By Will O’Brien
Last Sunday, I was deeply blessed to be able to attend the Interfaith Freedom Seder +50 in Philadelphia. This unique gathering was a commemoration of the original Freedom Seder in 1969 organized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.
Along with several hundred Jews, Muslims, and Christians (and likely folks of other faith traditions or even no religious), we paid homage to the original Freedom Seder and, acting out of that powerful tradition, forged a liturgy and celebration that spoke directly to the political, economic, moral, and spiritual challenges we face today.
At that first historical gathering (which was on the first anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Waskow had taken the unprecedented step of re-writing the traditional haggadah – the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt – to address contemporary struggles and realities, particularly the struggle for racial justice in America. That first bold re-envisioning of Biblical tradition was the germ of many subsequent initiatives by progressive Jews to similarly develop haggadahs rooted in the ancient story but relocated to our modern-day realities – feminist haggadahs, ecological haggadahs, LGBTQ haggadahs. While perhaps heretical to many conservative Jews, it was also a way to grasp the dynamic power of the biblical tradition and how God’s word continues to speak to us.
Rabbi Waskow, now 85, was present as a spiritual elder. He framed this new Freedom Seder in light of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “triplets of evil” described in his April 4, 1967 Riverside speech. Several speakers and clergy and activists reflected on the contemporary manifestations of those triplets – gun violence, growing economic disparities, white nationalism, religious bigotry, subjugation, oppression of immigrants, and devastation of the earth. Through the traditional Passover liturgy, participants committed to being part of the ongoing human liberation that could lead us to Beloved Community.
At one moment in the service, a rabbi led the gathering in a beautiful contemporary chant based on the Shema Yisrael, a sort of “creed” of ancient Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4). He led hundreds of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian voices in the melodic refrain “Our God Is One” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
In Jewish tradition, the Shema makes a core assertion about God, but also about the community that proclaims it. This God is unlike the other gods, and we are the people of this one, holy God. In its most ancient iterations, it proclaimed that the deity of Israel YHWH was distinct from the gods of the other nations, in particular from the entire religious systems rooted in empire and the city states, whose gods were many, were named and cast in various graven images – and were invariably tied to the political systems of power.
I have had occasion to hear this proclamation in Jewish liturgical settings, humbly acknowledging that as a Christian, I am a cousin to this same ancient monotheism, but also recognizing how the Shema plays a role in that faith community’s history and identity. But hearing it this time, in a beautiful mosque filled with a colorful and dazzling variety of people in their sundry religious garb, in this extraordinary coalescence of the three Abrahamic faiths, the song was exceedingly amazing and powerful. As it was chanted over and over, I heard in those words several compelling variations (a musical midrash, perhaps):
“Our God is One – and the same!”
“Our God is One – and we are one!”
“Our God is One – even with the many names we use for God, even amid the diverse and particular expressions of our faith!”
“Our God is One – and any divisions among us are heresies and corruptions.”
“Our God is One – and no one language can speak the whole truth of God.”
“Our God is One – and we best know and reflect the marvelous reality of God when we come together in praise and celebration.”
“Our God is One – and we must break through all the obsfucations and perversions of religion if we are to heal our world.”
Yes, I could feel the healing – even as all of us gathered held in our hearts the blasphemous horrors enacted at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at several mosques in New Zealand, and the long trail of blood shed by perversions of biblical and Koranic teachings.
But in this beautiful mosque, for this special evening, traditions and histories and theologies wove together in an intricate and precious tapestry. Against the all the violence and hatred, the Oneness of God and the Oneness of God’s people prevailed – and with it, a taste of Beloved Community.
Amen, Amin, may it be so!