liberation theology – Pesah 5772

Liberation Theology – Pesah 5772

1) Rabbi Arthur Waskow (2/15/2012).  Occupy Holy Week, Occupy Passover: Dancing in the World-wide Earthquake.  Retrieved from

Can Religion be Transformative?

“Freedom Seder. Build it around foods symbolic of the Seder but not in the classic order.   First question: “Mah nishtanah? Why is this Seder different from all other Seders?”  —- Invite answers from participants. “Because this Seder is about our lives today, not 3,000 years ago; because this Seder speaks from and for The 99% —  of all religions, ethnic groups, colors … “  Questions & answers for this portion of the Seder could be done in Occupy “mic-check” style, with the community as a whole. 

  • Then shift into table-conversation mode. Invite various people at each table to do one each of the blessings for these diverse foods, each in the form and language the  blessing-person feels appropriate. The seven foods are ordered so as to move from despair in slavery, step by step  to joy and fulfillment in the Beloved Community:
  • Scatter appropriate songs and some brief appropriate texts from the Passover Seder, the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the Quran, Native American teachings, MLKing, AJHeschel, Dorothy Day, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), etc. during the eating of some of these foods:
  • a.  Begin with Bitter Herb. Chunks of real horse-radish. Blessing.  Question: Why do we eat bitter herbs? Answers from people who have suffered from the bitterness of oppression. Homeless person, disemployed person, college student or grad in deep debt but no job or prospect, sick person whose insurance company has been denying coverage or who can’t afford necessary meds, child with asthma from choking on gas fumes and coal smoke.
  • b. Green vegetables, dipped in salt water. Blessing. Question: Why do we eat these greens, and why do we dip them in salt water?  Answers from an urban farmer, an eco-activist, an anti-fracking activist, people at the tables: Spring & the sprouting of new life; Life begins in the salty oceans, salty tears of sorrow for the wounded waters and the wounded Earth.
  • c. Blood-red beet. Blessing. Question: Why do we eat this blood-red beet? Answer: to remember the sacrifices, deaths, and woundings of those who have struggled for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes from Dr. King. —   Invite other names.
  • d. Matzah: Blessing. Question: Why do we eat this pressed-down bread? Answers:  Bread of the pressed-down poor, bread of oppression, also the bread of liberation. Answers from people who are working on food justice, working for remission of international debt of poorest nations (Jubilee USA), people at the tables.
  • e. Cup of wine or grape juice: Blessing. Question: Why do we drink this fruit of the vine?  Answers: From people at the tables.  Because grapes grow not alone but in clusters, and we must work for freedom and justice and peace not separately but in clusters. Because the fermentation that is sour can bring forth a deeper sweetness, and the sour times we have lived through can give birth to deeper sweetness….
  • f. Orange. Blessing. Question. Why do we eat an orange? Answers: The orange was first used because it had NOT been on the traditional Seder plate. Making present what had been left out was first intended to affirm lesbians who had been left out of the revcognized community; then all the marginalized of society. Also, because the orange contains seeds — the next generation.
  • g. Charoset( mixture of chopped nuts, raisins, chopped apples, pears, dried apricots, cinnamon, nutmeg, wine or grape juice). Blessing. Question: Why do we eat charoset?
    • Answer: Because the Song of Songs contains its delicious “recipe,” and so it embodies the Song —  when all human beings and all the Earth will make up the Beloved Community.
  • h. Close with songs in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic.”

* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of the original Freedom Seder (1969),  the 40th-anniversary Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth, and  twenty-some books on public policy, Jewish thought and practice, and relations among the Abrahamic communities. His most recent book, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman, is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011).

2) The Simanim: Fifteen Steps to Liberation in the Passover Seder

The Open Gate

Pesach is not merely the celebration of a past event. It is an open gate to spiritual liberation that manifests every year, in every generation. This powerful day beckons us to release ourselves from our  enslavements—any attachment to narrow passions, emotions, instincts, or negative beliefs. It may seem difficult or even impossible to become free of habitual states such as depression or anger. How can we pass through the gate of Pesach into a state of greater freedom?

