Passover. The perfect time for asking – and answering – questions.
fact, it’s a tradition. But the question that floored me recently was posed
during a live radio broadcast I did a few weeks ago for Radio New
“Can you tell me, Liat, what is an Orthodox Jew?” asked the
voice down the phone, speaking a long, long way from Jerusalem.
my eyes, but not to the hills which I can see from my office window.
didn’t expect Divine intervention or even inspiration from the distant sight of
Nebi Samwil, traditionally considered the burial site of the biblical prophet
Samuel. Rather I raised my eyes to the clock on my wall which showed I had 10
minutes of a live broadcast to try to explain something that might take more
than a lifetime to understand.
I quipped that the answer would probably
take more time than we had and, as I muttered that I’d spent most of my life as
a Modern Orthodox Jew and still couldn’t quite define the experience, salvation
come from a slightly different direction.
“Is an Orthodox Jew similar to
a fundamentalist Christian?” asked interviewer Bryan Crump,
It’s hard to say what modern Orthodoxy is, but I know what it
isn’t, so that was easy to answer: No.
In the end, I settled for
explaining that Judaism is a religion and a way of life, with built-in laws
prescribing behavior from the moment you get up in the morning to the minute you
go to sleep, including what you eat (and how to bless it), what you wear (and
how you wear it), and how you conduct yourself.
The level of observance
depends on how strictly you interpret and abide by those rules.
in Australia, America, Britain and Israel who heard the broadcast – the joys of
modern media technology – all approved of the answer, especially as it was given
on the go, without time to prepare – al regel ahat, as we say in Hebrew. That
phrase sums up what Judaism is meant to be, no matter what level of Orthodoxy
you do or don’t observe. It comes from the talmudic story of the man who told
Hillel he would convert if he could teach him the whole Torah, “al regel ahat,”
standing on one leg. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself – the rest is
commentary,” the sage replied, providing not only a concise version of the most
basic precept of Judaism, but a valuable philosophy for all.
It is that
philosophy that we seem to have deserted in the arguments over the nitty-gritty
of religious law, I later reflected. I might mention here that the interview had
been discussing the topic of women singing in the army. If that doesn’t seem to
be a controversial issue – or an issue at all – you obviously have not spent the
last few months living where I do.
A few years ago I tried to explain to
a different journalist, also from New Zealand as it happens, the very basic laws
of kashrut. I’d barely got past the fact that we don’t eat meat and milk
together and that certain foods are forbidden when he interjected: “It all seems
rather complicated, Liat.”
If that seems complicated, it’s a good job he
can’t see what goes on during Passover preparations, let alone the rules
determining what can be eaten during the holiday, I thought.
Passover is the defining experience for Jews everywhere. That’s why Chabad
literally caters to Jews around the world, offering a Seder night experience to
backpackers in places as far apart as East Asia and South America.
Exodus from Egypt, in effect, marks the birth of the Jewish nation and the
yearning to return to the Promised Land as a free people. Jews who can’t recite
even the Ten Commandments (and probably don’t know that, to complicate matters,
there are 613 commandments contained in the Torah) can nonetheless recall
stories of Seder nights from their childhood.
Passover is about tradition
– each family with its own particular habits and rituals. Above all, it is about
the collective experience of celebrating the story of the Exodus, each one as if
it happened to us personally, in our generation.
Every year, I hear of
new Haggadot telling the Passover story. Most are considered new and different
because of their illustrations or the explanations on a certain theme. This
year’s hits include the much-hyped New American Haggadah and the touching Koren
Ethiopian Haggada. Haggadot in which the text has been changed, rather than the
interpretation, seem to me to miss the whole point of the holiday. The point is
that we can still sit around a table, anywhere, and recite the same miraculous
story and sing the same songs. The tunes might be different, and we can argue
over them and their meaning, but whatever they are they’ll jog personal – and
collective – memories of Seders past (and, no doubt, of other arguments around
the table). We still teach our children – our own offspring or nieces, nephews
or the neighbors – the same history, not some ever-changing
Whereas Hillel’s explanation of the laws of the Torah brings
us together, fighting over religion is a sure way to topple over.
is feeling uncomfortable in our identity. It’s getting to the stage when I fear
that the UN is going to hold a debate on whether we have the right to conclude
the Seder service with the traditional “Next year in Jerusalem!” It has become
increasingly fashionable to differentiate between “settlers” and Israelis. But
“settlers” are people too. Most of them are as far from the stereotype as New
Zealand is from Israel.
Blaming all the country’s troubles on the
settlements is perverse at best. Perhaps it’s a form of wishful thinking. If
only we did such-and-such, then all our problems would be solved.
After another year of nonstop missile fire from Gaza and terrorist
attacks on Jews in Israel and abroad, it should be clear that there are no
simple answers or solutions – and certainly the answer does not lie in the
It should also be apparent that standing together makes us
The day following Passover, Israel marks Mimouna, a festival
traditionally celebrated by Moroccan Jews. Every politician with ambition,
regardless of ethnic background, takes part: If you’re not pictured eating
moufleta you might be on the political map, but it’s hard to prove
Even if the country isn’t due to hold elections until October 2013,
it’s clear all parties are gearing up for them. And, as usual, that means the
ethnic genie is coming out of the bottle. When Shaul Mofaz won the Kadima
primary elections last week, for example, beating Tzipi Livni, it was obvious he
wanted to focus on social issues, a card the former IDF chief of staff and
former minister had not really played in the past.
I understand the
temptation, but it’s a gamble. A generation is growing up for whom the ethnic
issue is, fortunately, increasingly irrelevant. Many younger Israelis when they
sit around the Seder table will be combining the best traditions of both their
Ashkenazi and Sephardi relatives.
After the salt water and bitter herbs
comes a festive meal, in many flavors.
As long as we can enjoy it, I say
“Dayenu,” that would be sufficient.
Miraculously, even eggs in salt water
and bitter herbs leave a good taste when you sit down to eat them surrounded by
family and friends.The writer is editor of
The International Jerusalem