Street Seders: Sacred Protest

Spiritual practices often make use of powerful symbols to stir people into action.

Earth Day fell during Passover this year causing Jews to reflect on how an important tradition offers some wisdom about environmental challenges. Rabbi Jeff Sultar, director of The Green Menorah Program at the Shalom Center, took the three necessary elements of the Passover Seder and used them to symbolize the struggle with personal, economic, or political “pharaohs” putting limitations on a healthy planet.

He advocates holding “street seders” this year during Passover. These seders are part religious observance, part political demonstration. Possible locations include regional E.P.A. offices to demand they allow states to raise emissions standards above federal standards, ExxonMobil offices around the country, and congressional offices to urge politicians to pass “America’s Climate Security Act.”

The three important parts of a seder that need to be explained by the host are

  • the Passover sacrifice, symbolized by a shank bone (or yam for vegetarian seders). Rabbi Sultar writes that the sacrifice of a lamb was an act of defiance for the Israelites because the Egyptians worshiped the lamb. Participants in a street seder are to call out politicians and corporations for their worship of oil and hardened hearts on issues such as climate change. There are also to look inward at ways they can consume less.
  • the Matzeh, which is crisp, flat, unleavened bread. Jews are forbidden to have any chametz, which is literally any kind of grain mixed with leaven and allowed to swell up. Sultar points out that Chasidic teachers understand chametz metaphorically. They ask everyone during Passover to remove everything unnecessary in their lives. This means removing swollen clutter. Sultar extends this metaphor to the environment and identifies CO2 as eco-chametz that needs to be removed. Also, the things that we buy that we do not need which eventually ends up in landfills could be considered eco-chametz.
  • and the Maror, which are bitter herbs. The bitter herbs symbolize the suffering of slavery. Sultar writes that for this generation, it should represent the harm of our actions today.

This is a creative use of religious symbolism to raise voices against environmental injustice.

More: Green Passover: Now That’s Kosher!

Photo credit: Flickr

  1. Bobby B.

    Yikes! That’s scary stuff! Nonetheless, what religions are off limits to this form of green revisionism and proselytizing? In light of the reaction to those Danish cartoons, will you be publishing sketches of the Islamic prophet holding a gallon of E85? Will you tweak the Chinese and Indians about the environmental abuses of their emerging middle classes? I could go on forever, but it’s probably not worth the effort as the target religions are almost exclusively Judeo-Christian variants.

  2. Chad Crawford

    Yes. All religions beware. Eastern traditions, I’m coming after you with my agenda next.

    I’m sure you would agree religious traditions give a basic framework for understanding the issues we currently face. In other words, each faith has implications for morality and ethics. When a new issue emerges or an old issue reemerges in a different way, I think the truth that an ancient sacred teaching bears is tested by its ability to adapt and respond. You call this revisionism.

    When confronted with a new issue, debate sometimes occurs between the old guard and the upstarts over whether the issue exists, whether it’s relevant, whether it’s worthy of a response, how to respond, and so forth. You call this proseletizing.

    Fair enough.

  3. Bobby B.

    Fair enough, but I don’t think that going after eastern mysticism is all that big a deal given its pantheistic nature. Taking on other, more fundamentalist religions would be gutsier.

    Now, if I am reading you correctly, the scriptures of the various religions of the world are subject to re-interpretation whenever someone sees a need to “keep up with the times”? Next you will be telling me that The United States Constitution is a “living document” and that the original intent of the Framers is non-existent, even though The Federalist Papers explain the Framers’ intent. I do agree that ancient texts may possess a level of adaptability to modern times, as long as the original intent is not lost. Replacing Passover’s historical roots with modern greendom probably deviates too far from its original intent to maintain any of its significance.

