It’s the most popular Jewish holiday of the year. Though the fastest-growing and perhaps soon to be the largest sector of American Jewry is the one demographers call “Jews of no religion,” Passover is still the one holiday that is widely observed. Surveys show that more of those who identify as Jewish—regardless of their belief in God or Jewish law, willingness to be affiliated with organized groups, synagogues and movements, or feel any sense of Jewish peoplehood—attend a seder than those who take part in any other act of observance.
Yet one of the consequences of that popularity in a country where the Jewish community is primarily secular rather than religious is that Passover is also frequently hijacked by those who wish to use it to promote causes other than those that relate to its actual religious purpose. While the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt has always been seen by the wider culture as a metaphor for the struggle of all people for freedom, it is only in the last few generations that the traditional Haggadah has been rewritten by Jews in order to be used to highlight a laundry list of fashionable liberal ideas ranging from civil rights, the plight of immigrants and worries about climate change.
One of the most obnoxious efforts to twist the Haggadah into something essentially non-Jewish was the one published by the anti-Zionist Jewish group Voice for Peace. It replaced the traditional Passover story of the liberation of the Jews with one about the alleged oppression of Palestinian Arabs by Israel. In it, the Jews are now Pharaoh while the people whose goal is to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet are depicted as the Jewish slaves yearning for freedom. That not only stands the truth about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on its head, but it also adds insult to injury in an act that would in any other context be considered one of inexcusable cultural appropriation.
That’s an extreme example, but for Jews who see the world through a universalist lens that treats contemporary ideas about social justice as the sum total of Jewish belief, it’s hardly surprising that so many would see Passover as a vehicle for politics. This is an era when politics now plays the role that religion used to occupy in the lives of many people. So perhaps it is to be expected that the holiday would be reimagined as one in which Jewish particularity is downplayed in favor of ideas that are more easily understood by those who are uncomfortable with too much Judaism.
Pushing back against this trend can seem to be as futile an endeavor as getting most of those attending seders to sit back down and complete the reading of the Haggadah after the meal. But perhaps the best thing we can do this year is to drill down into the basic message of the seder and make it clear that there is a very timely message in it that ought to resonate with even those who are largely alienated from Jewish tradition.
Perhaps secular Jews aren’t really interested in understanding that the main point of the liberation of the Jewish slaves wasn’t a purely libertarian cause. Their freedom wasn’t for its own sake, but in order for them to serve their God. Moses, who is the hero of the Exodus story, is missing from the Haggadah. That is because the message is not about a man, even one as great as Moses. Rather, it’s that the newly freed slaves become a people only through their belief in the God that took them out of Egypt.
Intrinsic to this process is that what happens isn’t merely a jailbreak from a place of oppression, but the creation of a people with a mission and a home.
The atavism at the center of the Passover experience—the belief that what happened then isn’t merely history or a nice story, but something that actually happened to all of us—is obvious. Moreover, it is something that is essentially collective in nature. The tale of the four sons—simple, wise, wicked and the one unable to ask a question—is important because the one who chooses exclusion from the community isn’t so much saying “no” to freedom as holding himself aloof from a sense of connection to something greater than themselves.
What emerges from Egypt is, after all, not merely a collection of slaves. It represents the formation of a people whose goal is driven by faith—understanding that their journey will never be complete without it and is one that ends in the homeland they dreamed of while under the lash.
All of which is to say that while updates of Passover are almost all feeding from the universalist element of Judaism that seeks to unite the world under the just rule of God, the liberation is about the creation of a single people with a unique task that must ultimately involve nation-building in the land they will eventually call home. It is not an accident that the seder ends with the promise of next year in Jerusalem, and that even if we are enslaved at present, we aspire to be free there.
This is a moment in world history in which the post-modern rejection of nationalism and particularity in favor of the erasure of borders and identities is antithetical to the cause of the moment: the struggle of the Ukrainian people to preserve their freedom and their state. Those who see Passover as merely a story that helps illustrate non-Jewish causes must reckon with the fact that Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us that freedom is only possible when the particular can be protected. Without a sovereign state to defend them and uphold their cultural identity, Ukrainian freedom wouldn’t survive. So, too, is the survival of the State of Israel inextricably linked with that of the Jewish people. Indeed, in order to argue—as some on the far left do—that love of the land of Israel and Zionism is not integral to Judaism, you have to rewrite the seder, and throw most of the text and its meaning away.
Like that of any other people, Jewish freedom is impossible without Israel. Love of it and the obligation to stand with it and defend it are at the core of every seder. Though universal justice is part of the message of Judaism and Passover, any observance of the holiday that ignores the realization that the Exodus and the ascension from Egyptian slavery to freedom are about the creation of the Jewish nation is a misunderstanding of the festival.
From all of us at JNS to all of our readers and their families, we wish you a sweet holiday and a Chag Pesach Sameach!
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.