The essence of the emerging Jewish Renewal movement is this: Be real. Don't say things that are not true. Be spiritually alive and conscious of what you are doing. Don't say prayers or participate in rituals that have no meaning for you. Instead, create prayers and rituals that really do connect you to the God of the Universe, the Force of healing and transformation, the ultimate Unity of All Being. Instead of going to religious services or rituals that you can only get through by making yourself unconscious or spiritually brain-dead, create services and rituals that deeply engage you and connect you to the highest spiritual truths you can find. When you start doing that, you'll find yourself being more authentically Jewish and getting closer to what made this such an exciting and revolutionary tradition in the past.
With that injunction in mind, let's consider the first Passover hypocrisy. At the beginning of the seder, we call out, "All who are hungry, let them come and eat."
The truth is that most of us do not mean this at any level. Of course, some Jews now dedicate some money to helping the homeless on Passover--and a wonderful Jewish organization called Mazon helps coordinate this (you can send contributions to MAZONmail@aol.com). But most of us are willing participants in a world economic system that guarantees that the rich will get richer and the poor will get hungrier--and we do little to challenge it.
In a moving new book, "Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization", Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti, reminds us that 3 billion people, or half the population of the world, live on less than $2 a day--and that translates into immense world hunger. And the trend is toward more inequality: In 1960, the richest 20% of the world's population had 70% of the world's wealth; today they have 86% of the wealth. In 1960, the poorest 20% of the world's population had just 2.3% of the world's wealth; today this has shrunk to just barely 1%.
There is massive data to show that the acceleration of "free trade," which has been a shared priority of the Clinton/Gore/Bush American establishment, has accelerated this inequality and intensified world hunger. In each of the countries of the developing world, a small but powerful elite manages to enrich itself--along with a business-oriented, land-owning, city-based upper and upper-middle class--at the expense of growing misery for a majority. These Third World elites then come forward and plead for an acceleration of free trade--and the First World leaders point to this as evidence that the globalization of capital is benefiting "the Third World." The figures look convincing--only as long as we ignore the question of who in these Third World countries is benefiting and who is suffering as a result of American economic expansion and the triumph of the world capitalist market.
For others, there is a touch of nostalgia, as some liberals recall the Jewish identification with the civil rights movement--thus making our seder "contemporary and relevant." But almost no one actually engages with the staggering realities of racism in America today (driven home most forcefully in the recent acquittal of four New York City policemen who had killed an unarmed black man reaching for his wallet), or deals with the fact that over 1 million young black men are in prison (many of them for possession of the same kinds of drugs that many young Jews have used without facing jail terms).
Of course, the best way to make the seder less hypocritical would be to use some of the time to talk about these issues and what we at the seder table will do to deal with the negative consequences of the globalization of capital, the reality of hunger and homelessness, and the shame of racist practices and institutions.
But to generate a useful discussion, and not just a shouting match in which old left/right arguments get restaged, we need a whole new spiritual grounding. And that is exactly what the Hasidic teachers provided when they reinterpreted the commandment to rid your habitations of chametz (leavened material, particularly that which expands with yeast like bread) on Passover. According to the Hasidim, chametz refers to the expansive tendencies of our own egos, and the spiritual practice of Passover is to contract our egos so we can get out of the narrow place. ("Egypt" in Hebrew is Mitrayim, which comes from the root tzzr, meaning "narrow place"). Our freedom comes from reducing our egos so that we can see our connection to the God of the universe.
For Jews to reduce ego would be to acknowledge that our suffering is not the only suffering worthy of attention, that our freedom is not the only freedom to celebrate, and that our own celebration must be incomplete when there are so many others in deep pain today. The next step in transcending our egos would be to take these ideas seriously--not as pious ideas but as injunctions to socially transformative action. It was for that very reason that the seder used to be a revolutionary and subversive act--because it was the moment at which people actually moved from celebration of the past to action in the present. And that's what it could be for us as well.
But if doing that seems too messy, I'd like to suggest an alternative: Don't say the line, "All who are hungry, let them come and eat," and don't say other parts of the Haggadah that we don't really mean. Let Passover be one moment when we rid ourselves not only of our chametz but of all elements of self-deception and pious self-congratulation on how wonderful we are.