestinian leadership, including those elements of Hamas that have said that if the Palestinian people votes for a two-state solution, they will accept it; and above all with the government of Israel, whose military policy depends on US military aid.
Imagine the US saying that it will put half its military aid to Israel in escrow; that the money will be made available only to pay the costs of resettling the 400,000 Israelis who are now living in Palestinian land beyond the 1967 borders, and will be paid in one-fifth sums when (a) the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza is restricted to preventing only actual weapons from being imported into Gaza; and (b) chunks of 100,000 or so settlers  at a time have left the West Bank and returned to Israel proper. (Present Israeli residents of the Old City of Jerusalem and any present Israeli settlers who agree to live fully under Palestinian law and sovereignty would be permitted to stay. If a new Palestinian government of national unity agreed to land swaps allowing some few Israeli settlements to become part of Israel while other Israeli land became part of Palestine, those settlers would also be permitted to stay.)

At the same time, the US government would offer aid to a new Palestine on condition that at least some Fatah and Hamas leaders join in a government of national unity, take major steps to prevent attacks on Israel, and agree to take part in a regional peace conference with the clear aim and commitment of making peace among Israel, all Arab states, and the nascent Palestine on approximately the pre-war 1967 boundaries.

And the US government would call for and use all its political, diplomatic, and economic clout to bring about a Middle East regional peace conference to accomplish exactly that result.
Why put in escrow only half, instead of all, US military aid to Israel? because ethically and in practical politics as well, the US needs to be absolutely clear that it is ready to ensure Israel's security while at the same time, and with the same level of commitment, ready to insist on the end of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the end of the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza.

This approach can only be taken by a US government if there is a strong public movement for it. So far as I can see, the only Americans who care enough  about the Middle East, with enough passion and numbers to make a difference, are American Jews, Christians, and Muslims whose religio-ethnic identifications with the history and the peoples of that region are strong enough to move them into action - for war or for peace.
For the first time in decades, or ever, there is within the Jewish community not only an inchoate desire for a decent peace, but the organizational forms that are sufficiently independent of the Israeli government  to pursue it.
For the first time ever, American Muslims are on the way to creating a coherent public voice on American foreign policy.
And for the first time in decades, some Protestant churches are willing to  take on these questions in public, as they get less fearful of being labeled anti-Semitic when they criticize Israeli government policy.
So for the first time, it might be possible to put together a Jewish-Christian-Muslim coalition to work for strong insistence by the US government on a decent Middle East peace.  Those who say it is hopeless to move the US government to such a policy because it has never behaved that way before, are forgetting there has never been a powerful coalition demanding that it act that way.

In  the context and only in the context of such a coalition, it is conceivable that economic pressures could be aimed specifically and narrowly at the Occupation. For example, stockholder pressures on Caterpillar Tractor to prevent the use of its bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes, and refusals to buy products that are identifiably produced and sold by Israeli settlers on Palestinian land, could be combined with economic  support for grass-roots fair-trade joint Israeli-Palestinian enterprises (like PeaceOil, an olive-oil import enterprise with exactly that commitment. See

But this kind of activity is not what the present BDS movement is calling for. And even such a laser-beam economic pressure would only be worth the effort in the context of a multireligious and multicultural social movement initiated by local coalitions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and focused on  changing the outlook of US Congressmembers and the President.
Meanwhile, what do I make of the plans of the two major Jewish  "umbrella organizations" to combat what they call the "delegitimization of Israel"?
I agree there is a danger of Israel's delegitimization. . But it does not flow chiefly from the actions of non-governmental organizations that the present Israeli government is attacking. It flows in larger measure from some actions of the Israeli government itself.

I urge American Jewish organizations to prevent the delegitimization of Israel by urging the Israeli government to end those of its actions that are themselves illegitimate.

For instance, they should publicly urge both the Israeli government and the Hamas government of Gaza each to create at once a fully independent commission with full judicial powers to investigate all allegations that its own forces -- either Palestinian or Israeli -- committed war crimes before and during the Gaza invasion.

That is what the Goldstone Report called for. Only if either party failed to do this, said Judge Goldstone, should the International Criminal Court take up the case concerning that party. The evidence of war crimes is strong enough, and refusal to have an independent body investigate the claims is so illegitimate, that both governments are bound to be "delegitimized" if they refuse.

And these American Jewish bodies should urge the Israeli government to end at once the illegitimate blockade on the entry of civilian goods into Gaza; to freeze all settlements in the Palestinian areas, including East Jerusalem; to end all demolitions of Palestinian homes; and to meet with the Arab League to aim at a full regional peace settlement.

If the Israeli government took these steps, almost all efforts to "delegitimize" Israel would swiftly melt away.

If on the other hand, JCPA and the Conference of Presidents put their efforts into attacking NGO’s and other groups that are already under attack by the Israeli government and its allies, the result might very well be a descent into a McCarthyist blizzard of slanders and attacks. I know that many of the member groups and their leaders would abhor such a result; I hope you will act to reaffirm the desirability, not just the acceptability, of listening to a very wide variety of opinions.
And finally, I would ask both the national organizations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians -- and local grass-roots groups of people from the Abrahamic traditions:

Are you ready to come together not just for intellectual "dialogue" but for common action toward the peace our sisters, brothers, and cousins so desperately need?



[This is a thoroughly revised version of Chapter 9 of my book Seasons of Our Joy, originally published in 1982 and most recently published in 1990 by Beacon Press.
[In the years since, the book has often been called a classic. Readers -- both Jews and others -- tell me its approach to the history, the spiritual meaning, and the actual practice of the festivals remains very helpful to them.
[Shalom Center members and subscribers can order the book from Beacon at a 10% discount with free shipping. For information on how to do this, see the very end of this post.
[The revised chapter follows. I welcome comments and suggestions, either directly to me at or in the comments section at its end here on our Website. – Shalom, AW]]


The month of spring -- the first month, says the Torah: time to begin. As the flowers rise up against winter, so the Israelites rise up against Pharaoh. The peoplehood of Israel is born -- and we celebrate the freedom of new births and new beginnings. The feverish hilarity of early spring, of Purim, becomes a more directed, more devoted vigor.


Many scholars believe that Pesach is a fusion of two early festivals -- one of shepherds, one of farmers -- that welcomed spring in two quite different ways. As the month of lambing begins in the flock, the shepherds may have celebrated the flock's fertility by sacrificing a sheep, smearing its blood on the doorposts of their tents, dancing a skipping "Pesach" ("skip-over, pass-over") dance around their campfires that imitated the skipping, stumbling steps of newborn lambs. (Pause for a moment to absorb the extraordinary imaginal and ethical leap of the Pesach story in saying that as the shepherds imitated stumbling lambs, God imitated stumbling shepherds -- or lambs. For God protected a newborn freedom for runaway slaves by making sure that Death would skip over, pass over, "pesach," their homes.)

As for the farmers -- in preparation for the harvest of spring barley and wheat, they may have cleared out from their homes and storehouses all the chametz, the sour dough, the starter dough they used to make the bread rise. They were not only starting over for the year's new crop, but starting over in human history by eating the most ancient bread of all, the flat unleavened bread that was the beginning of the farmer's food.

So before the beginning of the people Israel there seems to have been a farmer's festival of unleavened bread and a shepherd's festival of the pesach (pass-over, skipping) sacrifice. When in Exodus 12 and 13 the Torah describes the birth of the people, it hints of these double origins even as it brings these two main elements of observance and ritual together.

When and how did the two forms get connected? Some scholars think that the shepherds' ceremony was transformed first: that the celebration of the lambing season was turned into the great festival of liberation. Some crisis stirred the people to a white-hot intensity that enabled them to melt down the old forms and recast them, proclaiming a new birth and a new purpose. The festival itself tells us what this was. Among some crucial nomadic shepherd clans that became the history-bearers of the People Israel, the eruption of a desire for freedom was so strong that it shattered their subjection to the power of the Pharaoh of all Egypt. Their desire for freedom was so intense that those clans experienced the direct intrusion into their own life-histories of the awesome Power that lay at the root of all history and all new birth.

As the story has come down to us, the small Israelite clans which came to Egypt under royal protection first prospered and multiplied there. But a change in royal politics or family brought to power Pharaohs who feared and despised them. So they were subjected to forced labor on the Pharaoh's city-building projects, and then to a concerted attack on their high birthrate: all their boy babies were to be killed at birth.

This decree triggered the first stages of resistance. Midwives -- whether Hebrew or Egyptian or both is not quite clear -- refused to murder babies. Even an Egyptian princess conspired with Israelite women to save one baby boy, Moses, who grew up to become a firebrand rebel.

Moses killed an Egyptian straw boss, fled Egypt in fear of his life, and then married and lived for years as a shepherd and political refugee in the nearby wilderness. He had a child, and only then was able to experience the intense and fiery God-energy toward freedom that transformed the rest of his life. (The story intertwines the birth of children and the birth of freedom, as if to teach that at the root of both is new potential, whether biological and personal or political and historical; as if to teach that the biology of spring and the sociology of freedom are in some deep sense the same.)

At a mysteriously burning bush, Moses received God's charge to return to Egypt and to lead his people toward their liberation. With the help of Miriam his sister and Aaron his brother, Moses challenged Pharaoh; proclaimed that Pharaoh's stubborn arrogance would bring from YHWH, Who united all life and all history, ten disastrous plagues that finally shattered the Egyptian tyranny; and led his people into the wilderness of open space and choices.

According to the biblical story, from the intensity of thought and feeling that accompanied this moment of revolutionary change there emerged a festival intended both to memorialize and to re-enact the moment -- to keep it ever-fresh as a resource for renewal of the struggle to be free. In this new festival of Pesach – Passover -- the traditional sacrifice of the lamb in spring was re-explained as a ransom for the continued life of the Israelite first-born. For in the night of convulsion before the day of Exodus, the tenth plague or disaster struck, with the result that every first-born in the households of the Egyptian master-people died.

Only where an Israelite had the courage to violate the Egyptians' taboo upon killing sheep -- by slaughtering a lamb and smearing its blood upon the doorpost -- did the plague of death pass-over and the first-born survive. (When the family left the house through this doorway, their exit through the blood upon the doorpost echoed the process by which every human being passes through a passage full of blood in order to be born. So this smearing of blood turned the house of every family that chose to do it into a house of birthing.)

This connection between the Pesach lamb and the rescue of the firstborn may have evoked deep feelings at the personal, family level as well as in the arena of political freedoms. For the passage in Exodus makes a close connection between the Pesach sacrifice and the command that every firstbom calf or lamb shall be killed for sacrifice-and that every first-born son shall be specially redeemed, for his life and blood are also forfeit as a sacrifice.

It is not hard to feel that the Pesach lamb was partly a ransom against child sacrifice -- partly a psychological substitute for killing one's own firstborn son, as the ram on Mount Moriah was Abraham's substitute for killing his son Isaac. For the many years in which the sacrifice was carried on at local shrines and at the First and Second Temples, it may therefore (like circumcision) have helped discharge the tension between fathers and sons.

Jewish tradition understood this tension well when it said – in the passage from the last of the {Prophets, Mal;achi, that is read in synagogue every year on the Shabbat just before Pesach –- that the great task of Elijah the Prophet was to "turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers," and then welcomed Elijah to every circumcision and to every Passover Seder. In our own generation, modern psychologists have rediscovered the tension between the generations. If there were no way to discharge the tensions, some of them have said, they might explode into murder. So the Pesach ceremony may be a way of dealing with the most intimate struggles for life and freedom in the family, as well as the grand and glorious struggles of world history.

This speculation is strengthened by the emphasis in the first four chapters of Exodus on childbirth as the crucial element in the Israelite search for freedom and in the Pharaoh's denial of it. The effort to drown newborns, the midwives' frustration of that effort, the conspiracy of Miriam with Pharaoh's daughter to save the baby Moses, the birth of Moses' own son before he can experience God in the burning bush, and the uncanny circumcision of that son before Moses can become the liberator -- all these suggest a strong connection between human birth, the protection of babies, and the liberation of a people.

Each child comes through the narrow space to bring broad new possibilities of freedom to the world. Perhaps the oldest Pharaoh is the impulse many parents feel, at one or another moment, to strangle that unpredictability in the cradle.

In the long historical process of shaping the festival we know as Passover, there were many moments of change and growth. The crucial moment came when these separate sets of feelings about the new births in the flock of sheep, about newborns in the clan and family, and about the birth of political freedom were fused into a single extraordinary ceremony.

What was remembered as a great transformation of symbols in the intense emergency of the Exodus was preserved as a teaching of those transformed symbols even afterward. In the book of Exodus, indeed, the description of the emergency celebration and the command for future celebrations are tightly intertwined, moving back and forth from now to later. It is a way of saying that the later generations were to experience the first event as an urgent part of their own immediate lives. Once the connection had been made between the rebirthing powers of the flock and the human family, and the power of a people to politically rebirth itself, that connection was never forgotten.

