Tonight at sundown the White House is hosting its second annual seder. I am all for celebrating with others on their feast days, sharing camaraderie, ethnic customs and, especially, culinary treats. The genesis of the White house seder — that it was undertaken by the Obama campaign when it was under siege and some Jewish staffers were stuck on the road over Passover — is understandable. It is also understandable why African-American White House staffers could identify with a meal that celebrates release from slavery ("Let my people go"). And it's kinda nice this is an "inside meal" (no influential rabbis or outsiders invited).
But "seder" means "order" in Hebrew, so this is a meal fraught with "must-dos." (And lending credence to the theory that most religions have been started by obsessive-compulsives. However, the requirement that diners drink four glasses of wine by meal's end probably accounts for the seder's popularity.) But what gives me indigestion is the image of the president, pictured last year with bible in hand over his plate, reading from the Old Testament, and the announcement that this year he will pass the bible around the table and that all guests are expected to take turns reading aloud and reciting prayers.
Let's get real. "Passover" is a day which doesn't just commemorate but actually celebrates a gruesome supernatural event — the date upon which the Hebrew deity supposedly killed every firstborn Egyptian son. The firstborn sons of the pious Israelites were saved because they smeared sacrificial blood on their doorposts for their suddenly not-quite omniscient deity. Is this imagined mass genocide, which extended not just to humans but even the male firstborn of other animals, a nice thing to celebrate?
More to the point, the basis of the seder celebration, the flight from enslavement in Egypt by the Israelites, never happened! Read Isaac Asimov. Even Biblical Archaeology Review will tell you the same thing: There isn't a shred of archaeological evidence that the Jews as a group even lived in Egypt around 2000 B.C., or in fact ever lived there in ancient times, much less that they were ever enslaved by any pharaoh. Like most of the bible, this is a fable. Bible scholars speculate that the Israelites realized there was some Egyptian influences in their monotheism, so they invented a story to explain it around the seventh century B.C. Jews have endured plenty of historic injustices; why commemorate a nonexistent persecution?
So have yourself a very secular seder. Pass the horseradish and the matzo (with religiously incorrect butter, thank you), and the macaroons. Just please don't swallow the myth the seder is based on. This myth, which in today's world can play into continuing animosities between real-life Jews and real-life Arabs, deserves to be debunked and laid to rest, along with belief in the bible it is based on.
For more information, see www.bib-arch.org/reviews/review-bibles-buried-secrets.asp