Stages of Liberation

The science of spiritual liberation reveals three necessary stages: “hachna’ah/submission”, “havdalah/separation”, and finally “hamtaka/sweetening”. In order to become free, we must first become aware of our enslavement and taste its bitterness, so that we will ‘submit’ to the call of liberation. Second, we must ‘separate’ and detach ourselves from whatever it is that entraps us. The third stage is a reintegration of our past, where we ‘sweeten’ the bitterness and convert all negativity into holiness. How does this three-stage process relate to the Pesach Seder?


The stage of “submission” actually begins before the Seder, when we perform the bedikas chametz–the search for leaven. ‘Leaven,’ which causes rising, symbolizes arrogance, ego, the root of spiritual enslavement. Besides meaning searching, the word bedika can also be seen to come from the root boka, ‘to pierce’. We must seek out the arrogance in any of the vessels and/or corners of our lives, acknowledging and accounting for the ways we have become dependent on negative states of being and/or perceiving. In this way, we allow the light of liberation to pierce the darkness of our chametz. When the letter Ches in chametz is pierced, it becomes a letter Hei, – Hei and Ches are similar letters, just in the Hei the left leg is suspended in mid air – and the letters of chametz can then be re-arranged to spell ‘matzah’, referring to the unleavened bread of humility. Before we can attain the level of matzah, however, we have to renounce and destroy our chametz. We don’t eat matzah until we’ve begun the process of the Seder itself.

From Separation to Sweetening

The Seder begins within the stage of “separation” and moves us into the stage of “sweetening”. This process of actualizing freedom is made up of fifteen steps, corresponding to the fifteen well-known simanim, or sections of the Seder – the simanim are attributed to Rashi (Machzor Vitri # 65) The number fifteen is represented by the letters Yud and Hei, which spell a name of Hashem. Just as Hashem brought us out of Egypt in ancient times, so will Hashem bring us through the fifteen stages of the Seder into a new level of freedom.

1) Kadeish   Kadeish means ‘holy, transcendent, or separate’. The act of making Kiddush over wine marks the separation between mundane consciousness of weekdays and the transcendent consciousness of Yom Tov. We initiate our journey by separating ourselves, and decidedly moving away, from our place of comfortable spiritual stagnancy.

2) Urchatz   Once we have tasted transcendence, we can then cleanse ourselves. We wash our hands now, however, we do so without a bracha. The traditional reason for this washing is that we are about to eat a vegetable dipped in salt-water (Pesachim 115a). But in modern times, we are not careful like people were in ancient times to wash our hands before eating vegetables dipped in salt-water. Also, we are used to saying a blessing when we wash for bread following Kiddush, so this washing invites our curiosity. Why is this washing different?  1.One reason is simply to prompt the kids at the Seder to ask ‘why’ (Chak Yakkov 463:28).  2.A second reason is that this is a remembrance of the era of the Holy Temple, when we did wash in this manner.  3.A third reason is that we are already beginning to manifest the manners of a free person. Washing the hands like this is the behavior of royalty who, unlike slaves, have the free time to be meticulously clean.  4.On an even deeper level, washing without making a benediction is not a fully positive act. We are still ridding ourselves of subtle traces of negativity. We can’t make a blessing because it’s still a painful experience–our bitterness has not yet been sweetened.   Urchatz has the same letters as rotzeach, ‘murderer’. As we wash, we are ‘murdering’ any negativity that still clings to our hands.

3) Karpas

As we twice-dip a bitter vegetable in salt-water, we become twice as aware of our grief over our enslavement. The salt-water is like the tears that we shed as we continue to regret and release the negativity that has confined our spirit. Again, we don’t say a special blessing over this mitzvah, for we are not yet able to see this stage as a ‘blessing’, but as something we’re compelled to do.