But then where does the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread join the story? Modem scholars feel that the nomad army of liberated Israelites may have brought their shepherds' festival of freedom to the settled farmers of Canaan. As many of the Canaanites responded to the fervent mixture of Israelite conquest and conversion, they connected their own history, legends perhaps of Abraham and Isaac, with the memories of the returning clans. The already settled farmers kept on celebrating their own spring festival of the unleavened bread and the new spring grain. They also accepted the shepherds' Pesach sacrifice into their celebration of the springtime.

As the invading nomads settled down, they preserved their own ceremonial of birth and liberation, and joined with their neighbors in the week-long feast of matzah. Yet the scholars think the two festivals may have remained distinct for centuries. They may even perhaps have observed at two different times in the month of spring-the sacrifice at the full moon; the matzah feast whenever the barley harvest was ready to begin.

The scholars suggest that not until the Babylonian exile did the two festivals become one. Cut off from the nature-rhythm of their own barley harvest in regard to the one festival and cut off from the sacrificial altar at the Temple in Jerusalem in regard to the other festival, the Israelites in Babylon may have needed the two festivals connected and their dates fixed. In exile, their intense desire for exodus, for freedom and a return to the land of Israel, may well have burned hot enough to melt down the meaning of the ceremonial meal of matzah -- to fuse it with the Pesach lamb as a memorial and a demand for exodus.

According to this theory, by the time the ancient oral traditions are woven into the text of the Book of Exodus, the matzah festival is connected with the liberation from Egypt by means of remembering that the haste of departure was so great that there was no time for the Israelites to let the dough rise in the emergency rations they had baked.

In any case, by the time of the Second Temple, the crucial personal and communal elements of Passover had been unified. It celebrated the spring equinox, the moment when the sun was born again-began anew to warm the northern hemisphere. It celebrated Spring in the lambing of the flocks and the harvesting of barley. It celebrated the life of every newborn child, and the joy of every family that the firstborn need not be offered up to God. It celebrated the birth-time of the people and their ability -- not simply once, but now another time -- to emerge from slavery to freedom and from exile to self-determination in their own land. And so Pesach had become the quintessential festival of newness, creation, creativity, freedom.

At this point, what Pesach meant was that on the tenth of the month of Nisan, each family acquired a lamb -- or, if it were too small or too poor to deal with a whole lamb of its own, shared with a neighbor. In enormous multitudes -- more than three million strong in the year 65 C.E. -- the people Israel converged on Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. They would sacrifice the lambs as the day of the fourteenth of Nisan turned into dusk and moved toward the evening of the fifteenth. Until midnight they would roast and eat the paschal lamb, with bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery and with matzah to recall the haste of liberation. For a week they would stay in Jerusalem, eating only unleavened bread, telling the tales of freedom, gathering again on the seventh day for another solemn day of dedication.

Sometime during the week they would begin to wave before God's altar an omer of the earliest-ripened barley, starting the count of 49 days of awaiting the crop from different fields throughout the land of Israel as the barley ripened-a count that itself would ripen on the festival of Shavuot. And after the seventh day they would return to their homes.

Late in the period of the Second Temple, under the influence of Hellenistic and Roman culture, the Pesach feast became a carefully ordered meal that borrowed from the pattern of the Greek and Roman symposium, or discussion banquet. As this pattern developed, the Mishnah -- a collection and codification of those traditions and practices of Jewish life approved by the early rabbis -- laid out how to do the order, the Seder, of the Pesach meal. In its essentials, this Seder became the pattern that was put into the Haggadah -- the Telling of Passover -- and thus became the pattern for the meal as we have it for our own generation.

One of the major elements introduced by the Mishnah, borrowing from the symposium, was the drinking of four cups of wine -- two early in the meal, two after the meal was over. The custom of reclining during the meal as an expression of freedom also drew on Roman custom -- for free citizens in Roman times would recline to eat a formal dinner.

There is also a tradition, passed on by word of mouth alone until our own day, that the Seder of Roman times which the Haggadah itself describes -- the Seder in which Rabbi Akiba and four colleagues talk all night -- was actually the occasion for discussing and planning an uprising against the Imperial power. Akiba's insistence on adding to the Passover Seder's blessing over God's redemptive power in Egypt, a passage looking forward toward restoration of the Temple that the Romans had destroyed, and Akiba's support for the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome as a Messianic event, were presumably connected with the discussion at this famous Seder in the town of B'nei Brak. This may have been the first occasion when Passover was consciously used not only as a celebration of God's gift of freedom in the past but as an incitement of collective human action for freedom toward the future.

Between the codification of the Mishnah (end of the second century C. E. ) and the collection of the Gemara's commentaries on it (three centuries later), there were some changes in the text and arrangement of the Seder. The Mishnah lays out several questions to be asked by a child (in some texts three, in some four). One of these questions is about the roast lamb of the Pesach sacrifice. After the destruction of the Temple had not only occurred but lasted for several centuries, so that the restoration of the sacrifices no longer seemed imminent and the question about them was irrelevant to the actual Seder meal, the Gemara replaced this question with one about reclining.

So at this point the child's questions became the Four Questions that we have today, all built upon the crucial question "Why is this night different from all other nights?" For on this night we eat only matzah; we eat bitter herbs; we twice dip food, into salt water and charoset (chopped fruit and nuts soaked in wine); we recline at the table. Why?

The Gemara also described a shift of the "Telling" parts of the ritual from their earlier position during the meal to a place after only a symbolic green vegetable had been eaten and before the actual meal, probably to make sure the telling was done well and thoroughly before the effects of wine and food had dulled the abilities of the celebrants.

There were several debates among the Talmudic rabbis as to what the text of the telling on Pesach night should be. Some of these may seem at first glance picayune, but when we probe a little there is often revealed some basic moral issue. One of these disagreements was the one between Tarfon and Akiba over whether to refer to a future redemption and the restoration of the Temple. Another began out of a consensus that the story should start out by telling of the Israelites' original degraded status, and rise to their glorious redemption. But then the consensus turned into a dispute over what degradation to begin with: the slavery in Egypt, or the idolatrous beliefs of Abraham's family? This dispute was resolved by starting with both: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . . " and "Our forebears served as slaves to idols . . . "

Even the cup of Elijah results from a debate over whether there should be four or five cups of wine. The compromise was to have a fifth cup but not to drink from it or say the blessing, and in time this became known as the cup that awaited Elijah's visit to announce the Messianic redemption (may it come soon and in our own day). For it will be Elijah, according to tradition, who will at that time settle the debatable points of Torah on which the rabbis had been unable to reach a firm conclusion. "Four cups or five? Ask Elijah!"

Another, much more playful, debate arose over how many plagues really happened in Egypt -- ten, fifty, two hundred? This debate is presented verbatim in the Haggadah -- and takes on a more profound meaning when we notice that the various proposed numbers of plagues add up to 610, plus a three-word mnemonioc to remember them. Add these together, and we have 613, which is also the total number of God's commandments according to a traditional view. So the Haggadah hints that the ten plagues of Egypt stand opposite the Ten Commandments of Sinai; and that there are 613 plagues standing opposite the 613 commandments. For every commandment unfulfilled, there is a plague . . .

In the Gaonic period in Babylon, these discussions continued and gradually the results crystallized into a more-or-less agreed text and order of a service for Passover night. This text first appeared as part of the earliest Jewish prayerbook in the ninth century. By the eleventh century, the text was almost identical with the traditional Haggadah used today, with the exception of the verses beginning "Pour out Your wrath," which were added as a furious response to anti-Semitic outbursts during the Crusades. The earliest appearance of a separate Passover Haggadah seems to have been in the twelfth century. The songs sung after completion of the regular service first appeared in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

During the past century, under the stimulus of profound changes in Jewish life, a number of modified Haggadahs have been used by parts of the Jewish community, beginning with Reform and Reconstructionist editions in the United States and with new versions published by hundreds of nonreligious socialist kibbutzim before and after the establishment of Israeli independence.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, political and religious upheavals among young Jews led to the publication of a number of different Haggadahs. Some of these expressed more or less radical political feelings, others expressed the determination of Jewish women to enter Jewish life as full equals with men, and some presented a variety of alternate readings from inside or outside Jewish traditional thought that could be used to strike up open discussion and debate at the Seder in the spirit of the Zman cheruteynu, season of our freedom.



Preparations for Pesach are the most elaborate of all the Jewish year. They take place in both the physical realm of preparing the household by removing leaven, and the spiritual realm of clearing away deadliness and idolatry by means of prayer and Torah study. We act in the two realms simultaneously in parallel; here we will look at the physical first.

Renewal of the body can begin on Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) of the month of Nisan, for that is when the reordering of the house and the cleaning out of last year's leavening can start. The Torah's command is that no chametz, leavening or souring agent, shall remain in one's house during Pesach. In our own generation, different Jews apply this rule with more or less stringency.

In removing the chametz, there are some traditional customs and regulations to keep in mind: regular bread is the most obvious candidate for removal. With it traditionally went all cereals and grains, especially wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye -- all mentioned by the rabbis -- and also corn (maize), not discovered until after 1492.

Rice, millet, peas, and beans (including peanuts) were forbidden for Ashkenazic Jews, descended from Northern European communities. The Mediterranean-based Sephardic communities and the Oriental Jews did not feel -- as did the Ashkenazic rabbis -- that these foods might be ground into flour, get confused with the originally prohibited grains, and seduce Jews toward eating those grains. In very recent years, some Ashkenazic rabbis , especially in Israel where the two communities have intermingled, have argued that this separation from Sephardic practice is not based on any accurate understanding of Torah and, moreover, tends to treat Seohardic custom as less kosher, less holy. So they have urged that the prohibition on these foods be abandoned. In any case, even Ashkenazic families that will not eat them are not forbidden to leave them in the house.

Alcoholic liquors based on grain (which include beer and practically all other alcohol except wine and pure fruit brandies like slivovitz) also contain chametz. So does vinegar, if it is made at all from grain. Pure apple cider vinegar, however, even though it is sour is not considered chametz and may be used during Pesach. Many canned, bottled, and processed foods contain cornstarch, com syrups, flour as a thickening agent, etc. All these are traditionally forbidden. So are non-foods that contain chametz -- some cosmetics, inks, glues, toothpastes, etc.

There are several approaches to consider in dealing with this chametz:

• The very nooks and crannies of the household probably bear chametz in their dust; so the custom has arisen of doing an extraordinarily thorough spring cleaning before Pesach.

• As for visible, palpable chametzdik foods, some people find it psychologically satisfying to finish half-loaves of bread, half-boxes of crackers, etc., in the two weeks before Pesach.

• What is left can be physically removed from the house. In some communities, the custom has arisen of taking such foods, together with some money, to soup kitchens or other places that feed the (non-Jewish) desperately poor. In this way both the mitzvah of removing chametz and the mitzvah of tzedakah are fulfilled. If the soup kitchen or other group chosen is also working toward the goal of freeing the poor from poverty and powerlessness, then the historic message of Pesach-liberation from slavery -- is also carried outward to the broader world.

• The chametz can be separated from everything else in the house, put in a room or a large box that is sealed closed, and the chametz can then be formally and legally sold to a non-Jew. It may be advisable to arrange this through a rabbi, or other person trained in Jewish traditions, who is knowledgeable in this particular practice. Untrained individuals may find it useful to consult as a model the legal formulas for this sale printed on pages 36-39 of Section 3 on Festivals of the Code of Jewish Law (Ganzfried-Goldin, ed., Hebrew Publishing Co.). This arrangement allows the chametzdik food to be sold before Pesach and bought back for the same price afterward. In some congregations, the custom has arisen of making the sale to a non-Jewish charitable organization -- for example, Oxfam, which tries to deal with the world hunger problem -- and then donating part or all of the cost of the food after its repurchase.

Traditionally, all food utensils used during the regular year either need to be locked away after thorough washing and left unused during Pesach so that utensils would be used that were saved all year (under seal) for Pesach use alone; or else the utensils were purified of leaven by putting them in large pots of boiling water and putting boiling-hot stones or bricks in the pots so that the water (still boiling hot) would overflow the rim. Burners on the stove can be covered with foil, a special tablecloth used on the table, etc.

Special food intended for Passover is indicated by the special "Kosher L'Pesach" notation on the container with a rabbinic seal of kashrut. Fresh fruits and vegetables do not need this symbol; foods like fresh milk or foods that list ingredients and do not list any form of chametz are probably kosher in fact, but there is no way to be certain that chametz has not infiltrated. Individual households must decide whether to insist on rabbinic certification. Whatever the decision, after utensils have been changed or purified and the regular food sold or given away, only food intended for Pesach should be bought.

Traditionally, the matzah intended to fulfill the positive command to eat unleavened bread (which is separate from the negative command to not eat leavened bread) is made of only flour and water and must be completely baked in less than 18 minutes from when the flour is mixed with water, so that it has no time to rise. Special egg matzahs, fruit juice matzahs, etc., that use no water are not chametz; they are not fully matzah either. Traditionally, therefore, they may be eaten during Pesach but not as the ritual matzah of the Seder. Some households use only sh'murah matzah (guarded matzah). Its flour has been watched all the way back to the time of harvesting the grain to make sure no water has touched it. Some sh'murah matzah comes from fields that receive only the merest minimal amounts of rainfall.

