A different kind of seder
The vast majority of Jews in Montreal, like the vast majority of Jews all over the world, are preparing to celebrate Passover. For two consecutive nights they will gather at the seder table to recount the Exodus story. As they observe one of the most fundamental traditions in the Jewish calendar, they will exalt God for the role he played in the deliverance of Israel from slavery in ancient Egypt.
A small minority of Jews, however, will be gathering for a very different kind of seder. These are the Jews who declare: “If the exodus from Egypt occurred, then it means that God intervened in the world. If the story is true, he took it upon himself to hurl plagues upon the Egyptians and part the seas for the Hebrews. Well, if he could involve himself directly in the affairs of humanity in ancient times, then why not in modern times? Why not at Auschwitz?”
The answer for these Jews, of course, is that there were never any plagues hurled nor seas parted. The Exodus story is literature. God did not act at Auschwitz because “God” is and always has been a human-created idea. These Jews, typically known as secular humanists, adhere to Jewish culture and values while ignoring (and when necessary disproving) the superstition of a divine force in the universe.
Secular humanistic Jews hold that the ancient fable of liberation from Egyptian captivity ought not take precedence over the twentieth century’s stark reality of German genocide. Accordingly, for some of them, the proper role of a seder is to remember and honour the six million who perished in the Holocaust.
For one night they put aside the Hagaddah of Passover, and replace it with the Holocaust Hagaddah. The history of anti-Semitism, the advent of the Nazis, the strangulation and annihilation of European Jewry, the complicity of a bystanding world — all are retold in the Holocaust Haggadah.
Participants in this seder do not recline comfortably at a sumptuous feast. Rather they sit on a bare floor in ragged clothes and partake of icy bread. As they tell the terrible story, they reconstruct, in infinitesimal microcosm, the plight of the six million. They do it to remember in a symbolic way the immeasurable horror of the Holocaust.
After the murder of the six million, infers the new Haggadah, it is unacceptable to go on as before. The enormity of the crime commited against the Jews demands nothing less than a fundamental alteration of custom. It requires, in the service of fitting remembrance, reformation among the Jewish people.
Such reformation is not only appropriate, but increasingly necessary. Everywhere in the world Holocaust denial is a growth industry. How can the Jews send a message to history and create a beacon powerful enough to remind all of posterity that the Holocaust happened?
They can do it by radically updating a basic component of Jewish ritual. This is the message of the Holocaust Haggadah, and eternal intent of the Holocaust seder.
Michael Carin is author of The Future Jew and may be reached through the website www.thefuturejew.com.