Passing Over Passover but not Completely: A Reflection on Freedom

Evolving involves thinking, and reflecting on how we do things. Some insist that without religion there is no moral code. There are ways that we can use and invent that come from mixtures of tradition and psychology and creative experience.
04/18/2016 09:55 am ET Updated Apr 18, 2017

We live in religious times, where it seems that many Americans assume "religious times call for religious measures". Let's face it: it's hard for many to admit out loud that they/we are questioning the religious principles, stories and traditions we had been raised with.

The first Oxford Dictionary definition for "freedom" is: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." Aside from the fact that we know there are limits to freedom and that there needs to be structure so all does not go haywire, my emphasis and questions (out loud) here involve the freedom to think. Specifically my question is about the implications of thinking about our own belief system and habits of practice.

It is time for Passover (April 22), which many Jews experience as the most beloved and memorable, even though technically it is not the most sacred. It is the holiday observed and sung and prayed, with food (what then?) at home, and it involves lots of preparation, and key family members and friends. It is a dressing up holiday, with game of hiding the matzoh for the children, and it is a holiday for not only cherishing freedom, but for feeling what it was for us to be slaves. It's a very popular story, Charlton Heston as Moses (in Ten Commandments, the movie), the enslavement of the Jews, and their freedom won by the sword of God, who doles out plague after plague, while he exhibits His prowess while He hardens Pharaoh's heart until the end. The end is the slaying of all the first-born Egyptian sons.

Some Jews hate the plagues and leave them out of the service; some Jews enjoy the spite and power exercised, all for a just cause, apparently. But this is the year that for me, brings my feeling no more intimacy or enjoyment in telling of any of this story, as it seems to me full of violence, that includes genocide, and the workings of a brutal and very insecure God. This, for me is not Exodus. You should excuse me.

For years, with a friend and then with my husband and family, I created an alternative Seder. This meant that in some ways I felt estranged, both from my family of origin, and then from a tradition that seemed to emphasize the external levels of Exodus only. For me it was obvious that as human beings, we cannot be free until we are freed from the bondage of poverty and war and prejudice, and also from the hatred and divisiveness and exclusivity that most of the popular religions preach. We can't be free when we have commandments we can't keep and texts of love we use on Saturdays or Sundays while we spend the rest of our time in an urgent need to compete and win out. We can't be free when we are addicted to winning to the point that we cannot stop, either to smell the roses, or think things through.

This year, I'm doing it differently. With our kids we'll make some of the holiday foods. We're going to see a comedian in Fort Collins, as part of my birthday celebration. And I guess you could say I'm sort of celebrating the holiday by thinking about it and talking about it out loud. As Jews, many of us who are older have felt responsible to uphold the traditions so we will be strong and plentiful enough to avoid another Holocaust. While it seems plain that guilt is not a sustainable enough motive to keep a people going, it also seems that we have to pay much more attention to the dark sides in us all, not just to avoid a Holocaust but to interrupt the genocides and hatreds which dominate in many parts of the world. This to me would include the almost excited popularity of hatred and scorn and insult in our own country, where (by the way) thinking has become decidedly unpopular.

Remember the adage, "If you see something say something"? Well, if seeing something dangerous or controversial or insane would of necessity lead to saying something about it, it needs to be safe enough to have that interaction. When we are perceived as morally filthy or subjected to shunning and ridicule for our pronouncements, we are liable to be less than forthcoming. After a time, we are liable to stop seeing altogether, whatever might lead our families or us into trouble.

So there's that, the idea that we can join in the habit of not daring to think, not feeling enough freedom of internal movement to think, about the ways in which we practice and believe. There is another thing, as well. There are those who would laugh off an objection to the Passover story, which is a revered one and after all is "just a myth". Well, along the lines of Bruno Bettelheim with his book The Uses of Enchantment, fairytales serve to symbolize our inner struggles and evolving.

Fairy tales at their best help a child deal with inner struggles at a time when he/she cannot tolerate mixed feelings towards another person. They are the kinds of stories not needed by the adults who can manage mixed feelings and contradictions without degrading into hatred. Here, though, the story of the Exodus leads into the absolute worship of a God -- something that doesn't get less ingrained or rigid as someone grows into adulthood, but quite the opposite.

Evolving involves thinking, and reflecting on how we do things. Some insist that without religion there is no moral code. There are ways that we can use and invent that come from mixtures of tradition and psychology and creative experience. There is knowledge, there is possibility, and the freedom to think can only help. Maybe it's part of an exodus we need.

And yes, it took me a long time to get here. It's ongoing and it seems right. So I think for now.