The baking of ritual matzah can itself become a spiritually uplifting experience. The process requires an oven capable of very high heat that can bake in great speed; absolutely dry flour; and fresh spring water with which the flour is combined just before baking. Rows of holes are put in the matzah in order to permit air bubbles to escape rather than leaven the bread even unintentionally. Directions for baking can be found on pages 143-145 of The First Jewish Catalog. (But it is very unlikely that such private baking can meet all the traditional tests for kosher matzah; so some who like to do their own baking eat this matzah before Pesach begins.)

On the night before Pesach (or if it begins at the end of Shabbos, on the Thursday night before), there is a final hunt through the house to get rid of any chametz that has not been eaten, given away, or sealed off and sold. Many households give this search a ritual as well as practical character by having each member of the household hide a few chunks of bread around the house ahead of time -- adding up to a minyan, a total of ten. Then the whole household can hunt. A candle -- not some other kind of light -- is used for this search, because (so the Talmud says), the human soul is God's candle to search out the innards of the world.

A feather (which you may want to look for in a public park in a pre-Pesach spring walk that afternoon) or a palm-branch from the lulav that has been put aside from last Sukkot may be used to brush the pieces of bread from their hiding place into a paper bag-so that no one actually is contaminated by a crumb of leaven.

The search begins with a blessing: "Baruch atuh YHWH [Adonai or Yah] eloheynu melech [ruach] ha-olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu al biyyur chameytz. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of space and time [or, Breath of Life our God], who has made us holy through Your commandments, and commanded us about the removal of leavening." After the symbolic ten pieces have been found and any other chametz found along the way has also been swept up, the bag of chametz is laid aside. The household members use the ancient popular language, Aramaic, to declare:

Kol shamira v'chamiya dika birshuti, d'la chamitey ood'la bah-aritey ood'la yadana ley, livtil v'lehevey hefker k'afra harah.

All leaven in my possession that I have not seen or removed or that I don't know about is hereby made null and void, and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

In the morning, after breakfast, this declaration is recited again and the bag of chametz is burned outside the house -- beginning perhaps with the dried-out lulav (palm branch). If Pesach begins Saturday night, then on Friday morning, leavening like challah for eating Friday night may be left; the rest should be burnt (since a fire cannot be kindled on Shabbos); and the declaration of nullity is delayed until after eating two briefly separated meals which use up all the remaining bread on Shabbos morning, so as to fulfill the mitzvah of eating three meals with bread every Shabbos. If later during Pesach an accidentally overlooked piece of chametz is found, a cup or pot should be placed upside down over it and then during the middle five days of semifestival, it should be burned with the blessing, "Who has commanded us about the removal of leavening."

In addition to the special problems created by a Pesach that begins on Saturday night, there are special problems with a Pesach that begins on Wednesday night. In such a year, all day Thursday and Friday are festivals. In traditional homes, food can be cooked on these days for eating on these days or on the semi-festival days later-but food should not be cooked on the festival days to eat on Shabbos (and even more strongly, food should not be newly cooked on Shabbos itself).

How then to cook for Shabbos? The rabbis ruled that if a family began cooking for Shabbos before Pesach began and continued on into the festival days, this was not the same as beginning the process during Pesach. So if Pesach begins Wednesday night, some cooking for Shabbos begins during the day before. That food and some matzah are singled out, and the household does the ceremony of eruv tavshilin, mixture for cooking, declaring over this food:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of space and time, Who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us about the "mixture." By means of this mixture we may bake, cook, warm, kindle lights, and do everything necessary from holy day toward Shabbos -- we and all Israel who live in this town.

After 9:30 of the morning before Pesach, it is forbidden to eat chametz and it is the custom not to eat matzah, so as to be able to savor fully the taste of the first matzah at the Seder.

First-born children traditionally do not eat at all during the daylight hours before Pesach, in recognition of the awesome fact that all the first-born children of Egypt died during the night and that the Israelite first-born were saved only by virtue of God's forbearance and the Pesach sacrifice of the lamb and the blood on the doorposts. However, it is a mitzvah to celebrate with food and drink the completion of a mitzvah such as the study of a part of the Bible, Talmud, or other text from the tradition. So the custom has arisen that the first-borns of a community gather on the morning before Pesach to study together, and then can eat a breadless siyyum, a festive meal to celebrate the mitzvah.

In some households, the afternoon before Pesach is a time to walk for an hour or two in a park or woods, enjoying the spring birth-time before turning to the political-historical birth-time. In some traditional communities, it is a time to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath -- not to become physically clean but to experience the purifying rest, the sense of oceanic union with the universe, that can come from total immersion. Bodies of pure running water-streams, lakes, oceans -- can be used as mikvehs.

To some modern sensibilities, following the rather elaborate rituals for ridding the household of leaven may seem obsessive. The task may become so onerous -- especially if it is loaded onto just one member of the household -- that it seems to re-establish the slavery that the original Passover freed us from! If the toil of pre-Pesach cleaning is shared and then the Seder is greeted as a great shared liberation, the toil might even come to be used in a spiritually helpful way.

There is also a mystical outlook on the meaning of the removal of chametz that can be kept in mind. According to this view, chametz is what lifts us up throughout the year -- leads to our working harder, searching deeper, loving more. It is the yetzer, or swelling-impulse, of the soul. But allowed to swell and grow without restraint, it becomes yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse. It impels us not only to productivity, but to possessiveness; not only to creativity, but to competitiveness; not only to love, but to jealousy and lust.

So once a year we must clean out even the uplifting impulse; we must eat the flat bread of a pressed-down people. Half a year after the Tashlich ceremony of Rosh Hashanah, we must clean out the pockets of pride that have grown big again. Half a year after Yom Kippur, we must again swallow hard and look again at what is eating us.


While the Temple stood, the approach of Pesach was a time for every Israelite to clear away any aura of contact with a death. For no one who had touched a dead body could offer up a sacrifice to the living God without first going through an exercise to clear away the taboo. Pesach was the only time that every Israelite family brought a sacrifice. (On other festivals the priests made the offering, and when it was a matter of an individual guilt-offering or something similar, the special occasion would apply to just one person.) So to prepare for Pesach, the whole people heard the Torah reading about how to clear away the death taboo.

Now, with the Temple gone, we read that Torah passage to cleanse ourselves of deadliness through the reading itself. The passage is about the red heifer or parah adumah, and we read it on the second Shabbos before the month of Nisan begins (or if it actually begins on Shabbos, on the Shabbos just before).

This passage (Numbers 19:1-22) describes how the red heifer was sacrificed-its red blood sprinkled on the altar and its body burned with red cedarwood and the red spice hyssop, with a scarlet dye to make in the fire a cloud of red smoke. The heifer's ashes were then used to clear away the uncanniness of death from the person of anyone who had touched a corpse. Along with this passage, on Shabbos Parah we read a haftarah (prophetic passage; in this case, Ezekiel 36:13-38) in which God promises to cleanse all Israel from our idolatries.

On the Shabbos after Shabbos Parah, we read a special Torah passage to announce that Nisan, the month of Passover, is upon us. This passage from Exodus 12, "This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is for you first of the months of the year," is added to the regular Torah portion of the week. Every new month is announced on the Shabbos before, but only Nisan is announced with a special Torah reading. This gives the month an extra honor, and gives the congregation a special electricity about Pesach. The Shabbos is called Shabbos Ha-Chodesh, Shabbos of The Month. It completes the four special Shabbosim that began with Shabbos Shekalim and Shabbos Zakhor before Purim.

Once Nisan actually begins, the community begins to collect money to help the poor celebrate Pesach fully. This ma-oz chittin or wheat money is intended to let the poor buy matzah -- and by extension all their other needs in food, clothing, and fuel -- in order freely to celebrate Pesach, the festival of freedom.

Even if someone has already fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah, in complete accordance with the law, s/he cannot appreciate the full implication of freedom knowing that a neighbor is hungry and in need. If s/he knew that there were hungry people in the town and had not bothered to come to their assistance, s/he would be guilty of telling lies -- God forbid -- on this "watch night" when the Seder itself begins, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." If, however, s/he has made an effort to supply the needy with food, and then says, "Perhaps there are still some poor people of whom I know not, I am ready to receive them at my table," then these words are clearly sincere and s/he is rewarded for saying this just as if s/he had at this very moment fed the hungry and gladdened the hearts of the poor (Eliyahu Kitov).

Money for this Pesach aid is distributed to the poor before the Shabbos before Pesach, so that they should have time to buy what they need.

Although the practice of ma-oz chittin focuses first on the poor of one's own town or community, some Jewish communities in some years have lived under restrictions of their governments as to how much matzah and other Pesach foods they may prepare. For some years in the history of the Soviet Union, for instance, very little matzah was allowed. It would be wise, perhaps at the time of Shabbos Shekalim before Purim, to check with these organizations in touch with oppressed Jewish communities to see what the situation is.

At the beginning of Nisan in the second year of freedom for the Israelites in the wilderness, the Mishkan, the traveling Shrine for the Presence of God, was dedicated. In memory of this event and in hope for the Messianic redemption when God's Presence will again become palpable (and this time to all humanity), some very traditional Jewish communities spend the seven days at the end of Adar and the first thirteen days of Nisan in a special commemoration.

On the seven last days of Adar, when Moses completed the Shrine of the Presence and offered up the dedicatory sacrifices, these communities pray for the great redemption. On the first 12 days of Nisan they read (not officially from a Torah scroll, but from a printed book, without a blessing) the 12 passages, one by one, about the gifts brought by the 12 tribes to the Shrine (Numbers 7:12=83); and on the thirteenth of Nisan, in honor of the priestly tribe of Levi, the passage on lighting the Menorah from Exodus 8:1-5.

The first day of Nisan is observed as a daylight fast in memory and mourning of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, on the very day they brought strange fire to offer at the dedication of the Shrine. Similarly, the tenth of Nisan is kept by the most observant as a fast day in memory of the death of Miriam.

Beginning on the new moon of Nisan, it is also customary to start studying the Passover story -- especially to review the Haggadah and various ancient and modern commentaries on it, with an eye to using it on Pesach night. In households and congregations where it is customary to use variations on the Haggadah, Rosh Chodesh Nisan is a good time to begin gathering different Haggadahs and looking through them for passages that stir the mind and soul in one's present stage in life.

The two weeks between Rosh Chodesh and Pesach can be a time for serious exploration of the meaning of freedom, creativity, the birth and rebirth of identity. What mitzrayyim, what tight spot, do I need to leave this year? What buds and sprouts of change do I see in myself and in the world around me? What questions do I need to ask? What tales do I need to tell? What songs do I need to sing?

The Shabbos just before Pesach, Shabbos Hagadol (either The Great Shabbos or Shabbos of The Great) was traditionally a point at which these question -- seen, it is true, through the lens of the ancient texts -- might be intensified.
The Shabbos took its special name from the climactic lines about "the great and awesome day of YHWH, Yom YHWH hagadol v'hanorah," from the haftarah assigned for that day replacing the regular haftarah connected with the ordinary Torah portion in the regular cycle of readings. The special haftarah is from the last chapter of Malachi, the last of the Prophets. It ends:

For here! The day is coming that will burn like a furnace. All the proud, and all who do evil, will be stubble; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze, says the Lord of Hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My Name the sun of righteous justice will rise with healing in its wings, and you shall go forth leaping joyfully like calves released from the stall. And you shall trample upon the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I make, says YHWH Infinite. Remember the Teaching of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel -- rules and judgments. Here, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of YHWH. And he will turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents -- lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction.

This haftarah clearly connects the ultimate Redemption with the impending Passover -- as if to remind us in advance that the point of Pesach is to look toward the coming of Elijah, in the Pesach that will redeem all the peoples from all the Pharaohs. And how, in that great and awesome day, will Elijah do the work of redemption? By turning the hearts of the generations toward each other. By infusing with love the questions of the children and the answers of the parents on Seder night. By making of the Pesach sacrificial lamb a true substitute for the death of the firstborn child, just as Elijah comes to the circumcision of a newborn son to make that ceremony, too, a substitute for death between the generations.

And thus Shabbos Hagadol comes to remind us once more and in a new way that Pesach is the festival of birth, of generation, of creation -- and of all the strains that emerge when the old gives birth to the new.

The passage takes on new meaning in a generation that faces the plague of global scorching, as the planet heats up like a furnace that like the plagues of old will scorch both powerful and helpless, both the wicked and the innocent. It can be read as a promise that the wings of a "sun of justice" – solar and wind power -- can heal us from that danger. And it calls on us to become the Elijah who can turn the generations' hearts toward each other – lest the earth be utterly destroyed.