    You see, all religions believe that their scriptures have origins in the divine. Ergo, the texts originated on a plane higher than the one on which man exists. Jews and Christians believe that God’s Word was breathed into those who penned it. Christians carry this belief into The New Testament. Muslims believe that Allah guided the hand of the Prophet. I am sure other religions have similar beliefs. When someone or something adapts a scripture outside the realms of its original intent, he or it essentially removes whatever god inspired its writing in the first place. Some say that the removal of the god being is the true intent of scriptural re-interpretation, because it permits man to enjoy the pleasures of this world without the consequence of eternal judgment. Others say it’s purely coincidental. Nonetheless, the removal of the god being often manifests itself in what are historically viewed as dark periods. The deaths attributed to Mao, Stalin and Hitler can all be traced to societies seeking to remove the god being from the equation. And those millions far exceed the thousands that can be attributed to the few thousand killed by The Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, which manifested themselves through erroneous interpretations of scripture. But all are examples of societies losing their way while seeking what they believed to be the greater good.

    The following is an intriguing piece about how Hitler’s atrocities can be attributed to a society absent a belief in a higher being:


    I really hope that you read all of it, but if not, take note of the following paragraphs:

    – In one of his few specific references to Haeckel, Hitler spoke of their shared opposition to Christianity. Both resented the faith because it competed with what Gasman calls “a holy conception of nature.”

    – Haeckel had, in fact, inspired Hitler and Hitler’s Germany with Darwin’s cosmology, the story of the world as told by nature. For Haeckel and Hitler both, Gasman writes, “The great defect of modern Western society was that man was in constant violation of nature.”

    – In his own inhuman way, Hitler set out to address this violation of the Aryan ecosphere. In this regard, he was merely the first, and most lethal, of a long line of activists who would stand the “Great Chain of Being” on its head by putting “nature” ahead of man and man ahead of God. (Indeed, the term “eco-Nazi” is not without its historical roots.)

    I am not calling anyone here a Nazi, just noting how the best of intentions can go horribly awry. To close, maybe we should consider Matthew 7:13-20.

  4. Chad Crawford

    What impressed Hitler most was Darwin’s extreme racism. Darwin wrote in Descent of Man that the Western European race was the most highly evolved on the planet. He even goes so far as to argue that the annihilation of inferior races is justified.

    Religion has been used to justify abuse, and Hitler was certainly guilty of this by establishing a civil religion that justified genocide. When ministers challenged the civil religion they were persecuted. Some were killed.

    I believe this country is founded on great principals that limit this tendency to use religion to manipulate, but we’ve still been guilty of using civil religion to justify all kinds of abuse. What makes America great is our ability to eventually call out the abusive use of religion. It always begins with an undercurrent that stands on the idea that the best religious teachings, the original intent of the scriptures if you will, speak truth to power, calling for peace and well-being rather than abuse and neglect.

    Need an example? Slavery. It’s at the heart of the Passover narrative. There are Jews who believe that it is imperative for every generation to discover where slavery exists in the world, and Rabbi Sultar has identified our dependence on overconsumption as a form of slavery.

    Defenders of civil religion are the people who benefit the most from its utility. For me this is the point of departure, when adaptation extends beyond the parameters of divine inspiration to justify selfish objectives. The green movement is met with opposition because it challenges the powerful. Religious leaders who are challenging the government’s and corporation’s apathy find themselves at odds with principalities and powers, but as a Christian I believe God will use the weak to put what is strong to shame.

  5. Bobby B.

    “There are Jews who believe that it is imperative for every generation to discover where slavery exists in the world, and Rabbi Sultar has identified our dependence on overconsumption as a form of slavery.”

    That metaphor is really quite a stretch. Few choose to be enslaved. Overconsumption is totally an act of choice.

    “as a Christian I believe God will use the weak to put what is strong to shame.”

    As do I, but not on the green versus corporate versus government levels to which you refer. It will occur when Satan is bound. Anyway, whenever the weak put the strong to shame, the weak become the strong. If that ascension occurs via watered down, re-interpreted or abandoned scripture, the danger of unjust persecution by the new ruling class has been the historical norm.

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