columnJewish & Israeli Holidays

In divisive times, can we still celebrate Passover together?

Politics now serves the role that religion used to play in most people’s lives. That necessitates both a temporary ceasefire and a return to the traditional Haggadah.

Matzah. Credit: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels.
Matzah. Credit: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Even in the best of times, family gatherings can be tricky to navigate. Typical 21st-century families no longer live near one another. That means a lot of people are not used to the normal give and take that comes with close proximity to relatives who, while entitled to a place at our table, may not share our opinions about the things that matter most to us.

And that can make this Passover a particularly perilous time for families who get together for the holiday.

Jews have plenty of reasons to differ about seders, including choices about abridging the proceedings or whether or not to use a myriad of updated versions of the Haggadah that cater to particular interests some find more “relevant” than the traditional readings. And then there is always the ongoing argument between those who want to discuss each point in the service and those who simply want to move things along as quickly as possible so as not to delay the festive meal.

But the real problem today is politics, near and far. Whether arguing about issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, opinions about President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump or the equally contentious debates about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and proposals for judicial reform in Israel, there doesn’t appear to be much middle ground or space for amicable discussion.

In fact, we have grown accustomed not just to ignoring opposite political views but to demonizing them as unworthy of respect.

How do we engage in this vital ritual together without tearing ourselves apart?

Dealing with relatives with whom we disagree is always a concern when it comes to holidays, but it’s especially problematic at a time when politics now play the role that religion used to occupy in most people’s lives. We already know that in a country where people with different political beliefs read, listen and watch different media, dialogue with those who don’t share our views is already difficult. The rise of social media has made it even more challenging as those platforms have made it easier than ever not just to discount diverse opinions but to completely isolate ourselves from them.

More to the point, for a growing percentage of the population, most of their interaction with humans outside of those who live in their own households is via the Internet and social media. That’s grown even more ubiquitous following the COVID-19 pandemic that, even in its aftermath, has led to many more of us working from home and unaccustomed to behaving in public in the way that all well-mannered adults were still expected to not so long ago. That can turn even mild disagreements into catastrophes to people who have grown familiar with engaging in the sort of intemperate rhetoric and invective that is routinely deployed in venues like the Twittersphere. While it has been axiomatic that people say things on social media that they would never dare to utter to a live human being’s face, we may now be at the point where that may no longer be true.

Listen to this story here:

That is why Passover is as good a time as any for us to realize just how damaging these trends are and to try to find a way to reverse them.

In an era where religious observance is declining precipitately, attending a Passover seder remains one of the few practices that most Jews still cling to. According to the 2020 Pew Research Institute study, 62% of all Jews either hold or attend a seder. Even when you break those numbers down and limit response to those whom the demographers label “Jews of no religion,” 30% of them say they’ve gone to a seder of one sort or another with 73% of those who consider themselves to be Jewish by religion attending. That’s a lot more than those who say they keep kosher at home, observe Shabbat or even fast on Yom Kippur.

In that sense, the seder is a rare annual occasion for bonding over tradition, as well as a  family education opportunity. It offers a chance for those who view Judaism as remote from their lives to reintroduce themselves to the basics of Jewish peoplehood at the core of the seder.

But for that to happen, people have to be on speaking terms with each other. And that’s increasingly rare if it involves a conversation with someone with different political affiliations and beliefs. While polls show that most Americans have largely dropped their opposition to marriages across religious or even racial lines, those between persons of opposing political parties are increasingly rare with far more people willing to express their opposition to such matches involving their children.

That sort of intolerance, coupled with a refusal to view people with differing views as having good motives, is now simply assumed by many to be not only normal but a sign of virtue. Indeed, as the willingness to silence disparate views has migrated from college campuses to efforts to enforce Internet censorship, the acceptance of the concept of dialogue or even the basics of free speech is also becoming rare.

That might not be a problem in circles that hold the same views. But even in a Jewish community where liberals predominate, that doesn’t eliminate the need for civility as our seders encompass more than just nuclear families.

So, how do we engage in this vital ritual together without tearing ourselves apart over politics?

It requires two things: a ceasefire and shelving the trendy Haggadahs.

One of the more deplorable trends in modern life is the way so many people, especially young people, have been trained to be intolerant of opposing views. The notion that ideas that diverge from fashionable discourse or contradict the woke catechism about diversity, equity and inclusion on politics or gender are “violence” is deplorable, as is the concept of providing “safe places” for those who cannot tolerate the “trauma” of having their assumptions challenged.

But family seders must be safe places for people to attend without having to engage in verbal combat over the issues of the day. We can’t discuss the Exodus from Egypt and engage in the essential atavistic experience of imagining that we, too, are experiencing those events, rather than just reading about them, if we are too busy tearing each other apart in arguments over Trump or Netanyahu.

Equally important should be eliminating the all-too-pervasive practice of allowing fashionable non-Jewish political concerns to hijack the seder with the plethora of Haggadahs that have been published in recent years. While intended to make the seder more “relevant” to those who don’t care about Judaism, they often do more to distract us from the core message about Jewish identity and nationhood, rather than an amorphous and anodyne metaphor that can be adapted to be used to support virtually any cause.

By returning to the original text, it’s possible to eliminate the superficial adaptations that serve primarily as a platform for various sorts of political and issue advocacy that divides rather than unites us.

Only by purging our gatherings of the politics that have become a pervasive presence in every nook and cranny of contemporary life can we experience a seder that will return us to that sense of connection to the Jewish past and future that is essential to this holiday. And only by re-learning the art to agree to disagree can we have some peace in our homes, as well as in society.

Wishing you all a sweet holiday and Chag Pesach Sameach!

Happy Passover!

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates