Even Atheists Love Passover
I have been reading Passover reflections on womanhood, liberation and the holiday’s meaning by Elana Sztokman here at the Sisterhood and by Elyssa Cohen at Jewesses with Attitude. It seems that for so many of us, Passover serves as a time of reflection and rebirth, a call to free ourselves from dismal patterns of indifference and habit.
Although I’m still recovering from a food, wine and company coma after two Seders, Passover always gives that a charge of new energy, an urge to shake off winter sloth. I have dozens of recollections of Passovers past inspiring me to seek out new opportunities, to volunteer, to rededicate myself to activism or self-improvement, to make my own meaning out of the holiday.
But why does a holiday in which we extol a God I don’t believe in and glorify, with qualification, some troubling events (the slaying of the first born, and the “drowning of our oppressors”) mean so much to me, and so many Jews from a wide range of backgrounds?
Reading through the beautiful reflections I referenced above, I felt that it’s the process of seeking a personal connection to the holiday that stands out as the underlying principle. Whether we’re amending the Haggadah to make it more progressive and feminist, engaging each other with tough questions across the plates of bitter herbs, soberly reflecting over a more traditional service or, in my family’s case, ritualizing a raucous Seder that’s “traditional with a peanut gallery” (as my husband put it), we begin the holiday by taking a moment out of our lives to do something different from all other nights. We honor our ancestors who suffered, our brothers and sisters in the human family who still suffer around the world, and quite frankly, we honor ourselves — our own cherished family rites, our traditions and our interpretations. Passover is the moment when we literally take Judaism in our own hands.
On Passover, without a rabbi or any sort of authority (besides the occasional disapproving relative) to instruct us, the personalized nature of our relationship to Judaism comes through the clearest. This is what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt. Even if we don’t believe that “Egypt,” as described in the Torah, actually happened or that the liturgy is factual, or that God is any more than an abstract concept, this sentence speaks volumes about, as Elana wrote, finding a modern definition of freedom from bondage, and spreading that freedom to others.
There’s no “right way” to do Passover. Each Jew observes Passover with a mix of her own biblical, practical, personal and cultural imperatives. Maybe that special quality of the holiday is why so many non-Jews I know in New York get absolutely apoplectic with excitement about being invited to Seders. It’s a holiday where the words we say are dwarfed by the spirit in which we say them.