Seder Without the Haggadah

The central theme of seder night - from bondage to freedom - should be interpreted as a transition from myth to history.

What is a Jewish holiday? "They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let's eat!" as a Jewish comedian once said. This description, not far from the truth, raises a question: Can this be the basis for Jewish identity? Can a state be run on these foundations?

Israel's existence and the Jewish nation's continuity are very important to me, but the myth describing a direct dynasty from the legendary patriarch Abraham to the present period does not serve these purposes.

For years my friends and I have been celebrating Passover night without reading the Haggadah, because it is part of a mythic narrative of exile and redemption that repeats throughout Jewish history. The Haggadah's main message is that the Jewish nation owes its freedom to blind obedience to God, who gave us the Torah and promised us the Holy Land, a deity who decided it was appropriate to kill all the first-born sons in Egypt, and who ordered us to liquidate the Amalekites.

That same God told Abraham, whose descendants we are supposed to be, to climb to Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount, as tradition would have it) and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham sent his second son, Ishmael, to die in the desert. God saved the boys, but their descendants continue in the shadow of these stories to this day. As part of their deep belief in these stories, they continue sending their sons to kill and be killed for a few stones in the same place that those mythological events allegedly took place.

The Zionist movement, led by David Ben-Gurion, expropriated the direct dynasty myth, which is supposed to justify the establishment of the State of Israel. While the leaders of the Zionist movement may have seen this myth as a political expedient, since 1967 large groups in the Israeli public see it as a sacred reality, and the implications of this approach are horrific.

The central theme of seder night - from bondage to freedom - should be interpreted therefore as a transition from myth to history. We urgently need the Exodus from Egypt to free us from the myths tying us to stones and to lead us to a history that unravels a completely different and much more accurate narrative of Jewish identity.

What would be the meaning of Passover if Moses had not existed and the Jewish nation had never been enslaved in Egypt? Had two million Jews not been exiled but continued to live in the Land of Israel until the Roman Empire collapsed? If the Masada story hadn't really happened (as Yigael Yadin knew, but did not think the public needed to know)? And above all: if our right to be here was not based on divine promise but on the Jews' simple need for a country, a need whose realization caused - tragically - a great disaster to another nation?

The meaning of all these is that we must tell a very different story of Jewish history, a story that is more interesting and complex than the persecution and redemption myth. From Maimonides to Woody Allen, from Spinoza to Steven Spielberg, from Yeshayahu Leibowitz to Hanoch Levin - Jewish history has provided us with fascinating figures that make up a great history.

Maimonides, according to historical testimonies, converted to Islam for a short while for practical reasons, but he is still one of Judaism's greatest scholars. Woody Allen personifies the great gift of Judaism - humor, but he also married his stepdaughter. Spinoza was excommunicated by Amsterdam's Jewish community, but is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and one of the founders of critical biblical interpretation. Steven Spielberg not only founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, he is also the sworn protector of human rights throughout the world.

The Jewish nation's suffering has been real and awful, but it is not the only aspect of Jewish history. The new Jewish history will tell the colorful story of great innovators, scientists, crooks, businesspeople, comedians and artists, who lived not merely to survive but to create and celebrate life. Bringing this narrative to center stage is vital to our survival, because, as Freud taught us, to overcome traumas one must move from myth to history. Using traumas as an excuse for inhumanity only preserves them.

The Jewish tradition of critical thinking, irony and cosmopolitanism has lost the first battle in defining Israel's identity. But the voices of Ahad Haam (the Hebrew pen name of Asher Hirsch Ginsberg), Martin Buber and Yeshayahu Leibowitz are still echoing in our ears. They must provide us with the materials for a new seder.

The writer is professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, and a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.