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Eliyahu Federman

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The Atheist Passover Seder With Christopher Hitchens

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 12:10 pm

It may surprise you to hear that foremost atheist and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens made a seder and even required his daughter to attend. In a debate between Hitchens and Rabbi David J. Wolpe, Hitchens proudly stated that his daughter has "to sit through a little Passover ceremony [seder] every year whether she wants to or not."

The New York Times summarized the context of Hitchens' response to the question "What should one say about God to a 4-year-old?":

Mr. Hitchens said his daughter "has to sit through a little Passover ceremony every year whether she wants to or not," and that at the seder, he tries to explain the links between Jerusalem and Athens -- the relationship between the recumbent dinner and the asking of questions to the Platonic idea of the group symposium. "She has to know that there's a tradition that she and I and her mother come from," he said...

Hitchens is right that the seder's central theme is encouraging the "asking of questions" and that it is vital that people learn about their traditions. The seder's encouraging of questions is evidenced by the famous four questions, Mah Nishtana, in which children are taught to ask "why things are done the way they are done."

Rational inquiry is in fact the very foundation of the Jewish tradition. The entire jurisprudence of Jewish law is based on the rigorous Socratic method of questioning found in the voluminous works of the Talmud. Even Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, rigorously scrutinizes every detail and possible inconsistency in the Torah, using rationales that even a 5-year-old could comprehend.

Furthermore, the historical roots of the three major monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is founded on the story of Abraham -- a man who was willing to question authority and refute the superstitions of worshipping material objects. This is the foundation of monotheism. Through a process of logical deductions and observation of the universe around him Abraham began to question the validity of idolatry. Abraham was unafraid to challenge the mores of his time and to question authority.

Hitchens' recent passing was a tragic loss to the world, particularly for believers like myself who recognize the need for society to polemically examine the potential maladies stemming from literal dogmatic interpretations of religious doctrine. Interpretations that are often bereft of the Passover's "group symposium" which Hitchen's alludes to.

The great religious scholar and physician Maimonides, in his "Guide to The Perplexed" Ch. xxv, said that interpreting scriptures anthropomorphic God literally was heretical because it is forbidden to ascribe human characteristics to the divine. Maimonides also said that if science contradicts the Bible one should seek for the solution in a figurative interpretation (so long as no point of practical observance arises from a literal meaning). The existence of God is not something Maimonides and Hitchens would have agreed on, but they certainly would have seen eye-to-eye on the danger of literalism and the need for rigorous questioning.

Another major theme of the seder is marking a celebration of liberation from slavery as chronicled by the Jewish people's freedom from Egyptian servitude. Questioning is a sign of freedom from the oppressive ways of mindless obedience. This Passover, in Hitchen's spirit, I'm going to endeavor to pass on the tradition of vigorous questioning during my seder in the hopes of achieving a sense of liberation from the tyranny of dogmatic questionless acceptance.

Author's note: Passover this year start Friday, April 6, and ends in the evening of Saturday, April 14. The seders are held the first and second nights of the Holiday. If you don't host a seder, you can always find a spot on Chabad.org's international seder directory.

 

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