In the afternoon service on Shabbos Hagadol, the part of the Pesach Haggadah that runs from "Avadim hayinu, slaves we were," to the end of Dayenu, "to atone for all our sins," is read in some synagogues to prepare for Pesach. It may replace the chanting of Psalm 104, or be added to it.


The last burst of preparations focuses on the Seder itself. This is a symbolic, ritual meal that uses real foods to embody ideas-literally to make them part of the body. Seder means order. The order of the meal and of the story-telling that precedes it has been carefully worked and reworked over centuries and is laid out in the book called Haggadah or Telling. But this is an order that looks toward freedom, and there is a free play of discussion and action within the basic pattern.

Since the Seder is built around a real meal, it is done around a dinner table with a plate of the symbolic foods upon it. Almost all Haggadahs describe how this Seder plate should be set, though few explain all the items: Pesach or zeroa (arm-outstretched-to-sow-seed) stands for the sacrificial lamb -- now usually represented by a roast chicken neck or wing, to avoid any hint that the Temple sacrifices might still be valid; or a boiled beet, among vegetarians, in accord with a Talmudic suggestion of what foods might fulfill the command of eating two dishes.

Why two dishes? One representing the Pesach sacrifice and the other representing the chagigah or festival sacrifice that was offered on all of the pilgrimage festivals, not only Pesach. The roast egg on the Seder plate came to represent the chagigah. (Today, many might say it silently reminds us that spring is a time of rebirth.)

On most Seder plates there are two forms of maror, the bitter herb: both a raw root of horseradish (to eat a slice separately from the matzah, but piled with charoset), and a dish of grated horseradish (to eat together with the matzah in memory of the Temple and in honor of Hillel, who urged that way of doing it).

There is also the mildly bitter green vegetable: parsley, lettuce, or celery, used for dipping in salt water at the beginning of the ritual. It is intended to foreshadow the bitter herb, and to trigger the children's questions because the procedure is so odd. And it may carry a second level of symbolic meaning in that the greens in salt water may represent the spring element of Pesach -- with the salt recalling the sea, mother of life.

And there is the charoset, a paste or mixture of chopped nuts, apples or raisins, and wine, by oral tradition (never written into the Haggadah itself0 said to represent the mortar that the Israelite slaves used in laying bricks. The fact that charoset is so sweetly delicious may represent a dialectical truth about slavery: slavery is bitter, but its orderliness and secure dependability can also become sweet to the slave. Today some teach that charoset is a hidden reference to the Song of Songs, which mentions all the ingredients -- and is traditionally read during Pesach.

Among the other arrangements of the Seder are the following:

• Participants (or at least the one who is acting as leader) wear the white robe or kittel that is otherwise worn only for Yom Kippur, one's wedding, and one's burial. Thus the sense of purity-in-renewal is asserted for this festival of new birth.
• Salt water for dipping the greens at the start of the ritual and a hard-boiled egg at the start of the meal.
• Three pieces of matzah, representing -- depending on the commentator -- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the three castes of Cohanim (priests), Levites, and ordinary Israelites; the two joyful sacrifices of Pesach and chagigah, plus the bread of the oppressed; creation, revelation, and redemption; the three aspects of life expressed in assertion (which requires one), tension (which requires two), and resolution (which requires three); and many other threads of meaning.
• Enough wine to make up four cups for each participant -- representing the four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 (v'hotzeyti, v'hitzalti, v'ga-alti v'lakachti -- I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will espouse you).
• A wine cup to fill for the expected visit of Elijah the Prophet.
• Pillows to lean the left side on, especially when saying blessings over the wine and ritual food-as a symbol of freedom and relaxation.


The Seder itself can be done in a more or a less ordered way, depending on the desires of each group of participants. Since all Haggadahs -- traditional and experimental -- lay out an order for the Seder, the most important task is to absorb how one or another Haggadah works and to decide how much openness you want. What seems most useful for us to do here is to sketch the basic structure and to mention different approaches that some people have used. For more detail, choose a Haggadah.

The basic structure is (a) a series of preparatory steps; (b) an introduction to the telling made up of an interplay of questions and partial answers; (c) the heart of the telling, a brief historical passage from Deuteronomy intertwined with a number of midrashic commentaries; (d) singing part of the Hallel psalms, praising God for past and future redemptions; (e) formally eating the ritual foods; (f) the regular meal, with songs; and (g) the post-meal recitation of grace after meals and the rest of the Hallel psalms, with several closing songs and rituals.

In all of these sections it is possible to pause -- to add some ceremonial acts; read some poems, stories, commentaries from Jewish tradition or from non-Jewish sources, or additional prayers; make new midrash by sharing reactions to what is going on; or add new songs. Time and hunger may turn out to be the chief problems involved in enriching the Seder in this way. The group might decide to take the edge off hunger by eating a light snack beforehand or even (unobtrusively) at some point in the service and discussion.

The preparatory steps are lighting the festival candles; making the separation and hallowing of kiddush to bless the festival; washing the hands; eating the mildly bitter greens dipped in salt water; and breaking one matzah. The company might explore the meanings of this pattern. Does it evoke the process of the Creation, from the separation of light and dark to the breaking in two of Adam? Does it bring forth special memories of old Passovers? As an introduction and warm-up, a beginning for the festival of beginnings, what feelings does it arouse?

The heart of the Seder is the telling, in accordance with the command, "You shall tell your child on that day, saying . . .". Precisely the command to "Tell your child" directs the Seder in an intergenerational direction. The Haggadah examines the different approaches of four different kinds of children (or are all these different aspects of every person's makeup?) and suggests four questions that the youngest put to all the grown-ups. The Talmud makes clear that these questions are only a suggestion; it tells the stories of several Seders in which other questions were asked, and because they opened up the story, replaced the Four Questions at those Seder tables. It is especially interesting to note that only two of the Four Questions receive explicit answers in the Haggadah -- as if to say that the elders can never fully answer questions, or that the next generation must constantly work out new answers.

After the questions and some partial answers, the Haggadah enters the heart of the telling. This is made up of reciting the verses of Deuteronomy 26:5-8, a brief history of the Israelites' entrance into and exodus from Egypt, together with a long and intertwined midrash or exegetical commentary on these verses.

The passage in its original context is an unusual credo in the form of a history, a public statement to be made when bringing the yearly first fruits offering to the Temple. The statement is not the usual kind of credo in the sense of "I believe in the following general propositions about the world, my religion, and my self," but instead is a statement of memory -- a recapitulation of the history of the Israelite people in its relation with God.

The Haggadah's midrash on this passage pauses at many of the words of this mini-history, linking them with similar words elsewhere in the Bible and thus enriching the story. The midrash may also be making some philosophical points in arguments that were going on among the sages as the Haggadah was being shaped. For example, the midrashim could have been so chosen as to glorify Moses. Instead, he is referred to only once (and then in a casual way) in the whole Haggadah. Presumably the intention was to emphasize God's leadership and de-emphasize the individual hero who might come almost to be worshipped.

The next portion of the Seder is a powerful living-out of the fusion of physical and intellectual -- through eating foods that have a strong content of ideas and emotions. Some Jewish communities have not waited till the eating to make this fusion, but have made the telling itself more physical, in the tradition of the vigor and haste of the departure from Egypt.

Some Oriental Jews get up from the table, put matzahs on their left shoulders, and with sandals on their feet and staves in their hands march around the table and into other rooms or even into the street-re-enacting the Exodus.

Others act out a mini-play in which a dusty, exhausted traveler hammers on the door and is finally let in to describe how things were going in Jerusalem and how close the coming of Messiah seems. Some American Seders have included playlets on the ten different plagues, improvised dances expressing the feelings of the Four Children and of the different verses of Dayenu, and mime representing the inner essences of the matzah, the bitter herb, the wine, the charoset.

The section in which the ritual foods are shared begins with a formal hand-washing and goes on with matzah, maror (bitter herb), and charoset. It includes pointing out the shankbone or its substitute without eating or even lifting it -- lest it be thought the sacrifices are still in force without the Temple. Between the ritual foods and the regular meal there is in many households a strange moment that has the quality of both: the eating of a hard-boiled egg sliced in old salt water. The character and wide usage of this soup marks it as a ritual; yet there is no special explanation or blessing, and it is treated as the first course of the meal, before the real soup with matzah balls. The egg in salt water would seem to be a symbol of birth and fertility -- celebrated but not discussed.


The first day of Pesach is a holiday on which, traditionally, no work is done. Before the morning Amidah (standing prayer at the heart of each Jewish service)a hymn is sung: "B'rakh Dodi . . . , Flee," or "Hasten, my Beloved," a phrase from the last verse of the Song of Songs. Here it is addressed to God. There are three separate hymns by different poets under this title. One of them is sung on the first day, one on the second day of Pesach, and one on the Shabbos in the middle of Pesach. Each of them looks forward to the Messianic redemption, and each ends, "For the sake of the forebears, please save the children and bring redemption to their children's children. Blessed are You, YHWH, Who redeems Israel."

In the Amidah itself, the festival paragraph is inserted, with the special name "Chag Hamatzot, z'man Cherutenu, Festival of Unleavened Bread, the season of our liberation." After the Amidah, all of Hallel is recited on the first day .

The Torah readings of the first day of Pesach are made up of Exodus 12:21-51 and Numbers 28:16-25. These are, respectively, the passage that intertwines the story of the Passover night of Exodus with the command for future celebrations of Pesach; and the recitation of the sacrifices required for the seven days of Pesach while the Temple stood.

The haftarah for the first day is from Joshua 5:7-6:1, plus 6:27. In it, after having just led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Joshua arranges the circumcision of all the Israelite males -- for all who had been born in the Wilderness during the forty years after the Exodus from Egypt had remained uncircumcised. He did this just in time to celebrate Pesach -- evidently for the first time since the Exodus, since only circumcised men could take part in Pesach. When the people ate unleavened bread, the manna which had fed them since the Exodus stopped falling, and from then on they ate of the grain of the land of Canaan.

In the first blessing of the Amidah in the musaf or additional service on the first day of Pesach, there is inserted a prayer for God to begin sending dew. This prayer marks the turning of the seasons in the Land of Israel. With Pesach begin the six months of the year in which there is almost never any rain; so the prayers for rain end. But some continuing moisture is essential to keep the land fertile, and so the rabbis decided to ask God for dew. The phrase "mashiv haruach u'morid hageshem, Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall," is simply dropped by Ashkenazic Jews from Pesach to Sh'mini Atzeret, and among Sephardim is replaced with the phrase "u-morid hatal, Who makes the dew fall." One of the great liturgical poets, Eleazar Kalir, wrote a hymn that is used on the first day of Pesach in most congregations. Its last stanza:

Give dew, precious dew, that we our harvest reap, And guard our fatted flocks and herds from leanness! Behold our people follows Thee like sheep, And looks to Thee to give the earth her greenness, With dew.

In the Land of Israel and among Reform Jews, as with all the other festivals (except Rosh Hashanah) there is celebrated only one first day of Pesach. Among non-Reform Jews of the Diaspora, two first days of festival are celebrated. On the second night of Pesach, therefore, there is a second Seder.

Some households have developed ways of making the two experiences quite different: for instance, one in a family or small group of friends, the other in a larger communal setting; one indoors, the other outside, even as the culmination of a hike; one more or less according to the traditional structure, the other in a looser form evoking the participants' own experience of liberation; one with a traditional Haggadah, one with a new one; one focused on political liberation, one on spring. It is on the second night of Pesach that the Counting of the Omer begins, which we will deal with in the next chapter.

On the morning of the second day of Pesach, congregations that recognize it as a festival day chant again a full Hallel, the psalms of praise from Psalm 113 to 118. From the Torah they read Leviticus from 22:26-23:44, and the same passage from Numbers as on the day before. The Leviticus passage contains the cycle of all the festivals of the year.

The haftarah for the second day, II Kings 23:1-9 and 23:21-25, describes the efforts of King Josiah in the seventh century B.C.E. to cleanse the whole land and people of idolatrous practices and symbols -- some of which had even been introduced into the Temple itself. Then Josiah called upon the people to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to keep Pesach according to all the laws laid out in a book of Torah that had just been discovered (probably Deuteronomy). The people assembled in multitudes to keep such a Pesach as there had not been in all the days of the judges and the kings before.

With the end of the second day of Pesach, the intermediate days of chol hamoed (ordinary part of the festival) begin. In the morning service, only parts of Hallel, the psalms of praise, are chanted (omitting Psalms 115 and 116). We do this because on the seventh day of Pesach the Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea. According to the rabbis, when the angels began to sing for joy, God rebuked them: "Are not these also the work of My hands?" So in accord with God's desire we reduce our joy-so that we should express no pleasure over death, even the death of our enemies.

The obligation to eat no chametz continues through the rest of Pesach. Traditional Jews avoid strenuous or demeaning work during the whole week of Pesach; but cooking or other work for the holidays, and crucial business whose neglect would mean substantial losses, may be carried on. Most Jews now continue at their work during the week, but with a festive air.


