Reclaiming Passover for Atheists

When I was deconverting from Christianity (a 3-year process), I entertained becoming a Jew — after all, I still sort of believed in God. So I attended a local reformed synagogue for a year and joined a Jewish Folk Dance group. I loved studying the Hebrew script so I could chant in the synagogue on Shabbat (Friday night). I was also thoroughly and pleasantly surprised to find out during Schule (Sunday morning) that the Jewish men ranged from Atheist to devout YHWH lovers and that they could still stay good friends while debating these issues — after all, they were still Jews. But I wasn’t a Jew and never would be and Zionism was ugly — so I left.

Nonetheless, I have always had a place in my heart for the Jews because of the persecution stories I have heard over the decades. However, if I lived in Israel where often the tables are flipped, I am sure I would not have such a warm spot.

Another big part of Judaism that I enjoyed was their holidays. And the Jews, like other believers, love their holidays like people in every religion. Holidays (holy days), after all, capture basic human emotions, strengthen family memories and tie the community together — what’s not to like. The religious specialists, however, often pour more into holidays making them a tool to drive people of different faiths apart.  So to counter the exclusivist elements in religion, I try to show believers that the holidays capture basic things we all love.

Passover-MealAtheists wrestle with how to celebrate holidays — especially if they live in a land dominated by a stifling religion. But religions have often stole many of their holidays from other cultures, so why can’t we reclaim them for ourselves. My atheist family celebrates both the Winter festival and the Spring festival which were taken from “pagans” by Christians. Why not also figure out how to celebrate the Jewish Passover which began yesterday.  An Atheist could strip it of its Jewish parochial nature but preserve its common human elements of “conviviality, Epicureanism, a love of good conversation”.

ShofarToday I read a fun, short article by Judith Shulevitz at Tablet Magazine describing how Passover was probably borrowed heavily from the Greek customs of “symposium literature”.  Give her article a read and see if knowing some of its origins will help you to borrow from Passover  just as Jews borrowed from the Greeks — and thus embrace the universal natural human tendency to decorate our seasons.  Borrowing is cool, just don’t pretend anything is yours.  Blow the shofar for all the things we share!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

21 responses to “Reclaiming Passover for Atheists

  1. I’m not sure about the timing of Passover being taken from the Greeks; if the Jews derived the holiday from another culture, it seems more likely that they would have gotten it from the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, or Persians rather than the Greeks. The holiday began centuries before the Greeks took over Palestine, and, although I’m sure they would have had some contact with the Greeks, it seems unlikely that there would have been very much cultural exchange at that time.

    About your idea in general; overall, it’s fine. If I were Jewish (or if you were talking about a Christian holiday), though, I would say that holidays are purposeful. There is a reason that certain holidays exist and are celebrated at certain times. They generally communicate a message and help form a culture and a common identity to those who celebrate (like the 4th of July or Thanksgiving); so if you want to piggy back off some other group’s holiday, it would be my recommendation that you be explicit about your message and purpose, and use a different name, and different vocabulary for your holiday.

    Also, your use of the word reclaim is technically inaccurate. Atheists would not be reclaiming Passover, because Passover has never been an atheist holiday (at best, if Judith is correct, it was a pagan Greek holiday). So, a more accurate term would be that you are requisitioning, or stealing, or copying, or some other such word.

  2. A friend who was born Jewish but raised atheist (her father was a Marxist and a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War) celebrates Passover with a group of secular Jews. She says it’s more of a potluck and get-together where they can observe the holiday without getting into its religious aspects. You don’t mention this, but I think one reason why holidays have such a huge draw even if you don’t follow the faith that started it—Christmas and Easter in particular—is that they’re also established in many families as a time to gather and share time together. It’s also why holidays can be such a lonely time for many who can’t come home or are estranged from or no longer have a family. The memories of a childhood surrounded by grandparents and other extended family are powerful and moving.

    I’ve often opined that since most of the Christian holidays are borrowed from ancient pagan ones, there’s no obligation on the nonbelievers’ part to associate them with a religion. My traditional Christian friends dislike this idea, but is there any logical reason for associating December 25 with the birthday of Jesus or the Christian faith? So with Passover and Easter and the other holidays associated with religion. A family dinner on Passover can be a way to bond generations with a history, even if they no longer observe the faith.

