Keep Your Politics Out of Passover

TEL AVIV — More than any other Jewish text, the Passover Haggadah — the book that guides participants through the Seder — is a quilt sewn over generations. It is mysterious and beautiful, and often restless. It weaves together social justice (inviting the needy to join the meal), storytelling (about how our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt), ceremonial symbols (unleavened bread and a shank bone, to name just two), pedagogy (asking questions from a wise son and a wicked one), celebration (for the Exodus) and pleas for help (“Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You”).

The Haggadah also encapsulates two competing instincts in Jews today. On one hand is the tribal-national sense of peoplehood — the Exodus from Egypt represents the creation of a people, the Jewish people. On the other hand is the universalist-humanist — the Hebrews’ emancipation from Pharaoh has become a symbol of freedom from oppression, and “Let my people go” a rallying cry everywhere.

Because it reconciles these two threads in Jewish life, Passover is appreciated by nearly everyone in the Jewish community and more widely observed than any other holiday. In Israel, more than 90 percent of Jews celebrate Passover; in the United States, 70 percent. But this holiday can also be a moment of polarization, and the Haggadah can be a Rorschach test as Jews choose competing interpretations.

A contemporary reading is often a political one. Life today is, of course, very different from what it was centuries ago when the Haggadah was assembled. So some Jews reinvent the book to suit their new needs. The socialist kibbutz movement produced hundreds of Haggadot over the years, with references to collectivist ideals and modern events like the Holocaust. In 1969, some American Jews created a “freedom Haggadah” in support of the African-American struggle for equality. More recently, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer edited a stylish postmodern Haggadah, well suited, one critic wrote, to “our age of distraction.”

Jews today use the Haggadah to emphasize social justice, feminism, secularism, vegetarianism. Some add a fifth cup of wine to the traditional four either to note the ultimate “redemption,” the establishment of the State of Israel, or to celebrate Moses’s sister Miriam, and the role of women throughout Jewish history.

This year, there seem to be two trendy themes for Haggadot. Liberal American Jews could use the Haggadah and its lessons about welcoming strangers to express their opposition to President Trump’s immigration policies. Israeli Jews who oppose Israel’s control of the West Bank could use the Jubilee Haggadah, put out by a group called Save Israel, Stop the Occupation, which marks “the 50th year of the state of Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people” and argues that “the Palestinian people yearn for their own escape from bondage.”

In some ways, new readings of the Haggadah are a blessing. They take an ancient text and make it relevant. They make it easier for disconnected Jews to find meaning in the Passover Seder. They enable a contemporary — often secular — Jew to relate to a text that is in many ways culturally foreign. And it is reasonable to expect that a text that was devised in a messy and unorderly process over hundreds of years will continue to evolve.

But in other ways, the modern Haggadot are a curse. They take a historically unifying celebration of a people and turn it into a politically divisive event. Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land. Some Jews celebrate by stressing the need for compassion for the stranger; others celebrate by underscoring the merits of tribalism. Passover is a time for Jews to acknowledge their shared roots and their covenants of fate and destiny. Yet many new Haggadot define Jewish groups by pitting them against one another.

They also trivialize Judaism and its sacred festivals and texts. And this is not unique to Passover. There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.

“What makes this night different than all other nights?” the Haggadah asks. It is our responsibility to give a proper answer. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.”

For many generations, this is how we answer this question — as the Haggadah guides us. For many generations, we have followed a script. There is an answer for the wise son, and an answer for the wicked son, one for the simple son, one for the silent son. The Haggadah doesn’t tell us how to answer the son who cannot stop talking about the news, not even for one night. Maybe it is hinting that he does not merit an answer.

Robert B. Fishman/picture-alliance, via dpa, via Associated Press


What is Passover?

Passover is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the emancipation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It typically falls in early- to mid-April, coinciding with 15th to the 22nd of the Jewish month of Nissan, based on the lunar calendar.

How is it celebrated?

People who observe Passover will attend a Seder, a dinner where the story of the Exodus from Egypt is recounted. Seder means ‘order’ in Hebrew because the Seder ritual is performed in a specific order.

People celebrating Passover may abstain from eating leavened bread and eat Matzo, which is a kind of unleavened bread, instead.

The four main events at a Seder are eating matzo, eating bitter herbs, drinking four cups of wine associated with blessings and reading from the Haggadah, or book that tells the Passover story.

What is the story of Passover?

Judaism teaches that the Jews were living as slaves in Egypt, forced into heavy labor and poor living conditions. God heard their cries and sent Moses to free the people from the Pharaoh's rule. Moses asked Pharaoh to "Let my people go."

When Pharaoh refused, God unleashed a series of 10 plagues upon Egypt. Moses asked Pharaoh for the Jews' freedom after each of the plagues. When Pharaoh rejected Moses' requests, a new plague struck Egypt. After the last plague, the killing of the first born sons of Egyptians, Pharaoh relented and the Jews were set free. The first born sons of Jewish people were spared, or "passed over," which gives the holiday its namesake.

The Jews packed up their belongings, but did not have time to wait for their bread to rise, baking Matzo instead. Pharaoh however changed his mind and sent his army after the Jews. Once they reached the Red Sea, the Jews feared they were trapped. Instead, the Torah teaches that God parted the Red Sea allowing the Jews to walk through to safety, but closed the sea again as Pharaoh’s army tried to follow.

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