On the Shabbos that comes in the middle of Pesach, the tradition teaches that the Song of Songs should be read before the Torah reading. The Song is a flowing set of interwoven love poems, some of them rich in erotic imagery and imagery of springtime. There was an argument among the rabbis over whether it should be preserved as part of the Bible at all -- an argument resolved by Akiba's insistence that "All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.

Why did the rabbis assign the reading of the Song to Pesach?

The traditional rabbinic understanding of the Song is that it is about the love between God and Israel -- a love poem especially appropriate at Pesach, which might be viewed as the onset of the love affair that culminates fifty days later at the Marriage between God and Israel at Sinai.

Rabbinic and Kabbalistic midrash on the Song saw in it many specific metaphorical references to the night of watching, hope, and dread, just before the Exodus from Egypt; to the Exodus itself; and to the sojourn in the wilderness.

The themes of spring and sexuality in the Song go well with Pesach as a festival of spring and birth. Indeed, the Song may be seen as the obverse oif the Plagues – as a description of loving relationship between human beings and the earth, even a reversal of the war between adam and adamah that begins with the mistake of Eden. In the Garden story, human beings who have been offered the great bounty of the earth – on condition that they also exercise self-restraint inn not eating just one portion of the abundance before them – gobbpe ot anyway and are therefore reduced to a battl;e with an earth that produces only tjprns and thistles as they work in the sweate of thewir faces to wring just enough food from the reluctant earth. If Eden is the story of unheeding children come to adolescence – growing but overreaching in the process –then the Song of Songs is the vision of a human race more loving and beloved of each other and the earth -- an Eden for grown-ups.

In the Song, God's name is never mentioned, and the spiritual life is one of flow, spontaneity, openness, and process -- God as Immanent, Ever-present in the world, embodied in relationship. It thus complements the spirituality of the Haggadah, which is based on God as Other and on the rhythm set by clock and calendar. Perhaps both spiritual modes must be experienced and integrated if Messiah is to come -- and if Pesach is to teach toward the Messianic redemption, then Pesach must hold and share both modes of being.

This understanding of the Song and of its role in Pesach has emerged from the teachings of women and men in this past generation -- the first generation of Jewish history (at least since the Matriarchs) in which women as well as men are deeply engaged in the learning and reinterpretation of Torah and in the shaping of the Jewish future. So it may be organically connected with the fact that the Song of Songs itself treats a woman as the leading partner in the loving process, and that some modern scholars think it may well have been the only book of the Bible written by a woman.

The Torah readings for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach are from Exodus 33:12-34:26 and Numbers 28:19-25. The former describes Moses' seeking out and achieving a close and loving knowledge of God's loving-kindness, and hearing as a friend God's pattern of Pesach in the pilgrim festivals. The latter details the burnt-offerings for Pesach.

The haftarah is the extraordinary chapter of Ezekiel 37, in which Ezekiel experiences the valley of dry bones -- the dead and hopeless house of Israel. God promises to breathe life and hope into the bones, to restore full vigor and spirit to the people, and to return them to their land. By placing this passage as a Pesach reading, the rabbis reasserted the connection between the redemption of the past and the redemption of the future.

According to tradition, the seventh day of Pesach is the day on which Pharaoh's chariots overtook the Israelites at the Reed Sea, and were plunged into the sea while Israel marched through it on dry land. In commemoration of the event, the seventh day (and eighth, for non-Reform Jews in the Diaspora) is a full holiday when work is forbidden and the people reassemble for a holy convocation.

The morning service for the seventh day includes a hymn to be sung just before the Amidah -- Yom L'Yabasha. It is by Yehuda Halevi, perhaps the greatest of the Spanish-Jewish poets (twelfth century). It begins by celebrating the salvation of Israel at the Reed Sea, and then looks forward to the future great redemption with the refrain, "Shira chadash shibchu g'eulim, Then a new song sang Your redeemed throng." The Torah portion (from Exodus 13:17-15:26) also focuses on the encounter at the Sea. It includes the song of triumph Miriam, Moses, and the people sang.

The haftarah underlines the theme of victorious song. It is made up of David's chant of triumph at his delivery from danger at the hand of King Saul: "The Lord is my rock and my fortress!"

On the eighth day, the Torah portion is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, if the eighth day is also Shabbos; if not, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 focuses on the command to celebrate Pesach in the context of the other festivals. The haftarah (Isaiah 1.0:32-12:6) again looks to the future:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and young lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them . . . . None shall hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of intimacy with YHWH as the waters fill the sea.

It is on the eighth day that the community remembers its dead in the yizkor service.


After nightfall ends the eighth day of Pesach, there is a havdalah (separation) ceremony -- a truncated version of the havdalah that ends Shabbos. The paragraph before the wine and the blessings of spices and fire are omitted (unless the eighth day is also Shabbos):

Baruch atah YHWH elohenu melech [ruach] ha-olam borey p'ri hagafen.
Blessed Are You, YHWH our God, Ruler [Breathing-Spirit] of space and time, Who creates the fruit of the vine. (Drink the wine.)

Baruch atah YHWH elohenu melech [ruach] ha-olam hamavdil beyn kodesh 1'chol, beyn ohr 1'choshech, beyn Yisrael 1'amim, beyn yom hashvi'i 1'sheshet y'mey hama-aseh. Baruch atah YHWH hamavdil beyn kodesh 1'chol.

Blessed are You, YHWH our God, Ruler [Breathing-Spirit]of space and time, who distinguishes between holy and ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and the other peoples, between the seventh day and the six work days. Blessed are You, Lord Our God, Who distinguishes between holy and ordinary.

In many households, people will then go out together to buy and eat some chametz: ice cream perhaps, or a specially well-baked bread, or beer and pizza.


The custom of a chametz party has been brought to its highest level by the Jews of North Africa, who hold a great celebration called Maimouna on the evening and day after Pesach.

Some have suggested that the day is named for Maimon ben Joseph, the father of Rambam or Maimonides, and that the day was the yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Maimon himself. Not only was his son one of the greatest of the rabbinic commentators and codifiers; Maimon was himself a leading scholar of his generation, lived in the Moroccan city of Fez, and died about 1170. Much of his work focused on Islamic-Jewish relations; it both took Islam seriously as a monotheistic religion, and offered Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam ways of continuing their adherence to Torah. His work was therefore of great significance to Jews living in Muslim countries -- which might help explain the fact and the name of the celebration on his yohrtzeit.

But there is another explanation of Maimouna and its name that seems more plausible in the light of actual relationships between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. The custom grew up centuries ago, and still survives, that on the evening after Pesach ends, when Jews can again eat chametz but have not yet had time to bake bread in their own homes, the Muslim community brings them loaves of bread. And at the end of the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day, Jews bring the Muslim community some food to begin the great Feast of Breaking-the-Fast, Eid–el-Fitr. These gifts between the two communities are given with loving joy.

Maimouna starts with an evening meal of dairy foods symbolic of birth and fertility -- milk, figs, ears of wheat, and pancakes with butter and honey. Often a live fish, swimming in a bowl, is on the table, probably reminding the diners that fish are considered the most fertile of creatures. Alongside the fish bowl is likely to be a bowl of flour in which golden rings are hidden. The chacham (sage) of each local Jewish community dips a sprig of mint in a bowl of milk and sprinkles the milk on the heads of the community's members. There is a great bustle of visiting and sharing foods from one household to another. On the following day there are large picnics at beaches, fields, and cemeteries.

In the light of all this, it may well be that "Maimouna" comes from "maimon," the Hebrew word for "prosperity."

In Israel, Jews of Moroccan background carry on the Maimouna tradition with each other, including a large get-together in Jerusalem. In America, some Jewish and Muslim communities have made Maimouna and the end of Ramadan a time for peaceful visiting to redress the fear and anger that have sometimes beset the two cultures in recent generations.


For centuries or millennia, three major themes have been interwoven in Pesach: the birth of a people into political freedom; the rebirth of the earth into springtime life; and spiritual rebirth of the individual (especially in the symbolism based on removal of chametz). All these, of course, continue to be profoundly important. In our own generation, the Pesach story might also serve as a framework to deal with two new births that embody some elements of all these three. That is the emergence of new forms in the relationships between women and men, and the emergence of newly urgent needs in the realtioinship between human beings and the earth.

There are two main elements of Pesach tradition that might lead us in the direction of new women-men relationships: the story of the first stages of the birth of freedom, in the first four chapters of Exodus; and the Song of Songs. To this generation, the issues of the freedom of women and the place of women in the struggles for universal freedom are important. To such a generation, rereading the first four chapters of Exodus opens up some unexpected possibilities.

Those chapters keep asserting the importance of women and their experience of childbirth as the guide to freedom. First there are the midwives -- who are the first to resist Pharaoh's decree that all the Israelite newborn boys be murdered. They obey God, not Pharaoh -- even though they have never heard God's voice. They do not need to hear the Voice, because they hear it in the cry of each new baby. It is the voice of newness, unpredictability, creativity, the voice of "I will become who I will become," the Name that God's Own Self later adopts at the burning bush.

Even more than mothers, they understood childbirth -- because they had mothered so many births, so many mothers. And from giving birth to children, they learn to give birth to freedom. For the newborn carries at the biological level the same message that freedom carries at the historical-political level: it is possible to start over. It is possible for there to be possibility.

In Exodus, the women keep on teaching the lesson. Pharaoh's daughter and Miriam conspire to save the life of a baby boy by giving him a second birth from the waters of the Nile -- and he grows up to be Moses. But even Moses must receive more education from women before he can become the liberator. His first clumsy efforts at liberation only send him bursting forth from Egypt like tumultuously sown seed. He settles among seven women at a well (a symbol of the womb), marries one of them, has a child -- and only then can meet God at the burning bush and hear the Voice and Name of freedom.

Even this is not enough: On the journey back to Egypt, Moses -- in danger of death -- has to learn from his wife Tzipporah how to fulfill the birth of his son by renewing the covenant of circumcision. Not till then can he take on the task he has been assigned.

So these chapters teach us that women -- and the quintessentially female process, giving birth to children -- were crucial to the Liberation from Egypt. Even the liberation itself, out of Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrrow Place, across the broken waters of the Reed Sea, was a birth, or a conception in the first stages of what became a birth on crossing Jordan. Torah shows us that the process cannot be fulfilled until men are also part of it. But it is the women who first understand the path, because they bring to it something unique in their own life-experience.

During the past generation of struggle over the inclusion of women and other "outsiders" in the fullness of Judaism, one major innovation in the practice of the Seder itself has come to symbolize this struggle" placing and explaining an orange on the Seder Plate. One way of affirming this new element has been to affirm a new text that goes with it, explaining the presence of the Orange as well as unfolding its meaning in a new understanding of God, Torah, and the People Israel. The text follows the pattern of explanation for other items on the Seder Plate, such as the Bitter Herb:

The Orange on the Seder Plate

[Add an orange to the traditional items on the Seder plate. Then invite someone to ask “one more question,” "Why Is There an Orange on the Seder Plate?" and tell the following story in response:]

In our own day as in the ancient days of our tradition, an event becomes a story, a story is woven with new legends, and the legends lead the path into new teachings. So it is with the orange on the Seder plate.

To begin with, a woman in the far-flung American Diaspora asked a rebbetzin of the old tradition:
"What is the place of lesbians in Jewish life?"

She answered, "Lesbian sexuality in Jewish tradition is as troublesome as eating bread during Pesach!"

So the custom spread among some lesbian Jews to place a piece of bread upon the Seder table.

When another of our sisters heard the story, she said:

“Bread on the Seder plate would shatter the tradition. The presence and the teaching of gay men and lesbians in Jewish life transforms the tradition, but does not shatter it. So let us place on the Seder plate not bread but an orange -- transformation, not transgression.”

So ever since that day, we place an orange on the Seder plate, for it belongs there as a symbol of growth and transformation.

[Another Voice:] As the story grew and its telling was retold, new legends and teachings grew from its trunk and branches. Some taught that the challenge had been not about gay men and lesbians alone, but also to the place of all women in Judaism: According to their telling, a rabbi had said, "A woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange on the Seder plate!" So in many homes, the orange on the Seder plate became a symbol of the place of women in the future of Judaism.

[Another Voice:] Why an orange? Because the orange carries within itself the seeds of its own rebirth. When we went forth from the Narrow Place, Mitzraiim, the Jewish people passed through a narrow birth canal and broke the waters of the Red Sea, and so was born into the world. The wisdom of women who were midwives made that birth possible.

In our generation, the Jewish people is again giving birth to itself. For the first time, women are sharing equally with men in bringing this new birth to its fruition. For the first time, gay men and lesbians have themselves come out of the Narrow Closed-in closet to share in shaping the future of Judaism. So we must for the first time bring to the Seder plate a fruit that carries, within, the seeds of its own rebirth.

[Another Voice:] Still others add: Every symbol on the Seder plate speaks to us of the Divine Unfoldings, the S’phirot. The tenth of the Unfoldings, the S’phirah of Malkhut or Majesty, is the gathering-together of all the Divine energies, and that S’phirah is symbolized in the human body by the Womb, in which each human life is gathered into wholeness on the verge of entering the world.