  3. I’d heard of the concept of cafeteria Christianity, but I never considered it that way: take the fun and leave the belief part behind. And, really, if you like the look of a cross pendant, wear it!

    Also, there’s the unexpected concept of a three year deconversion. What must those ceremonies have been like … “Put the snake down, sir, no more handling for you. Here’s a nice easter bunny.”

    Thanks for shaking the rust off an unused portion of my brain!

  4. I was invited to enjoy Passover foods at a Jewish friend’s house. She’s an MD psychiatrist who has said ‘Jerusalem is in the heart,’ using Zion as a metaphor instead of a real estate deal.

    Science-minded atheists can certainly ‘reclaim’ any holidays from religion, based on the fact that any holiday attached to the calendar has been timed based on the Earth’s rotation and seasonal changes. Many pagans (& neo-pagans) reclaim such holidays as Equinox and Solstice events. There is nothing wrong with an atheist celebrating the change of seasons. There is always so much to study (plant growth, related astronomy, meteorology), and realizing that many religious myths were early attempts to explain cyclical changes in the seasons can lead to a light-hearted appreciation of the various mythologies and pantheons. Or if your Trinity is a Unity, I guess your pantheon is a monotheon…

    So much of holiday culture is about food and friends, I look forward to celebrating this Passover. I’ll gladly skip over the part where the Israelites smeared blood on their doors to tip off IHVH to not kill their first-born children, just the babies of the Egyptians. What a mean god! Hey, if he was omniscient, why did they need to put marks on their doors? Even Santa manages to maintain his own list of good and bad children…

  5. I’m not Jewish but I don’t see much of a difference between this and non-Christians celebrating Easter or Christmas.

    Many holidays have distinct religious and secular traditions. As long as you’re respectful and honest about what you actually believe I don’t see any problem with it.

    As we often only live seven or eight decades it’s easy for people to forget that cultures, languages and religions change over time. I don’t think of this as a bad thing. Actually, I think it’s amazing to see how adaptable humans and the symbols we believe in can be if given enough time.

  6. My atheist family celebrates both the Winter festival and the Spring festival which were taken from “pagans” by Christians. Why not also figure out how to celebrate the Jewish Passover which began yesterday. An Atheist could strip it of its Jewish parochial nature but preserve its common human elements of “conviviality, Epicureanism, a love of good conversation”.

    If you’re “strip[ping] it of its Jewish parochial nature” is it really even Passover anymore though? I mean a person could easily go down to their local bar with a group of buddies and family, get plastered, gorge on food, and have deep and friendly conversation about all sorts of topics philosophical or otherwise, they could even do so on the days that Passover happen to fall; would those people be celebrating Passover though?

  7. @Drkshadow03, your point reminds me of an argument some Christian friends of mine once had about Communion. One thought that M&Ms and a can of coke could be suitable replacements for bread and grape juice if you had the right frame of mind, the other argued that changing traditions that much nullify even the best of intentions.

    I tend to agree with the former but sympathize with the idea that traditions matter and that at a certain point one needs to either adhere to (most of?) the original script or pick a new name for the occasion.

  8. Sabio, you should NEVER have told me about this blog. I’m already hooked.

    I was raised Episcopalian; had a mom who needed a “shot of vodka courage” before driving to church and leading the choir. This struck me as hypocrisy, as well as the folks who threw money in the plate and were gossiping about other people behind their backs before they were out the door!

    Took a long sabbatical from church in general. Became a “crystal and candle queen” and embraced the New Age. Married a Jewish guy who was only “really” Jewish a) when it was a holiday and his mom was making something special, or b) when someone said something about Jews and he got his hackles up. I told him that if he really wanted to stand for something, he should attend synagogue. That went over like a ton of undercooked oatmeal.

    Agnostic for years, then a bunch of shit hit the fan: Divorce and losing both parents within six months. I did the “cry in the night” and do believe now in a Creator. The Bible? Feh. Most of it is made up, misinterpreted, etc. The only parts I cling to are Jesus’ message of unconditional love and of his mingling with everyone.

