I’ve been celebrating the spring holidays with my interfaith family and reflecting that Passover and Easter this year come in the shadow of new, spiteful “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas, and potentially other states. These laws, widely seen as targeting the LGBT community, would allow people to cite their religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate against others. I have to remind myself, however, that we shouldn’t set religion and LGBT equality as necessarily opposing forces.
My family is minimally observant, but in the past several years we have held enthusiastic, if informal, Passover seders—the traditional meal during which we retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Even as some try to position freedom of religion as a tool for oppression, the holiday for me carries lessons that reinforce my LGBT advocacy work.
At its heart, Passover is about a triumph of social justice—the freedom from slavery. It is a story of remembering the survival and determination of a people and a reminder of the modern freedoms that so many around the world are still trying to achieve.
It is also a holiday of participatory storytelling. Jewish law mandates that we tell the Passover tale to our children. A Passover seder involves the narration of the long-ago exodus—Moses’ demand for freedom for his people, aided by his sister and brother, the 10 plagues that convinced the Egyptian pharaoh to let them go, and their hasty departure—guided by a text called a Haggadah. Usually everyone at the table, including the children, takes some part in the reading or responses, making it an interactive storytelling experience for all. It reminds me that so much of our power as an LGBT community also comes from telling our stories—and giving everyone in the community the opportunity to participate in that process.
Passover also represents adaptability, embodied by the many different Haggadahs that exist today. Although all have the same basic elements, each sets out the story, blessings, songs, and ritual questions in slightly different forms, often with additional readings and commentary. There are Haggadahs and supplements geared towards children, as well as ones offering readings and discussion questions related to women’s experiences, the experiences of Jews of color, the LGBT experience, and more (and one can mix and match as those identities overlap).
Many Haggadahs ask us to reflect on how the Passover story can help us understand and address modern oppressions and plagues and assist those still struggling for freedom. An increasing number also include elements recently introduced to the seder to acknowledge traditionally overlooked groups. Women’s roles in the freeing of the Israelites—and women’s roles today—are now often recognized through a glass of water designated as “Miriam’s Cup,” in honor of Moses’ sister, considered a prophet whose miraculous well and spirited songs helped sustain them in the desert. Women, LGBT people, and others often marginalized are also sometimes recognized by the addition of an orange—a very non-traditional item—to the seder plate of ritual foods.
While we all use a similar framework to tell the Passover story, therefore, there are ultimately as many ways of holding a seder as there are families. Each family has its own style and chooses which parts of the story to emphasize and which to use as a springboard for further discussion. The common pieces of the ritual unite us, while the diverse manifestations of our storytelling reflect our diversity as a community.
One common component of all seders is asking questions—traditionally, four questions that children are prompted to ask about the holiday, but expanded by many families to include questions about the deeper meaning of the observance and what we can do about injustices in the world. Questions are the first step in finding answers and in changing the status quo.
A seder is, however, not only for reflection, but also for celebration, when the children embark on a hunt for a hidden piece of matzo, and everyone imbibes four glasses of wine (or grape juice) as part of the meal. Several traditional songs involve rollicking, repetitive verses that can get rather rowdy after the wine. Personally, I always ask my son to collect props representing the 10 plagues, which usually means plastic locusts and rubber frogs get flung across the table at some point. We celebrate survival, springtime, family, and community. We celebrate the triumph over oppression, not denying that there are still oppressions to be overcome.
This year, two days after the start of Passover, we hid Easter eggs in the backyard in acknowledgment of my spouse’s tradition and her faith’s message of hope and rebirth. We know that different faiths have their own ways of capturing similar concepts and instilling values of justice and love in their children. That’s what makes me the most upset when I think about those of any religion who try to use it to restrict others. Religion should help us overcome oppression, not to increase it. Most people of all faiths, I believe, realize that. A vocal minority, unfortunately, do not.
At this time of holiness for so many of us, then, let those of us who profess a faith, whether in a higher power or in our own human selves, recommit to using it to create a more just and equitable world.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.