Until now, none of the objects on the Seder plate has symbolized Malkhut: the plate itself has been Malkhut. Malkhut has been the unseen Ground of Being, not the figure on the Ground -- as women and gay people have been the unseen background upon which all visible history has happened. But tonight we make visible the Gathering-place, Malkhut; tonight we place upon the field of being the orange that is a visible echo of the Seder plate.

[Voices Together:] Tonight all the excluded of our people -- lesbians and gay men, women and converts, take their full and rightful place in shaping the future of our people. Tonight, rebirth and Malkhut emerge from invisibility to take their place before the eyes of our reborn people. Tonight we place the Orange on the Seder plate.

Plagues and Blessings of the Earth

In the generation of human and earth history that most sounds forth the shofar-blast of alarm for the survival of the web of life upon our planet, the Ten Plagues of the Exodus story and the Seder service have taken on new power In much of rabbinic convention, they were looked on as the miraculous intervention of a Monarchical God acting from on high to demonstrate His [sic] power over the false god Pharaoh. But there is now growing a sense that these plagues – all of which were ecological disasters – resulted from the stubborn arrogance of a hard-hearted Pharaoh.

Why were there upheavals of the earth in response to Pharaoh's oppression of human beings? Because, in this interpretation, the Unity of all life, adam and adamah, human earthling and earthy "humus," was expressed by YHWH, the Interbreathing that unites all life. (Try pronouncing 'YHWH" without any vowels, and for many people what emerges is the sound of breath or wind – ruach in Hebrew.)

And in this earthier, more immanent understanding of God and Exodus, Pharaoh's hard-heartedness is also understood as an expression of God's process within human beings. As the story of the plagues begins, Pharaoh hardens his own heart against the suffering of Israelite slaves and the outcry to let them go free. As the story continues, God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Is this, like the Plagues, an intervention from "Above"? Or is it the result of an addictive process in which Pharaoh hardens his own heart so often and so thoroughly that finally the addiction takes over; God (that is to say, Reality) takes over; and he can no longer free himself from his addiction to power. Even when his own advisers call out to him that he is ruining his own realm, Egypt itself, he cannot stop. And even after the Night of the First-borns' Death, when he has in despair ordered the Israelites to leave, he wakes in the morning gripped by his addiction and leads his army to pursue them – and to drown.

Seders of the Many Nations

The Freedom Seder of 1969 succeeded in opening the story of liberation to peoples other than the Jews. Since then, many interfaith groups have written Haggadahs focused on their shared experience of liberation. Among the experiences included in this way have been the liberation struggles of Black Americans, Vietnamese, Tibetans, Native Americans, and various other peoples of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Some have chosen another way of joining in interfaith celebration of the Seder: bringing into the Seder passages from Christian and Muslim tradition that bear on the original Exodus story. For exampole, this might include reading from the Christian Gospels the story of Palm Sunday as a demonstration by Jews against the Roman Empire, led by a radical rabbi from the Galilee -- Jesus -- and aimed precisely for the time of Passover with its echo of the overthrow of imperial Pharaoh. Many chapters of the Quran retell the story of Moses, whom islam considers a Prophet, and of the Exodus. in our generation, it could be a healing act to include some of these Quranic passages in the Seder -- for instance, the Chapter of al-Qasas (the Stories) (28.2-46) or the Chapter of TaHa (20.9-97)

One special case of the "many nations" has brought forth a unique response: an effort to turn Passover and its Seder into a moment of addressing the tight and narrow space of the Hundred Years War between the Jewish community in the Land of Israel – what became the State of Israel – and the Palestinian people in the Land of Falastin – the same land. Some communities have drawn on the symbols and practices of the Seder but in a major departure from traditional practice, have rooted the celebration of a Pesach Seder not in the Exodus but in the conflict and reconciliation between the two families of Abraham as seen in biblical tradition: Sarah and Isaac in relationship to Hagar and Ishmael. Turning to this story permits treating both families in the past and both peoples today as worthy heirs of Abraham, rather than treating either the Israelis or the Palestinians of today as Pharaoh and the other as the slaves in the Exodus story. Yet many of the Seder symbols remain powerful – the bitter herb of this violence, the broken matzah that may betoken the division of the Land between the two peoples, etc.

Seders of Personal Liberation

One result of this flowering of the haggadah to address the diverse experiences of the many Seder-partners has been the invention of ceremonial space for individual expression. One of the most successful of these forms has been the "Freedom Plate," proposed by Martha Hausman: that a special plate be set aside next to the traditional Seder plate, on which could be placed physical objects brought by every participant in the Seder as a symbol of her/ his liberation THIS YEAR from Mitzrayyim.

Mature learned Jews, children, and people who have never before attended a Seder can all relate to this, and the stories about the objects on the Freedom Plate become a very powerful part of the Seder. Indeed, for some celebrants the freedom Plate and the telling of its stories have become practically the wholer "haggadah" for the Second Seder.

Alternatively, within the traditional structure of the Seder one might use either the passage “In every generation one rises up against us to destroy us” or “In very generation every human being must look upon her/himself as if we ourselves, not our ancestors only, come forth from slavery” as times to raise up the Freedom Plate and hear its stories.

These two references in the traditional haggadah to "Every generation" are perhaps the most basic teaching toward the exploration of new texts,, new approaches, new ceremonies in the celebration of the Seder and of all Pesach. Just as profound changes in the lives of ancient Israelites transformed the spring festivals of shepherds and barley-farmers into a spring festival of liberation, and just as the Roman conquest brought about the transformation of Pesach from Temple offerings to Seders in the home, so we may be experiencing transformations so profound as to call forth new approaches to the Festival of Freedom.


Perhaps the most thoroughly explored of all the aspects of Jewish food is that of how to cook for Pesach. In addition to some traditional recipes, we are making some available in one unexplored area. In the last decade the number of Jews who are vegetarians has grown considerably-and vegetarians who want to keep kosher for Pesach and who adhere to the special Ashkenazic prohibition on rice, peas, and beans find themselves in an unusually difficult position. Where do you find protein if meat, fish, and most of the grains and lentils can't be used?

Rose Sue Berstein, an Ashkenazic vegetarian who is a member of the chavurah-style group Fabrangen in Washington, DC, has collected a number of recipes for foods that are high in protein, low in cholesterol and calories, and fulfill both Jewish and vegetarian obligations.


For each two servings, use 1 medium (approx. 1 lb.) eggplant, 1 small green pepper, 1 medium onion, fr-8 large mushrooms and 4 oz. Kosher-for-Passover Cheddar cheese, grated. Slice eggplant lengthwise. Carefully scoop out inside, leaving shells intact. Chop into small cubes. Saute-using as little oil as possible-eggplant with sliced green pepper, onion and mushrooms until soft. Season with basil and ground black pepper. Fill eggplant cavities with this mixture, place in oiled baking dish and bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Then top each eggplant half with grated cheese and return to oven until cheese melts, about 10 minutes.


Use approx. 1 1/z lbs. zucchini, sliced in '/4 inch rounds. Saute the zucchini with 1 sliced onion, then pass through food mill or puree in blender, but reserve several slices for garnishing. Stir pureed zucchini into 4 cups milk over low heat. When thoroughly blended continue cooking over medium heat, for about 15 minutes, but do not bring to boil. Season to taste with salt, pepper and chives. Garnish with remaining zucchini slices. Can be served hot or cold; if served cold, add a spoonful of yoghurt or sour cream.


For four green peppers use 8 oz. farmer cheese, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons chopped green onions, 1 teaspoon rosemary, salt and pepper as desired. Hollow out peppers, and fill with cheese mix. Then sprinkle grated cheddar cheese on top of each one, (use 2-3 oz. altogether) and top with sliced almonds. Place in oiled baking dish and bake at 350° approx. 30 minutes.

1 1/z lbs. brussels sprouts 5 medium tomatoes
1 medium onion 1 cup grated cheddar (can substitute)
butter cheese

Saute sliced onion in butter until transparent. Scald, peel and slice tomatoes. Arrange brussels sprouts in casserole with onions and tomatoes. Add up to 1/z cup water, then cover and bake at 325° for 45 minutes. When brussels sprouts are tender, sprinkle with grated cheese and place under broiler to brown. 4 servings.


1 red cabbage 1/z teaspoon salt
1 medium onion 1 tsp. cinnamon
1/s cup lemon juice (opt. 6 caraway seeds, 6 cloves, 4
1/4 cup honey whole allspice, 2 bay leaves)
2 apples 3 tablespoons oil or margarine
handful raisins 1/z cup water

Gently saute sliced onion in oil, then add water, lemon juice, honey, and flavorings. Mix well, then add finely sliced or grated cabbage. Cover and cook over medium heat about 15 minutes, then add sliced apples and raisins. Continue to simmer about 10 minutes longer. Tart apples work best, and if you wish, you can tie the spices in cheesecloth for easy removal. 6 servings.


2 large leeks I1/z cup milk
4 tablespoons butter salt
1 large potato pepper

Wash leeks well, slice, and saute in butter, but don't brown them. Peel and slice the potato very finely, add to the leeks and cook very slowly, stirring gently until soft. Add milk, salt and pepper. Force through a sieve, return to saucepan and serve warm. 4 servings.


1 cooked cauliflower 2 tablespoons butter
3 cooked and cubed potatoes 11/z teaspoons salt
4 cups milk '/a cup minced onion

Heat milk in a large saucepan, add water in which you cooked the vegetables, stir in butter and salt. Sieve cauliflower and potatoes in small quantities and return to saucepan when smooth enough for your taste. (If you can use a blender this is much easier-be sure to put enough liquid in with each batch of vegetables). Simmer while you add the onion. Optional vegetables for additions include diced celery, carrots, fresh chives, and/or parsley. 2 quarts.

Some more traditional Pesach recipes, from Hannah Waskow and Rose Gertz, my mother and grandmother, may their memories continue to be a blessing to me and to the world:


''/z cup matzah meal 3/a cup cold water
3/a teaspoon salt 3 eggs
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine matzah meal, salt, and sugar. Separate the eggs. Beat yolks slightly and combine with the water. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients. Allow to stand for 1/2 hour. (May be mixed this far the night before and kept in the refrigerator to save time the next morning.) Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the matzah meal mixture. Drop by tablespoon onto a hot, well, greased frying pan or griddle and brown on both sides. Makes 10 to 12 latkes. Serve with cinnamon and sugar, sour cream, apple sauce, or syrup.


2 tablespoons fat 1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs slightly beaten 2 tablespoons soup stock or water
1/2 cup matzah meal

Mix fat and eggs together. Add matzah meal and salt which were first mixed together. When well blended, add soup stock or water. Cover mixing bowl and place in refrigerator for at least twenty minutes. (May be refrigerated until convenient to cook.) Using a two or three quart pot, bring salted water to a brisk boil. Reduce flame and into the slightly bubbling water drop balls formed from above mixture. (About the size of walnuts.) Cover pot and cook 40--60 minutes. Cut one matzah ball in half. If center is solid, return to pot and cook an additional 10 minutes. Have soup at room temperature, or warmer, and remove matzah balls from water to soup pot. When ready to serve allow soup to simmer for a few minutes. Will make eight to twelve balls. Packing these balls in 4's or 5's they may be frozen. To thaw, heat in small amount of boiling water and then transfer to soup. Very good in pea soup or noodle soup during the year. This recipe may be doubled with slight decrease in salt.


1 cup water 1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup chicken or vegetable fat or 4 eggs
margarine '/a teaspoon salt
1 cup matzah meal (full)

Bring to a boil fat, water, sugar, and salt. Then stir in matzah meal, boil a second more, and remove from fire. Mix thoroughly, and when cooled a little, beat in eggs one at a time. Grease or wet hands and roll dough into balls of about 2 inches diameter. Place on greased sheet, then dip forefinger in water and press a hole in center of each ball or omit and use as rolls. Bake at 425° for 20 minutes and at 375° for 25 minutes. They should sound hollow. Let cool in stove with door ajar.


7 eggs juice of lemon
1'/z cups sugar-sifted 1 cup (light) potato
Grated rind of 1 lemon starch, sifted twice
dash of salt

Separate 6 eggs. Beat 6 yolks and one whole egg together with rotary egg beater until frothy. Gradually add 1 cup of sifted sugar, lemon juice, and grated lemon rind until thick and well mixed. Beat the 6 egg whites until stiff and add the rest of the sugar gradually. Mix potato starch and salt and add to egg yolk mixture. Fold in beaten egg whites. Finely cut nuts may be added to batter or sprinkled on top.

Pour mixture into ungreased 10 inch tube pan. Bake 350° 45-50 minutes. Turn over on funnel until cold. Remove from pan by sliding a knife gently up and down between cake and pan to loosen.