    I don’t believe in half the stuff most UCCers do, but we are a complex lot. Some are also practicing Buddhists; some throw the I Ching, and so on. I found a Congregational church (UCC) and learned about how many “firsts” that sect had, how close they were to the UUs (same impression when I went there… I went to a church service and a political round-table broke out!)

    We stole Communion from the Passover meal. We say Jesus was born on Dec. 25 because it helped draw people away from celebrating the Winter Solstice. On and on, and I will close with this: If Jesus knew we were spending money building churches with crosses on the walls, it would be HHWJP… How Hard Would Jesus Puke? He didn’t want to be worshiped; he wanted to help people understand God and worship the Creator.

    But that’s just me, ha ha. BAD pastor’s wife with the queer daughter! Even my own sister says I’m going to hell…! Amy

  9. @ jonathan :
    nice nit-picking. I am so pleased that “[my] idea in general; overall, it’s fine.”
    I will continue to say “Christmas” and ignore your recommendation to be explicit and use a different name.

    @ Hangaku : We agree. Thanks for sharing.

    @ Orange : glad to give you terms to consider. Yeah, deconversion can take time for many of us: so much to untangle.

    @ Abel : Yeah, I’ll skip over blood smearing too. And I sometime celebrate Hindu Holi and care not for the demon burning on the fire part of the story.

    @ Darkshadow :
    Nope, it ain’t “really” anything — I am playing a game. And I will color them up to make them as fun as I desire.

    @ Lydia :
    Thanx, we agree.

    @ Sharp Pencil :
    Thanx for visiting – I hope I don’t live to regret the invite! 🙂
    You’ve been on the religion merry-go-round it seems.
    You are a bad pastor’s wife and a holiday thief!
    Keep up the good work.

  10. rautakyy

    People of different cultures are worshipping and have worshipped the seasons for eons. The names of the celebrations have changed and so have the rituals.

    The reason why these are traditionally religious festivals, is that religions were created by men to explain the changing of seasons. As something happened people thought, that someone had to be to one to make it happen and who else but the extremely powerfull divine and mythical characters such as gods could achieve the changing of seasons.

    Historical events, that took place near a seasonal markers such as a solstice, or equinox, got more meaning by happening close to the divine action of god(s) changing seasons. If some important event in human culture did not happen near any of those seasonally (and divinely) important dates, as that historical event faded into myth people associated the event with one, to give it more meaning from divine sources. Also some myths were complete fabrications and what better (or cheaper) way to give them more meaning, than to assume these invented events took place at a seasonally (and divinely) important date?

    True believers are allready moaning about how the seasonal festivities have lost their religious meaning in the secular society. Is Easter, or rather spring equinox about Jesus tormented to death, or about bunnies? Is the autumn equinox about “All Saints Day” or about “Trick or Treat”? Is the winter solstice about Jesus being born, or about prezzies? Here in Finland it is mostly about eating pig, wich is, to say the least, quite contrary to any Abrahamic traditions. They are all family get to gethers in the western culture at least.

    Traditions and different traditional names for the festivities are nice, but how a person, or a family spends his few of work days a year is a private matter.

    In Finland we have an ancient pagan ritual on the summer solstice. The churches (both the Catholical and later the Lutheran) have tried to absorb it to their own traditions, but rather unsuccesfully. Is there something similar on summer solstice in your culture?

  11. @ rautakyy :
    (1) Curious, were you sharing the first four paragraphs because you thought that would be new information for me? Who are you talking to?
    (2) You can find answers to your final question here.

  12. Interesting that you’re reclaiming a holiday that you never had. But I get the thrust of the argument. There’s power in Passover. That’s why the Roman’s crowded into Jerusalem and ‘kept the peace’ by killing the dissidents. I look forward to the day where religious and nonreligious can sit and argue philosophy and theology (or a-theology) over coffee and/or beer. What a world that’d be.

  13. My god, I have missed a lot. Stupid #$(@ WordPress took you off the Subscribe list (along with two other of my blogger friends). Gah. I wondered where you had disappeared to.