4) Yachatz

As we break the matzah, we realize how fragmented we have become. We hide one of the broken pieces which will be the afikoman, the ‘dessert’. The traditional reason for hiding the afikoman is that it is a remembrance of the pesach offering, which had to be carefully guarded. Spiritually, we are hiding away the fragmented parts of ourselves, and guarding them until the time when we can finally sweeten and reintegrate them.   The matzah that we break is the middle one, the second of the three matzos, which corresponds to the spiritual attribute of gevurah. Becoming aware of our fragmented parts, and yet not reacting, but saving these pieces for a later reintegration, is an act of gevurah, of deep strength and self-mastery.

5) Magid

Slaves don’t have a voice–they don’t dare to speak out regarding their state of exile nor their desire for liberation. We now reach the level of freedom where we are able to speak. When we can articulate our dreams of freedom, which have been buried deep inside, we can begin to understand them and begin to make them into realities.   In Egypt, the power of speech was itself in exile (Zohar 2: 25b). Pharaoh means ‘peh ra’–‘the negative mouth’, destructive speech. During the step of magid, we are transforming ‘peh ra’ into ‘peh-sach–the ‘mouth that speaks’ positive words. This is the true “freedom of speech”: to have the inner freedom to express the goodness of life. During this stage of magid, we declare the truth of our inner freedom, and the stage of “sweetening” begins.

6) Rachtzah

At this point, we have risen to a state of consciousness where we are capable of washing our hands with a blessing. The word rachtzah comes from the Aramaic/Talmudic word rachitz, ‘trust’, as in “Bei ana rachitz,” ‘In Him do I trust.’ Now that we have articulated our dreams and intentions of becoming free, we can experience true faith. We have freedom to believe. We can trust the ongoing process of liberation. We are no longer merely washing away the negative, as done previously, rather, we are experiencing our own inner purity, and the often taken for granted  blessing of being alive.

7-8) Motzi-Matzah

We now make the blessing of hamotzi and eat the matzah. We are ready to internalize this holy humility, or as the Zohar says, the “bread of faith”; the “bread of healing” (Zohar 2:41a, 2: 183b). Matzah is perfectly simple bread–like simple and pure faith. We are completely ready to experience healing and wholeness.

9) Maror

After we’ve eaten the ‘bread of faith’, we can turn back and sweeten the bitterness of the past. We take maror, a bitter herb, and dip it into sweet charoses. Our bitterness has a slightly sweet taste now, as we realize that the negativity of the past is precisely what has stimulated us to move forward into deepening freedom. We now understand the positive value of our bitter experiences, and we make a blessing over them.   The word maror has the same numerical value – 446 – as maves, ‘death’ (Shar Hakavonos. Inyon Pesach. Derush 6). Although we cannot deny that we have experienced death of a sort, we are grateful for the redemption this experience is now bringing us, and we see how much more we can achieve in our lives. Now we have faith in the future, and even in the divine light which shines within the darkness of our past.

10) Korech

At this time, we place the ‘bitterness of exile’ into a sandwich, between pieces of the ‘bread of faith’, the bread of freedom. We are unifying affliction and liberation.   Maror represents the yetzer hara, the inclination in the human heart to return to negativity. We place this within the context of the matzah, representing our divine service. Now we can serve and come to life ‘bechol levavcha’ – with both of our ‘hearts’ or inclinations. We are elevating even the destructive inclination, integrating it, and allowing it to serve in our transcendence and ultimate liberation. Death, ego, and slavery are now sweetened–absorbed and transformed into a context of holiness.

11) Shulchan Orech

Now the ‘table’ is prepared. We are spiritually prepared to eat our meal, partaking of physical and spiritual pleasures, for everything is illuminated.

12) Tzafun

Now we can retrieve and internalize the afikoman, the fragmented parts of us that were tzafun –‘hidden’ away at an earlier point. Customarily, a child finds the afikoman and brings it to us (Meiri Pesachim 109a). We are reclaiming our innocent inner child, and we can see the world with joyful purity and wonder.

