Each year at Passover time, in a modern-day ritual that has become as trite as it is tiresome, the media report on new-fangled ways in which various Jews seek to imbue the festival with meaning by linking it to the latest cause célèbre.
From civil rights to gun violence to genetically modified foods, the Seder has come to serve as an uneasy platform for a variety of political causes, many of which are as suitable for the holiday as a freshly baked loaf of Wonder Bread.
Though perhaps well-intentioned, these efforts do a grave injustice to Jewish history and belief, and dilute the essence of what Passover is about to the point that it becomes almost unrecognizable. This is not only a tragic development but a grave mistake, one that threatens to further accelerate the assimilation and disappearance of marginally affiliated Jews.
One of this year’s more popular themes has been the plight of Syrian refugees, which prompted an outpouring of appeals from various Jewish leaders to use the Passover Seder to highlight the fate of those fleeing the dictatorial Assad regime.
Take, for example, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a once-venerable Jewish organization that was founded to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Czarist Russia to the shores of the United States in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries.
This year, the group issued a Haggada supplement that all but de-Judaizes the text, encouraging the reader to focus on “the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today’s refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives.”
“In the United States, in particular,” it says, in a thinly veiled reference to the new president, “we have experienced a devastating closing of doors to refugees. We now have the opportunity this evening to move beyond the headlines and the statistics to focus on the individual experiences behind the numbers and policies.”
For a moment, I thought I was reading a press release issued by the Democratic Party rather than an appendage to the Haggada prepared by a Jewish organization.
Another, even more pronounced illustration of the politicization of Passover can be found in a short video released by the Reconstructionist Movement. Tellingly, it shows a traditional Seder plate containing symbolic foods which are then either replaced or supplemented with items such as a beet, “to encourage compassion toward animals”; olives, to evoke “Israel and Palestine”; and even an orange, to call forth the need to embrace women and LGBTQ people.
With all due respect, Passover is not about the crisis in Syria, hugging trees or saving the polar icecaps. It is the story of the Jewish past and the gateway to our future, an intellectual, emotional and experiential means of transmitting Jewish identity down through the generations.
Shifting the spotlight to other causes, however worthy or dubious they might be, inevitably downgrades the distinctly Jewish aspect of the evening, emphasizing the universal at the expense of the Jewish story that is being told.
There are plenty of other opportunities for rabbis and communal leaders to push their political agendas. So why not use the Seder to promote Jewish identity rather than progressive causes?
Particularly now, when assimilation and intermarriage are running rampant throughout large segments of Western Jewry, it is all the more important to utilize the Seder as a Jewish outreach tool, not a political one.
In a study published by the Pew Research Center three years ago, 70% of American Jews said they participated in a Seder, which is higher than the figure for those who say they fast on Yom Kippur or light Sabbath candles at home.
This makes the Seder one of the few remaining communal traditions which draws a large majority of American Jews. And that is why it is such a shame that so many rabbis and others choose to pervert its message.
I think it is safe to say that comparing the Ten Plagues which G-d inflicted on the Egyptians to the Assad regime dropping sarin gas on innocent civilians, as one Long Island rabbi told Newsday, is not what our sages had in mind when they instructed us to gather each year and retell the story of the Exodus.
I dare say that such warped thinking is little more than intellectual hametz, and should be avoided on Passover at all costs.
The need to find meaning in the text of the Haggada is of course admirable, but why not seek it out in the words and themes therein rather than distorting them beyond recognition?
So in the spirit of those whom I have criticized, I would like to conclude with my own supplementary Passover prayer: May we all be set free from the slavery of silliness that seems to plague so many contemporary Jewish leaders, so that we can return to appreciating Passover and its traditions as they were meant to be.
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