3 cups mashed potatoes (regular or instant) 1 beaten egg 1/z teaspoon salt 5 tablespoons fat (chicken or margarine or combination)

Enough hot water (about 1/z cup) to make a loose mixture. Add matzah meal to make a dough that can be shaped into biscuit-like form. (Wet hands before handling dough.)

If gribenes (cracklings resulting from rendering chicken fat) are available, use. If not, sautee a large onion 1/2 lb. ground meat
garlic clove Ya lb. liver (chicken or beef)
Grind gribenes and meat mixture (or sauteed onion and meat). Add:

beaten egg t/z cup mashed potatoes
salt dash of oregano
pepper pinch of sugar
parsley flakes

Taste. May need a little more fat. Should have a smooth, velvety wellseasoned taste. Wet hands, form patty of potato dough, hollow center, insert a walnut-size piece of meat mixture and form dough over meat. Put on greased pan 2 inches apart. Lightly grease top. Bake about '/z hr., 400° or until light brown and crusty. Any left over filling may be frozen. Will make 12-15 knishes, depending on size.

2 cups fat and skin of chicken, duck or goose cut into small pieces. Melt in large heavy saucepan over medium low heat until almost completely rendered. Add 1 large diced onion and cook until onion is golden brown. (When adding onion be careful because the fat boils up and may catch on fire.) Cool and strain. Refrigerate fat. Freeze gribenes for later use.

Finally, the most delicious dessert for Pesach (or any other time) I have ever tasted: By Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman (my wife), a flour-less chocolate cake that both obeys all the rules of Pesach and carries in its very being the neo-rabbinical teaching that chocolate is the only objective proof of the existence of God. Rabbi Berman reports that she tried eight different recipes for chocolate cake for the eight nights of Pesach, and this one emerged the People's Free Choice:

Chocolate Glaze

3 ounces semisweet chocolate
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate or cocoa The Passover Haggadah (Schocken); Michael Strassfeld, A Passover Haggadah (Rabbinical Assembly); Central Conference of American Rabbis, with Leonard Baskin, A Passover Haggadah (CCAR); Haggadah for a Secular Celebration of Pesach (Sholom Aleichem Club of Philadelphia, 443 E. Wadsworth Ave., Philadelphia, PA); Pesach Haggada (Hashomer Hatzair, available through Americans for Progressive Israel, NYC); Haggadah for a Crocus Festival (Martin Buber Institute, Sebastopol, CA); Aviva Cantor, ed., A Jewish Women's Haggada, available from Lilith Magazine, NYC; my own The Freedom Seder (2d ed., Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970); The Shalom Seders, compiled by New Jewish Agenda (Adama Books, New York, 1984), three unconventional Haggadot (one by me) focused on peacemaking; Roberta Kalechofsky, Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, to affirm Jewish vegetarianism and to use for a vegetarian Seder (Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945); and a videotaped Seder, called "In This Generation," for which I wrote the script, with special appearances by Carl Sagan and Elie Wiesel, dealing with ethical responsibilities in the nuclear age (The Shalom Center, 1987).

In the years since 1990, I have written the Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah (click here ); and the New Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth (on-line here .

For a double DVD of the filmed actual observances of the original Freedom Seder of 1969 and the 40th anniversary Interfaith Seder for the Earth, click here.

For an array of many essays on Pesach, click here.

See also two extraordinary and transformative translations of The Song of Songs –- one by Marcia Falk, the other by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch; the translation and reinterpretation of the Song in Rabbi Shefa Gold's In the Fever of Love and her chants from the Song in her CD Shir Delight; and my own chapters on the Song in my books Godwrestling (1978) , Godwrestling – Round 2 (1996), and in The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (Danya Ruttenberg, editor).

And finally, see two stories by Phyllis O. Berman and me in the book called Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World(Rowman & Littlefield). One is called "The Long Narrow Pharaoh and the Pass-Over People"; the other, "The Seven Who Danced into Paradise" (on the origins of the Song of Songs).
[As I noted at the beginning of this post, this essay is a considerable revised version of the chapter on Pesach in my book Seasons of Our Joy, originally published in 1982 and most re ently revised in 1990. It includes papercuts by Martin Farren and Joan Benjamin Farren and recipes by Hannah Waskow, Rose Gertz, and Rose Sue Berstein. It was praised then by feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Gordon Tucker, then Dean of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary.

[In the years since, the book has often been called a classic, and has deeply influenced most writing about and practice of the Jewish festivals since it was published. Though all of it needs revision in the light of the creative renewal of Jewish ceremony in the last decades, people I meet "on the road" tell me its approach to the history, the spiritual meaning, and the actual practice of the festivals remains very helpful to them. Many members of other spiritual and religious communities have also told me it has enlightened them a great deal about Judaism as a whole –- not only the festival cycle.

Shalom Center members and subscribers can order the book from Beacon at a 10% discount with free shipping: Click here, add Seasons to your shopping cart, and when you are asked for a discount code type in "tent" (without quote marks). That will get you the discount and free shipping.

[I welcome comments and suggestions, either directly to me at or in the comments section below. –- Shalom, AW]]

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Cash for Carbon: New Climate-Crisis Bill

On February 1, 2010, I invested a very useful hour of my time in a national telephone conference call learning the Torah of a new bill to prevent climate disaster that has been nicknamed "cap-and-dividend" -- a bill introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (Dem, WA) and Susan Collins (Rep, Maine) that is very different from the present "cap-and0-trade" bills. .

The Cantwell-Collins bill, formally known as the Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal (CLEAR) act, would restrict trading in a new carbon market to carbon producers, about 500 companies in the US – not the myriad of carbon-user companies like electric utilities that would have been covered by cap-and-trade bills and under them would have had to keep emissions records, would trade in emissions permits, etc.

Producers would bid in monthly auctions for “carbon shares.” The seller would be the government of the United States. The resulting revenue generated by the auctions would be used for two vital functions:

• 75 percent would be refunded in equal amounts to every individual residing legally in the United States.
This dividend (about $1100 per person per year) would more than compensate most households for the increase in carbon-based fuel prices that producers would pass on to consumers. This is why I call it "Cash for Carbon."

Only those whose multiple big houses, SUV's, etc, eat up large amounts of carbon, would pay more in higher energy prices than the $1100 dividend. All dividend recipients would have a strong incentive to reduce their fossil-fuel use in order to increase their benefit from the dividend. They would make up a new strong market for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The remaining 25 percent of the auction income would not go onto the general Federal budget but would be devoted to clean energy research and development, regionally-specific assistance for communities and workers transitioning to a clean energy economy, energy efficiency programs, and reductions in non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

The Cantwell-Collins bill also differs from existing cap-and-trade bills in other key ways:

Since only the limited number of carbon-producing companies could take part in the auction and trade in the resulting "carbon shares," banks like Goldman Sachs would not be able to seek new profits in the giant secondary trading market in "derivatives" that would be created under economy-wide cap-and-trade.

All credits would be sold at an auction. (The cap-and-trade bills Congress has considered would distribute emissions allowances for free during the initial phase of the program.)

The Cantwell-Collins bill also does not allow companies it would regulate to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in programs that allegedly would reduce carbon elsewhere or remove it from the atmosphere, efforts that are known as offsets. (Most of the environmentalist community has been extremely skeptical about the “offsets” that could be claimed by big corporations against their [over]use of fossil fuels, on grounds that the worth of offsets, how real they are, etc, is extremely sloppy.)

Instead, offsets would be encouraged by the 25% government fund on top of, rather than instead of, carbon reductions achieved by the cap system.

The goal of the Cantwell-Collins measure is to cut U.S. emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

Evaluations of the CLEAR Act:

On the conference call of environmental activists to discuss the bill, one of the three panelists was Mike Tidwell of Chesapeake Climate Action, a strongly progressive group that has been deeply concerned by the cap-and-trade bills benefits to Wall Street derivative marketers like Goldman Sachs that could make the cap-and-trade derivatives into the same kind of destructive market they created from home mortgages, and the benefits to Big Coal that won major loopholes from cap-and-trade.

Tidwell urged strong support for CLEAR. He acknowledged that the target emissions ceilings of CLEAR are (like those in the cap-and-trade bills) way too low to meet the scientific call to swiftly return to a ceiling of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, but he argued that more stringent caps were not politically possible at this point. Once a mass public constituency is created through the monthly cash "dividends," he argued, pressure to limit CO2 more strongly would increase. Cap-and-trade does not build such a constituency.

Charles Komanoff, director of the Carbon Tax Center, who has argued that cap-and-trade is far too opaque and too likely to benefit chiefly big corporations, took part in the call and said that while he still preferred a straight-out carbon tax, he saw the "cap-and-dividend" model as a great step forward from cap-and-trade.

A staffer from Oxfam noted concern that the bill did not mandate grants to poverty-stricken nations to pursue a non-fossil development path. One of the panelists pointed out that part of the "25% fund" could be used this way, probably depending on foreign-policy decisions by a President about how to advance the global climate-healing effort. (Thus it could have been used at Copenhagen to bring into a global agreement many nations that could not afford to pursue a non-fossil path.) But achieving the reduction of CO2 emissions targeted by the CLEAR bill depends a great deal on using the "25% fund" to bring renewable technologies on line, and devoting part of that fund to other uses will weaken the emissions targets.

For many religious groups, therefore, including The Shalom Center, the unmandated possibility is weak, and it would be important to press for a mandated set-aside not only to aid poor countries sidestep the fossil-fuel path in development, but also to meet the emergency needs of some nations already caught in climate-caused droughts, ocean rises, etc.

For me, the Cantwell-Collins bill is indeed a major advance over the cap-and-trade bills that, as I have said over and over, would be a big step up from zero Federal action, but bore very serious problems. I urged support for them on the theory that once passed, they would break the frozen barrier -- just as early and very weak civil-rights bill had done while I was working on Capitol Hill, setting the stage for much stronger laws.

But those cap-and-trade bills have already become paralyzed, and most Washington observers think the Senate cannot pass the bill that came out of committee, even with very lukewarm support from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman.

Whether the CLEAR Act can do better is an open question. It has less appeal to Wall Street and more to ordinary folks than cap-and-trade. It is much easier to explain – I stumbled every time I tried to describe cap-and-trade, but have felt I could make sense of this, to myself and others.

It is not yet clear whether ANY climate bill can pass the present Congress. Some have urged shifting our attention to cities where change seems more likely. -- But CLEAR makes sense, and it could start a virtuous circle -- building its own support by providing touchable and faithful rewards at every step.

With blessings of healing for the earth & ourselves –



The AVATAR film & Tu B'Shvat: the ReBirthDay of trees & The Tree

Dear fellow-seekers for peace and healing of the earth,

[Bottom line for this letter: I urge that multireligious groups together see the new film Avatar this month; learn with me by teleconference seminar on Thursday evening January 21 the connections between this film and the meaning of the festival of Tu B'Shvat that celebrates the ReBirthDay of the Tree of Life; and then gather January 29 to eat together the sacred meal of Tu B'Shvat. Why? See the unfolding below. -- AW]

The film AVATAR is an obvious metaphor for the European-USA destruction of Native America and Africa; for the corporate destruction of the Amazon forest and its tribal human eco-partners; for the US destruction of much of Iraq and parts of Afghanistan.

For the indigenous peoples of the film's quasi-planetary moon Pandora, the most sacred places are ancient living trees that embody the life force of the planet. So for me, the film spoke powerfully in the tongue of Tu B'Shvat, the festival of the Trees' ReBirthDay.

AVATAR is extraordinary. -- Not only for the superficial but powerful technology of the filming/ viewing, 3D and FX, but most of all for its spiritually rooted progressive politics.

See it!

See it in the spirit of its watchword: "I see you." For Pandora's people, these words express what in Hebrew is "yodea," interactive "knowing" that is emotional, intellectual, physical/ sexual, and spiritual all at one – what "grok" is in the English borrowing from High Martian, channeled by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land.

In the film, the indigenous people of Pandora – the Na'vi – [in Hebrew, this would mean "prophet"] stand in the way of an Earthian techno-conquistador corporation that is hungry to gobble up a rare mineral crucial to an Earth that the human race, or at least its corporations and governments, have desolated.

The Na'vi worship/ celebrate a biological unity of their planet and all its life-forms -- Eywa -- especially focused on great trees that are the most sacred centers of their lives. These great trees embody Eywa, the Great Mother – but S/He is more than even these trees, S/He is all life. Spirit incarnate. (Notice that "Eywa" can be heard as "Yahweh" (sometimes misdescribed as the Hebrew Name of God) turned inside-out.)

Just as AVATAR began appearing in theaters, we began approaching the ecological-mystical festival of Tu B'Shvat. It intertwines celebration of the midwinter rebirth of trees and the rebirth of the Great Tree of Life Itself, God, Whose roots are in heaven and whose fruit is our world. Tu B'Shvat comes on the 15th day (the full moon) of the midwinter Jewish lunar month of Sh'vat. This year, that falls from Friday evening January 29, till Saturday evening, January 30. Its observance was shaped by Jewish mystics –- Kabbalists -– 500 years ago, but the breadth and depth of its sense of God can embrace all religious and spiritual communities -- not Jews alone.

Out of winter, out of seeming death, out of seeds that sank into the earth three months before, the juice of life begins to rise again. Begins invisibly, to sprout in spring.

This is a social and political reality, as well as a biological one. Beneath the official deadly failures of the Copenhagen conference that was supposed to reinvigorate the world's effort to face the climate crisis, the seeds of rebirth were growing. They were growing in the grass-roots activists who will not let our earth die so easily at the hands of Oil and Coal and governmental arrogance as the Crusher tanks and rocket-planes and the robotic Marine generals and corporate exploiters of AVATAR would like to kill Pandora and its God/dess Eywa.

I urge that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, those who celebrate Manitou/ GreatSpirit in the varied forms of Native practice, join for Tu B'Shvat to celebrate the Sacred Forests of our planet.

I urge that we reach across our boundaries and barricades to celebrate the trees that breathe us into life. The forests that absorb the carbon dioxide that humans are over-producing, the forests that breathe out life-giving oxygen for ourselves and all the other animals to breathe in.

For us, Eywa is YyyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, "pronounceable" only by breathing, the Interbreathing of all life, Great Mother/Father/ Creator of our planet Whose breath, Whose very Name, what we call "climate" or "atmosphere," is being choked and scorched by corporate rapacity and governmental arrogance.

I urge that we begin by going , anytime from now till January 29, in interfaith, multireligious groups to see AVATAR and then -- discuss its meaning in our lives. It is the discussion afterward that will make "seeing" the film into the profound "seeing" God, life, and each other that the film itself calls for. And then I suggest we gather on the evening of January 29 to celebrate the sacred meal of Tu B'Shvat together.

What's to discuss?

1) AVATAR teaches that the war against peoples and the war against the earth are the same war, being incited and fought by the same Crusher institutions. If we agree with this, how do we bring together the so-far separate struggles to end the two kinds of war? If we don't agree, how do we see the relationship? Why does the Torah command that even in wartime, we must not destroy the enemy's fruit trees? (The US Army did precisely this to the forests of Vietnam; the Israeli Army has done this to Palestinian olive trees; in AVATAR, the invading Earthians do precisely this to the sacred trees of the Na'vi. Why?)

2) AVATAR teaches that in the struggle to heal our world, birds and animals and trees and grasses can become our active allies if we "see" them as part of ourselves, part of our Beloved Community. Is there a way to make this true for us?

3) Some knee-jerk leftists have criticized the heroism of Jake Sully as merely another racist case of a "white male Marine" becoming savior of the exploited community. Indeed, some conservatives have stolen that rhetoric to discredit a widely celebrated film that clearly threatens to undermine the corporate-military-conservative alliance. But there are two mistakes in this rhetoric:

First, it is not Sully who leads the Na'vi; it is his Avatar who joins the resistance, a blueskin transformed from his life as a Marine, just as Moses the Egyptian prince remakes himself into a leader of the Israelite slave revolt .

More important, it is Eywa Herself, acting through the plants, birds, animals of Pandora, Who saves all life from depredation. The story echoes the biblical story of Exodus, in which Moses may be a spokesperson but it is the locusts, the rivers, the frogs, the hailstorms – what we call the Ten Plagues, the earth itself rising up as an expression of God's Will to topple Pharaoh -- that triumphs. It is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh's very breath, becoming the Holy Wind that splits the Red Sea, that drowns Pharaoh's army.

What do we make of these stories? Can the Earth, God/dess Incarnate, defend Herself? What role do humans play?

3. AVATAR describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na'vi and instead join the Na'vi resistance. They become – let's not mince words – traitors. Or rather, they transform themselves into the Avatars that actually become Na'vi, loyal not to oppressive Crushers but to the web of life. What do we Americans, we Westerners -- who have already done so much to crush the life from many parts of our planet and threaten to destroy the rest by choking its Breath, its Climate -- what do we make of that? What do we owe the indigenes of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Nigeria, Burma?

4. In the climax of the film , it is not only the invading Marines in their Crusher machines who use extreme violence. The Na'vi and Eywa's life-forms use violence too, to defend themselves. There is barely a hint of any attempt to use nonviolent resistance in the mode of King or Gandhi to defend Pandora. Can we imagine an alternative? Why did the film not present one?

Talking together may help us "see" each other; eating together may help even more. On January 29, what's to eat? A sacred meal, a Seder with four courses of nuts and fruit and four cups of wine. Foods that require the death of no living being, not even a carrot or a radish that dies when its roots are plucked from the earth. For the Trees of Life give forth their nuts and fruit in such profusion that to eat them kills no being. The sacred meal of the Tree Reborn is itself a meal of life.

And the four cups of wine are: all-white; white with a drop of red; red with a drop of white; and all-red: the union of white semen and red blood that the ancients thought were the start of procreation. And the progression from pale winter to the colorful fruitfulness of fall also betokens the growing-forth of life. The theme of Fours embodies the Four Worlds of Kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Intellect, Spirit.

There is much more to learn about this moment that so richly intertwines the mystical, the ecological, and the political. I helped bring together the Tu B'Shvat Anthology called Trees, Earth, & Torah (available in paperback from the Jewish Publication Society at 1.800.234.3151) that traces the festival through all its own flowering across 4,000 years of history.

On the evening of Thursday, January 21, I will lead a teleconference seminar on the meanings of Tu B'Shvat All are welcome. To take part, please click here.
I look forward to speaking with you, "seeing" you.

In the Comments section below, please share your thoughts about AVATAR, sacred trees, Tu B'Shvat, violence/ nonviolence, and corporate/ military behavior!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih – peace. -- Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Torah Portions: 


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Iran: the profound past becomes a volcanic present

What is happening in Iran today is the coming to life on an enormous landscape of an historical event of the past that has become legendary in Muslim – especially Shia – memory.

I have a small taste of what that means from my own experience of Passover in 1968, shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King, when Black Washington rose in rebellion and the US Army occupied the city. My experience of that upheaval was that Passover had risen from the ancient past into the volcanic present. I was not alone in that generation of questing, questioning Jews to sense that coalescence of past / present / future. Out of it came the Freedom Seder and the liberation of the haggadah to deal with many aspects of liberation, not only the ancient Israelite deliverance from Pharaoh..

Or think about Passover of 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto, when on April 19, the eve of Passover, the Nazi forces tried to smash the Ghetto and were met with fierce resistance. Again, the ancient past and the volcanic present met.

When this happens, both "politics" and "religion" are apt to melt into a new shape, either far more repressive or far freer. If we pay wise attention, we may get a deeper sense of what both those realms really are at their most intense. Those of every faith might wisely reexamine the deepest meanings of "ritual" in our own traditions.

The same thing is happening now in Iran in relation to the holy day of Ashura.

(The word means "tenth," as its cognate "Aseret" does in Hebrew. It is the tenth day of the lunar month of Muharram.)

Muslims consider Muharam, the lunar month in which we are now living, the "New Year" month, connected with the renewal of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as he left Mecca under pressure from its power elite and resettled in Medina, where his teachings flourished into the success of Islam.

Accordig to hadith (reports of Muhammad's life), he learned from some of the Jews of Arabia that the tenth day of the Jewish "new year" month, Yom Kippur, was a day of fasting –- some said, instituted by Musa Nebi (the Prophet Moses) as a celebration of liberation from slavery to Pharaoh. Muhammad is said to have remarked that he too could affirm this day.

So in accord with Muhammad's decision, many Sunni Muslims have fasted on Ashura, in celebration of the liberation of the people of Moses .

For the Shia community, Ashura became a formative and central sacred time, imbued with deep grief rather than celebration. On and around that day, in and after the battle of Karbala (in what is now Iraq), the caliph Yazid ordered the deaths of Muhammad's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, and a little later the surviving members of Muhammad's family. The Shia Muslim community grew from and into an intense belief that Ali, Muhammad's son, and then Hussein had been Muhammad's legitimate heirs, destroyed by a tyrant. The desire for social justice, held by all Muslims to be part of Islam's central teaching, became a burning passion for the Shia.

Ashura itself became a day of grief-stricken pilgrimages to Hussein's grave in Karbala. And the whole month of Muharam became a time for refraining from violence –- even suspending military operations in time of war. This tradition became so strong that even the last Shah of Iran, facing revolutionary street demonstrations, restrained his security forces during Muharam.

And now we come to the volcano of this past week. One of the great religious teachers of Shia islam, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, died just in time to fit ionto the legendry of Ashura. Montazeri was originally expected to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of Iran; but he became more and more critical of the overbearing behavior and power of the clergy as against what he saw as a decent balance of democratic and clerical decision-making. So he had been treated by the prenet Iranian leadership as an outcast. so his role as well as his death fit into Ashura.

Demonstrations against the government that probably would have been Ashura-intensified anyway took on even greater passion in mourning for Montazeri. And now the government has violated the holiness of the day by killing demonstrators, thereby angering even some traditional religious folk.

When a society is heated to this high temperature both politically and religiously, I would expect profound change in both realms. I expect that for this generation of Shia Muslims, and perhaps for many Sunnis as well, Ashura will never be the same again.

And just as the Exodus story has spoken powerfully to many communities that are not Jewish, perhaps Ashura will begin to speak to non-Muslims as well.

Franz Kafka once wrote a very short story, approximately thus: "One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had been made part of the liturgy."

The leopard of the Karbala massacre that had been ritualized and tamed into Ashura is out of the cage again. God is out of the cage. Expect volcanoes.

A final note on US policy: The push for sanctions against Iran that will bear most heavily on the public rather than the rulers –- like the bill now before Congress to try to prevent sales of gasoline to Iran and thereby raise its price there enormously – seems to me likely, if they work, to blunt the anti-governmental anger of the opposition and redefine the US as the enemy. Some policy-makers keep thinking that if a powerful state imposes sanctions on a weaker one, the people of the weaker society, as their suffering increases, will turn against their leaders as the cause. But almost always, they unite around their leaders against foreign intervention.

Expect volcanoes.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

URGENT: A Jewish Letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Pekuach Nefesh (Saving Life) & the Health-care Bill

PDF icon Leiberman_ptn_12_23_noon.pdf272.53 KB

Dear chevra, below you will find a letter directed to Senator Joseph Lieberman, concerning his intention of supporting a filibuster to prevent an up-and-down majority vote on the health-care bill.

If you agree with its basic sentiments, please sign onto the letter by clicking here.

We are making this letter public as soon as possible with a sizable number of signatures from members of the American Jewish community, in the hope of bringing him to change his position. [he did not budge. His intransigence forced the Senate to drop the two aspects of the bill he opposed. The issue may return,however, when the Senate and House versions of the bill are woven together for final passage. We are, therefore, still seeking signatures.]

[For a report on the results and a follow-up exploration of whether and how to encourage Jewish communal responsibility for ethical behavior by Jewish public figures, click here.]

(Please click the link at the end of the letter, to download this text of the letter, complete with over 2,000 signatures
Thank you!
Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Senator Joseph Lieberman
United States Senate


We are rabbis, cantors, and other committed Jews. Many of us were delighted in 2000 when you were nominated for Vice-President and proclaimed to all that you were an observant Jew, carrying into the highest level of public service the values of the Jewish people.

Now we see with deep distress that you have announced that you will not support the bill before the Senate to bring health care in America even part way toward the universal and affordable coverage that is assumed in every other industrial country, including Israel. You have announced that you intend to join a quasi-filibuster against even taking an up-and-down vote on the bill if it contains either a "public option" provision or one extending the universally praised Medicare system to some younger people.

Doing this would thwart the will of a majority of the Senate, the majority of the American people, and the majority of the American Jewish community.

In our eyes, this is not the behavior of an "observant" Jew. "Pekuach nefesh, Save Life," is the prime directive of Torah,

and "Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall you seek," is among the Torah's most important commandments. And in pursuit of justice, no autonomous Jewish community has ever allowed the poor to go without healing. It is clear that the present health insurance system based on private insurance companies is broken in every aspect except assuring enormous profits to itself. It costs Americans the highest medical costs in the world while providing mediocre health care as measured by life expectancies, newborn death rates, and other indices across the developed world.

We recognize that major health insurance companies are headquartered in Connecticut and that you may view your obligations to them as constituents as an important political responsibility. Yet thousands of Americans die each year unnecessarily because they are refused coverage by or are unable to purchase insurance from these same companies.

So we believe your obligation of pekuach nefesh, saving life, saving the lives of the flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut, shaped in flesh and blood in God's Image and subject to damage of that same flesh and blood that requires healing, is an even higher obligation than you owe to your insurance-company constituents. Indeed, two-thirds of your flesh-and-blood constituents support a health-care bill that includes a strong public option.

We therefore call you to do tshuvah – to turn yourself again toward fulfilling the commands of Torah and meeting the needs of the American people. Then we will be happy once again that you are bringing the values of an "observant Jew" to the public service of the American people.


(Please click the link at the end of the letter, to download this text of the letter, complete with over 2,000 signatures!)


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