13) Beirach

Having made made yichud, ‘unification’, within every dimension of our past, we can now see that everything in our life was a bracha, a blessing. We bless, we see blessings, and we ask that we too become sources of blessing.

14) Hallel

The word hallel means both ‘to praise’ and ‘to shine’. As we sing these ecstatic praises, we shine, revealing the light that was hidden in the darkness. This is the brilliant darkness, the night that shines brighter than day.

15) Nirtzah

At last, everything is nirtzah, ‘accepted’–we have arrived. There is nothing more to do or say. This is a non-doing state, rather a state of being.   A state of pure wordless stillness is the world of perfect unity, Divine oneness, the ultimate level of spiritual liberation.   The following forty-nine days of “counting the Omer” have the power to help us fully embody this liberation, this great sweetening of all reality.

Center for Jewish Spirituality (2012).  The Simanim: Fifteen Steps to Liberation in the Passover Seder. Retrieved from

Orange of the Seder Plate

3) “In the early 1980s, while speaking at Oberlin College Hillel [the campus Jewish organization], Susannah Heschel, a well-known Jewish feminist scholar, was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate).

Heschel felt that to put bread on the seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover. So at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.

In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out–a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, “Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”

Tamara Cohen (2011).  An Orange on the Seder Plate:  A modern-day custom in support of including marginalized Jews in mainstream Jewish life.  Retrieved from

4) Oranges – “First was the orange, which has come to symbolize the power of Jewish women — female rabbis, the Jewish midwives in the Exodus story, gender-neutral language in prayerbooks, that sort of thing.”

“During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment  of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of  solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are  marginalized within the Jewish community…In addition, each orange  segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out – a gesture of spitting  out, repudiating the homophobia that poisons too many Jews.”

A few years ago, olives started showing up as a call for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

How about an artichoke?  In an essay on, Rabbi  Geela Rayzel Raphael suggests this prickly vegetable with the soft heart for the interfaith-friendly Seder plate.

“Like the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage. Let this artichoke on the seder plate tonight stand for the wisdom of God’s creation in making the Jewish people a population able to absorb many  elements and cultures throughout the centuries–yet still remain  Jewish.”

Hard to top, however, is the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which last  year put together a “Food Desert Seder Plate” that banished the original arrangement altogether, replacing it with items symbolizing the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in many low-income neighborhoods (see  photo above).

A rotten piece of lettuce illustrates that inner-city grocery stores  often carry only spoiled produce. A potato chip instead of the boiled  potato in the “karpas” space indicates that high-fat potato chips are  cheaper and easier to find than fresh potatoes.
“On the food desert seder plate, there is no egg. Fresh eggs are one of the luxuries lacking in these neighborhoods.”

Jerusalem Post (2011).  Non-traditional items showing up on Seder plates.  Retrieved from

5) Ben Greenberg (  ).  The Exodus as the Foundational Paradigm for Social Justice. Retrieved from

“One of the seminal works of this new theology was written in 1972 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez entitled A Theology of
Liberation: Perspectives. Gutierrez in his work, highlights three steps towards a total liberation. The first step dictates there be a real and practical solution implemented to the situation of the world’s poor and oppressed and that there can be no theologizing or any lofty agenda until the immediate temporal needs of the poor are dealt with. The second is that global society must address the systemic biases that“limit their (the oppressed and poor) capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity.” Finally, in order to create a lasting change that profoundly impacts the lives of the downtrodden, humanity’s bond to God must be reaffirmed and strengthened. People must pursue a life of continuous introspection and improvement. This last step will ultimately bring about a liberation from what lies at the heart of all oppressions: sinfulness and selfishness.”

6) Marc H. Ellis (2004). Toward a Jewish theology of liberation: the challenge of the 21st century.  Baylor University Press.  Retrieved from Google Books at


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