    I heard the same thing about Jews – that it’s a very open faith, in other words you don’t have to have a strict adherence to belief in gods. After I left Wicca, even as a secularist, I still love celebrating the old farming and season traditions.

    I don’t think anyone is precluded from these celebrations, however I’d say it should be done with a certain respect for a “higher power” in mind, for example an appreciation and respect for Earth, what it provides, and a respect for elders of native peoples who preserved many important Earth traditions.

  14. @rautakyy If you mean the United States sadly we have nothing at all marking Midsummer except annoying meteorologists gleefully announcing “happy first day of summer”! So meaningless.

  15. @ Lydia

    There is an important difference in the two situations though. In the conversation you mentioned we’re starting with two Christians arguing about keeping a tradition wholesale or the possibility of keeping the symbolism and adapting different signifiers to represent the body and blood of Christ. In other words, what they aren’t debating is whether they are keeping its “Christian parochial nature,” which is embodied in the symbolism itself.

    Sabio stated that a non-Jewish atheist can reclaim Passover by stripping it of its Jewish parochial nature and keeping the “conviviality, Epicureanism, [and] a love of good conversation.” The problem is the abstractness of all these terms. Does Jewish parochial nature include: not eating the traditional foods? Not discussing the symbolism behind the food? Not reading the Haggadah and recalling the Passover story? Not following the ritual drinking of wine at specific spots in the Haggadah? Not singing the Hebrew Passover songs? It’s not clear what he would keep as part of his version of Passover and what he would jettison. If all he is keeping is conviviality, Epicureanism, and a love of good conversation it’s not really Passover is it? Or reclaiming Passover either for that matter . . .

  16. Let’s see, Mr. Shadow: I could imagine a celebration that uses a Ram horn to celebrate freedom from slavery: The horn could be blown and the mythical story of Moses and the Jews in Egypt could be told in part, then tell some real stories freedom from Slavery. We could sing a Jewish song, an African-American freedom spiritual or others.

    We could drink toasts to those in privileged that sided with the poor and philanthropy.

    You see, we could do such things.
    Just as my family now celebrates parts of Christmas and Easter and stripped of the Christian theology stuff. So my kids can tell other kids “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter” and mean it.

    I may have wasted my time typing this, for I am sure you could have imagined all this obvious stuff — my guess: you want to make some other point. I’d love to hear it in light of this.

  17. My only desire was to figure out what you meant by creating your own version of Passover that would keep “conviviality, Epicureanism, [and] a love of good conversation” while ridding Passover of its “Jewish parochial nature.” I suppose if you were keeping a shofar, singing some Jewish songs, and retaining the mythical Moses story that would still be Passover.

  18. And that’s the point, one can reasonably call all those things “Jewish parochial” traditions. So really I just wanted you to elaborate on your vision of what Passover could look like.

  19. rautakyy

    @Sabio 1) Just adding to the conversation. I do not dare to make any guesses about what knowledge you posses.

    2) Thanks for the wikipedia article. Is it not interresting how some cultures have festivities around the different solstice and equinox dates, but some do not have anything particular around some of them?

  20. I have no problem celebrating everything, as long as it does not involve a lot of ritual.

    However, we should reflect on the fact that, most likely, there have been societies with non-theist celebrations. But these were suppressed. Take, for example, the neo-Pythagoreans. The church managed to almost eradicate everything they did. So we know little. Their rituals borrowed from Orphism, but they didn’t have a god. (Numbers were divine, however.) Their meeting places were eliminated. There is one surviving, fully intact, but the Vatican has instructed the Italian government to keep it closed and nobody can see it. No, it’s not a conspiracy theory. Here is a recent article about this hidden meeting place, possibly a place were celebrations also took place.

    Ah, how much of history is quickly forgotten! Sometimes, it takes 10-20 years and, with the proper propaganda, all can be forgotten.

    Meanwhile, let’s celebrate but always keep in mind that whatever we celebrate may be a myth and that the way religious people celebrate or the thing they believe in may have nothing to do with what their ancestors celebrated or believed in.

  21. Apologies! I have linked an article which comes from, probably, a not-so-respectable source. Sorry.

    Here is an original one, from around the time the Pythagorean house was discovered (early 20th. c.)

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