Our Secular Humanistic Seder

By Deborah Freeman


My family and I have attended a secular humanistic seder for many years at the home of our rabbi. This year a special treat was the first appearance of 3-year-old twins, children of long-time congregation friends. They were too young to read the Four Questions, but I’m sure they’ll be able to soon.

As we were coming home this year, my 21-year-old daughter said, “Guess what I thought was the best part of the service?” I thought she was going to say that this was the first year she could drink wine, instead of grape juice. In fact, she said she liked a line from Rabbi Schweitzer’s The Liberated Haggadah, which includes a modern humanistic version of Dayenu: “If the seder was just an excuse once a year to see distant relatives, some of whom you actually like, Dayenu (it would have been enough).” I had noticed my daughter sitting at the far end of the table, where she always sits, with the girls she has known since they prepared together for their Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, and I realized they had been trading stories about annoying relatives.

My husband, who is Catholic of Italian descent, said that the part of the service that gets to him every year is the idea of the fifth child:

“Some say there’s also a fifth child who no longer sits at the table. This child has fallen away by attrition and disaffection. This child has been turned away by rejection and disapproval. She is feeling sad and lonely. He is feeling angry and bitter. There’s always a seat at this table. Please come back to us. We cherish you forever.”

My husband doesn’t know the tradition that there are only four children. He only knows that the humanistic story of the fifth child, who may be isolated but is never forgotten, speaks to him about the spiritual journey we are all on, looking for a welcoming home where we will be accepted without condition.

For many traditionally oriented Jews, I think these lines from our service would be irreverent at best and disrespectful at worst. But I believe that by changing and adapting language to fit our own modern convictions and sensibilities, humanism reaches me and my family in a way no other expression of Judaism could. A traditional service would be, to us, something incomprehensible to endure silently and politely, as nobody in my family speaks or understands Hebrew. Even beyond the language barrier, the fact that our service is modern and innovative gives us all permission to express, in our own words, our own creativity in the matter of our relationship to the essential and the moral, and to bring to our religious life the qualities we bring to other important aspects of our lives, specifically our desire to define and re-define ourselves concerning our place on this earth.

The standard Passover service explains how to relate the same story in different ways in order to reach different kinds of children. Our humanistic congregation enlarges that concept to reach out to the different kinds of people within a single family. Like so many American families, we are all quite different in our make-up: I am a first generation Ashkenazi Jew who wants to retain a non-theistic connection to my cultural heritage and childhood; my husband, while non-observant, has cultural and family ties to Catholicism; and my daughter is a product of both her parents, besides being her own very special person with her own opinions and views. Going on a secular humanistic path, we can all enjoy attending the seder together every year for the opportunity to revisit communally the traditional stories and rituals, and to find individually meaning in our own special favorite parts.

My family and I shape our lives independent of supernatural authority, and this reality is a source of neither pride nor shame. I read once that, if diagnosed with a disease you never heard of, those who believe in God would go straight to synagogue to pray for strength, while those who don’t would go straight to their computer to Google the new disease and find out as much as possible about options and prognosis. The fact that I’m inclined towards the computer model doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of my Jewish cultural heritage that I turn to at holidays, life-cycle events, and special moments in my life.


About Deborah Freeman

Deborah Freeman is on the board of directors of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughter.