OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Searching for meaning behind an empty metaphor

Alternative Seders were once outliers. If they become mainstream, what does that portend for the future of American Jewry?

A Passover seder plate featuring an orange, which was added several years ago by some as a symbol of women’s rights or to represent the gay and lesbian community.
A Passover seder plate featuring an orange, which was added several years ago by some as a symbol of women’s rights or to represent the gay and lesbian community.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For those who worry about the future of American Jewry, Passover brings some comfort. According to a survey published in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans who identify as Jewish attend a Passover Seder. That’s far more than those who fast on Yom Kippur, light Sabbath candles, attend religious services or keep kosher. The numbers remain significant even for those whom Pew labeled “Jews of no religion” in its landmark study of the community published the previous year. According to Pew, fully 42 percent of those in that fast-growing demographic who have only tenuous ties to faith and peoplehood participate in a Seder.

A Passover Seder plate featuring an orange, which was added several years ago by some as a symbol of women’s rights or to represent the gay and lesbian community.

That makes the Seder one of the few remaining connections to Jewish tradition for many Jews. Since the Seder is a unique exercise in national memory that transports Jews back to their origins—and challenges them not merely memorialize the Exodus from Egypt, but to have personally taken part in it—that makes the ritual service a powerful moment in which our grasp of a sense of Jewish peoplehood can be reaffirmed.

But what if that isn’t the way most American Jews view Passover? What if, for all of its ubiquity, the Seder that so many Jews attend isn’t so much a reminder of their origins and the particular challenge of Jewish life, but an empty metaphor into which any cause or belief can be celebrated?

That’s the dilemma that faces an American Jewish community as it heads into yet another Passover in which some treat the Seder as merely a vehicle for promoting whatever fashionable cause is at the top of the current liberal agenda. The saga of the children of Israel’s flight from slavery in Egypt to freedom has always been a metaphor for the struggle for freedom of all peoples. But what happens when Jews stop seeing it as the story of how their own identity was forged and begin to see it more in terms of what it symbolizes for other concerns? What will it mean if a critical mass of Jews begins to be more comfortable with using their story as a reason to care about other concerns, rather than with expressing their own faith and history?

That’s a question we’re forced to ask about the meaning of Passover to the majority of American Jews this week who will attend Seders. Are we getting closer to a tipping point when the Passover ritual will cease being primarily a reaffirmation of Jewish identity and instead become the annual celebration of a universalist creed in which the particularism of Judaism is downgraded? While we’re nowhere near the moment when even most non-Orthodox Jews cease telling the story of the Exodus in a manner that divorces the holiday from a specifically Jewish struggle for freedom, it must also be conceded that the days when alternative Seders—in which the point is to promote other causes, be it civil rights, environmentalism, labor unions, the plight of immigrants or even the struggle of Palestinian Arabs to destroy Israel—are no longer outliers.

This trend can be traced to the “Freedom Seder” Haggadah written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. First published in the leftist Ramparts magazine in 1969 on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (then published in book form the following year and subsequently periodically reissued by his Shalom Center), Waskow morphed the traditional liturgy into a piece of political advocacy that identified Judaism and the story of the Exodus with the struggle for equality in America. While the cause of Dr. King and civil rights was just, Waskow’s clever adaptation was geared towards directing participants to a brand of leftist activism.

The “Freedom Seder” was embraced as a way to promote a social-justice agenda that was in many respects compatible with traditional Judaism. In the decades that followed, other alternative Seders were published in which the Jewish content of the Seder was increasingly edited out of the discussion, to be replaced by various causes that were treated as the primary focus.

In its most anodyne form, such efforts can be an inoffensive supplement to Jewish ritual. Yet what happens when the alternatives become the mainstream way of understanding Passover, especially among the vast majority of Jews whose version of the Seder is already light on Jewish content and a race to get through a few obligatory passages before a festive meal is served?

It’s bad enough when the Seder is distorted into a ritual that disrespects Jewish memory—such as those who would compare the plight of illegal immigrants in the United States not only to slaves in Egypt, but to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Even worse is what happens when the Seder is hijacked as part of a propaganda campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state—the ultimate expression of the freedom that the Haggadah celebrates. That’s the only way to describe a Haggadah put out by the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace group that seeks Israel’s destruction and in which Palestinians are substituted for the children of Israel.

What you have then is the perfect illustration of author Cynthia Ozick’s famous line about “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” Those who use Jewish ritual in this fashion are aiding rather than combating the forces weakening Jewish life in the Diaspora. Those who see Passover as a weapon to be used against Jewish identity and rights are ultimately waging war on Judaism and the Jewish people.

Alternative Seders can have their uses, and all families should think about ways in which they can spice up their rituals to make them meaningful. Seders are the definitive family-education experience and should be viewed as opportunities to teach in innovative ways, as well as to bring us together to eat and sing a few familiar melodies.

But an empty metaphor is of use to no one. When they become cudgels in the push for assimilation or even against Israel’s existence, alternative Seders must be seen as not only a poor substitute for tradition, but also a means to extinguish it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Jews — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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