Humanist Haggadah

The Humanistic Haggadah and Warm Fuzzy Feelings

When trawling through the Internet recently, I came across a Haggadah aimed at Humanistic Jews (available here). Humanistic Judaism is a form of Judaism that emphasizes the cultural aspects of traditional Judaism, while adapting them to fit a secular humanist worldview. I’ve been interested in the movement ever since I heard about it, because I find myself fascinated by Judaism’s constant struggle to define itself, and intrigued by the solidarity that even those who have rejected every aspect of Jewish faith often feel with Judaism as a cultural identity. Therefore, I was curious to be able to see what Humanistic Jewish liturgy looked like. I was hoping to see a repurposing of traditional texts to suit a more critical, modern outlook. Instead I found watered down platitudes and an empty shell of a Seder.

Maybe it was the singing that got to me, setting me on edge when I continued reading the rest of the Haggadah. I’ve never been a Carlebachian sort of guy, and my ideal davening is more one of intense focus on lofty literary virtue and theological concepts than one of intense passion and emotional outcries to God. The Humanistic Haggadah is punctuated with outbreaks into peppy, feel-good songs after each step of the Seder, each one about the joys of fellowship and freedom. Personally, the idea of adults starting a Seder by being invited to celebrate freedom and then singing “Hinei Ma Tov U’MaNaim” makes me think of Ma’agal, and I never much liked having to sing during Ma’agal. Punctuating a Seder with songs praising God for redeeming us from Egypt is one thing, but singing songs calling for peace and love at a Seder just felt goofy and trite.

I wasn’t too pleased with the prose content of the Haggadah either. I found little engagement with the essence of Pesach, the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery through signs and wonders, and how that event established the Jewish nation. The Haggadah takes an approach to Pesach so universalist as to water down the holiday’s symbolism beyond recognition. Pesach becomes “a celebration of Life,” and history of the Jews is one of traveling the Earth in a searching for safety and liberty, always adapting creatively to new dilemmas. No tradition passed down from father to son or Divine salvation here. The story of the Exodus is told in only the most cursory detail, telling only that there was a famine which caused Jacob and his children to descend to Egypt, and that Jacob’s son Joseph became viceroy, but a later Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph rose up and enslaved the Jews, until Moses risked his life to demand his people’s freedom. How is a person supposed to feel as if he himself left Egypt if he only hears a summarized history so bare-bones that it can fit in one paragraph?

The experiential element of Pesach is further undermined when the Humanist Seder immediately goes on to laud the struggle for freedom as a universal human value, divorcing the Pesach story from all Judaic context. Immediately after giving its paltry version of the story of the Exodus, the Haggadah goes on to tell how the story of the Exodus inspired black slaves trying to escape, and then has the participants sing “Go Down Moses,” a Negro spiritual about Moses demanding that Pharaoh let his people go, cast as an allegory for blacks demanding their freedom from white slave-owners. The struggle of blacks to gain freedom and of America to end slavery is surely important, but it seems a bit inane to bring it up at a Seder. What are we supposed to be celebrating? Jewish culture? Black history? Humanistic values? The Seder is a ritual designed to commemorate a specific incident in a specific way, and in trying to generalize its content so that it can be meaningful to anyone, the Humanist Haggadah waters it down to the point of banality.

Humanistic Judaism also seems to have a problem keeping its politics separate from its religion, such as it is. In fact, the Humanistic Haggadah sometimes seems to read better as a primer on modern liberal values than as a religious text. In addition to its meticulous avoidance of even the slightest hint of Judeocentrism, the Haggadah goes so far as to repurpose traditional Seder rituals and liturgy to express modern morals. Karpas is dipped in saltwater twice, once to remember the tears shed by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt, but a second time “to remember the ocean and green plants and the Earth, from which we get air and water and food that enable us to live.” It’s a noble sentiment, but again one which has more to do with celebrating modern environmentalism than the Jews going free from Egypt. In fact, after spilling out wine so as not to be overjoyed at the death of the Egyptians (because “the greatest suffering occurred among those who had no choice but to follow,” a very novel reading of the Bible), the Humanistic Seder goes on to have the participants spill out wine in sensitivity to the threat of modern plagues that “darken our lives.” These plagues include racism, abuse, disease, and pollution. These are all important issues, but the focus on them at this point turns the Seder from a celebration of timeless Jewish values into a call to take arms and get involved in 21st century politics. It turns the Seder from something transcendent into something mundane.

But subverting ancient rituals does not suffice; new rituals must be innovated to address new needs. I refer to the placing of an orange on the Seder plate, something which the Humanistic Haggadah takes so seriously as to add to the traditional Four Questions one which asks “Why, on this night, do we have an orange on the Seder plate?” The answer given is irrelevant. Whatever you think of Judaism’s treatment of women and homosexuals, the fact remains that that is a subject which has absolutely nothing to do with Pesach. Humanistic Judaism has attempted to stretch the Seder into a repository for any and all values, stripping the experience of any impact it might have. A ritual’s power lies in its ability to elicit a particular feeling in its participants. By trying to get participants in the Seder passionate about so many various causes tied together by only the vaguest common theme, the Humanistic Haggadah succeeds in giving everyone a sort of dull, warm, fuzzy feeling, but none of the intense passion that Pesach has the power to elicit.

And that is the true failing of the Humanistic Seder. It purports to “restores [sic] the familiarity and fun of our childhood” and “preserves [sic] older melodies that connect us to our past,” but doesn’t come anywhere close to doing either. Removed are such Pesach highlights as the Four Sons, V’Hi SheAmdah, and the Sages attempt to one-up each other on how many plagues the Egyptians suffered at the Red Sea. Perhaps most egregious, Dayeinu is truncated and bowdlerized into a three verse doggerel about how “if we only had our freedom… our Seder… our hope, DIE-YAY-NOO.” I can’t speak for those who grew up Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist before turning to Humanistic Judaism, but as someone who grew up Orthodox, I can honestly say that the Seder depicted in the Humanist Haggadah bears only the faintest resemblance to the Sedarim of my fond childhood memories. The structure of the Seder, which was important enough to merit its own song, is gutted. The liturgy is nearly devoid of content relating to Jewish texts and Jewish history and Jewish values, instead substituting a wishy-washy version of the Democratic Party’s platform. While there may be historical and moral issues raised by the Pesach story as told at an Orthodox Seder, at least an Orthodox Seder can claim to be authentically Jewish, warts and all. The Humanistic Seder is but a wan imitation of the real thing.

Humanistic Judaism as a movement aims to maintain Jewish cultural practices while at the same time acknowledging that humanity is responsible for its own fate and that the morality of a choice should be gauged in terms of its effect on humanity. Unfortunately, humanistic beliefs that give humans agency without recognizing any sort of Divine Providence render most of Jewish culture’s premises invalid. Pesach is about G-d’s redemption of the Jewish people. Without that unifying theme, a Seder is just an attempt at nostalgia for the surface trappings of a Pesach Seder. If you think about which word is modifying which, Humanistic Judaism is actually Judaic Humanism, because its core beliefs are purely humanistic, with a thin overlay of Jewish flavor to provide a sense of comfort and familiarity to those who grew up with some form of Jewish practice. Perhaps that’s enough for devotees of Humanistic Judaism; perhaps a Seder such as this one really satisfies their need for communal bonding and connection to tradition. But to me, such a Seder comes off as corny and artificial, and if what needs to be done to Jewish tradition to make it conform to humanistic values is to bastardize it and water it down so that it retains only the most general connection to any historically recognized form of Judaism, maybe it’s just not worth bothering.