Most spiritual people I know feel very uncomfortable around July 4. It's not just the fireworks and ultra-nationalist sentiments that get unleashed every Independence Day. It's also that the holiday has focused on "bombs bursting in air" rather than the beautiful spiritual foundations on which America was founded and which continue to be an important element in our collective unconscious.
Yet because the holiday has devolved into picnics, parades, and fireworks, we rarely get an opportunity to express our gratitude for that which deserves to be celebrated in America.
Our country's spiritual and religious communities should take the lead in re-shaping July 4 as a moment of holy celebration. As a model for this commemoration, I would like to suggest that we use the single most popular ritual in the Jewish world: the Passover seder, at which the story of Jewish liberation is told and retold each year, with the help of a book that contains a narrative of the story and instructions on the seder's main rituals--the Haggadah (literally: "the telling").
We need an American seder to celebrate all that is good in America--most significantly to celebrate the liberation elements in the 1776 revolution, ideals that were again actualized in the struggles of working people, African Americans, women, homosexuals, and minority groups like Jews, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, and Asians, which contributed so much to the building of a tolerant, multicultural--yet still deeply flawed--society.
This country has been a miracle in its generosity to Jews and to others. It has created democratic expectations and hopes; though many of these have yet to be entirely fulfilled even in America itself, these ideals nevertheless have had a revolutionary impact throughout the world. I obviously do not need to be reminded of the imperialism, sexism, and racism that this country often perpetuates. That, too, must be acknowledged. But once a year it makes sense to celebrate what is so very good about the United States of America.
Imagine a Haggadah that told the story communicated too rarely in our public schools, the stories of those who challenged the racism of the slavery system, the people who sought to make the American revolution into a more fundamental struggle against all forms of oppression, the people who marched and sat in and went on strike for basic workers' rights and dignity, the people who challenged segregation and Jim Crow, the people who struggled to get America into the war against fascism, the people who opposed the war in Vietnam, the people who today fight for environmental sanity, social justice, and world peace. This land is their land as much as it is the land of the militarists and racists and oppressors--and July 4 is a moment to celebrate that.
Underlying the celebration must be a clear articulation of the ultimate spiritual foundations of this country: that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore is equally valuable and equally deserving of a social, political, and economic reality that honors his or her divine image. It is this central biblical value that is at the heart of what is best in America. It is, however, in constant struggle with the forces of selfishness and materialism that seek to make their own material interests the criterion of "what's good for America." We, the spiritual world, need to articulate an alternative vision: that what's good for the world is to make the kind of tikkun (healing and transformation) that will allow economic, political, and social structures to reflect the basic spiritual insight that we are all connected, all equally valuable, and that there is enough to go around were we committed to sharing.
Here is where the power of ritual comes in. Now we in the religious community have to create it.
Designing an American seder and the Haggadah that would accompany it must be a communal, multifaith endeavor. And so I turn to you for help. How would you create an American seder? What stories and poems, inspirational readings and music, skits and artwork would you include? Our American Haggadah will ultimately be a compilation of readings, rituals, poems, songs, stories, dance, and art that together can tell the story in a way that makes it possible for us to remember. Of course, like the Passover seder, the American seder should have as part of its focus the telling of the story to our children. But a successful seder does more than that: It reminds us of the deepest truths and inspirations we've received from America--and gives us time to think about what strategies we could develop to preserve those values under assault in every corner of our lives.
So send me your material, and I will try to incorporate it into the American Haggadah that TIKKUN magazine plans to put together. You can post your ideas on the Beliefnet message boards, or send them to: American Haggadah, c/o TIKKUN, 2107 Van Ness Ave, Suite 302, S.F., Ca. 94109, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Seder" on the subject line.
Have fun creating your own American seder this July 4! I guarantee you that if you try it, you'll have a very different and richer experience than you've ever had on the birthday of our country. And together, we can use this ritual to transform July 4 into a national holy day.