Fifty years ago this week, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Black America was stunned and speechless. The sense of loss was beyond proportion. Words however did not fail some in the Jewish community. Among them was Arthur Waskow, who came up with a “Freedom Seder” which was held in a black Church in the heart of Washington D.C. exactly one year later, on April 4, 1969.
As one who sees the late Dr. King as a champion for freedom for his peolpe, I cannot help but feel that a “Freedom Seder,” a “Holocaust Survivor Seder,” a “Yankee Doodle Dandy Seder” or any other new age, creative seder sorely misses the point of what a seder ought to be. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, a seder should be all about our ancestor’s being redeemed from Egypt. The Haggadah so much as says so! “Whoever expends much time and effort in relating (our ancestors’) departure from Egypt… all the power to them!” To the best of my knowledge, the Haggadah never makes mention of racial oppression and denying of equal rights to those of a different color skin, nor does the Haggadah make mention of Jews in recovery recalling the enslavement of addiction, celebrating the freedom of sobriety (Mea Culpa! I put together such a Haggadah over a quarter of a century ago when I was drawn to an organization known as JACS – Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others). The Haggadah also makes no mention of Palestinians being denied freedom at the hands of Israeli aggression and oppression (please pardon my cynicism) yet, there are those who dedicate part of their Seder experience to bringing to light the enslavement of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria under “harsh and inhumane conditions” forced upon them by Jewish taskmasters, aka Israeli Security.
Over the ages, various movements and events have borrowed the theme of “Yetziat Mitzraim” or the exodus from Egypt, as presented in the Haggadah, for their own purpose. Even Jewish Communists, who had little or no use for religion and religious tradition, produced their own Haggadah, portraying Lenin as the new Moses, who redeemed the suffering masses from the grip of the wicked Czar. As a child, no Seder would have been complete without a reading bringing to mind the horror of the Holocaust. However meaningful and well-intentioned, to compare Egyptian enslavement with European annihilation is specious. Other than the threat of Israelite males rising up in revolt, Pharaoh desperately needed our people; Hitler desperately needed to rid Germany, Europe and ultimately the world of our people.
Let us pay tribute to the six million on Holocaust Day, let us bring the six million to mind and to heart next week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as the second week of November when we commemorate Kristallnacht, but let us set aside the Seder to consider how different this night is from all other nights. Let us proclaim the second Shabbat after Simchat Torah when we read about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood and the ruin it brought him, as JACS Shabbat. For those who genuinely wish to take up the cause of Palestinians living under Israeli rule, let them conduct a special ceremony in Shechem (Nablus) approximately two weeks before Chanukah, so that they can piggyback on that week’s Torah reading where Jacob’s two sons eradicated all the males of that city in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah.
Had the events on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, never taken place, I would like to believe that the opportunity would have presented itself for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to have participated at a Passover Seder. Observing the various symbols, joining in on the various passages, I would have hoped that Reverend King would have been moved by a people that preserved stories of an Egyptian oppression so very different than the oppression that was being experienced by his people.