The Passover Seder demonstrates the critical role of communication in understanding our common history, building our sense of belonging, and charting a course for the future of the Jewish people.
The Seder is built around dialogue, around detailed textual analysis, and perhaps most famously around questions and answers – even difficult questions framed in deliberately provocative terms. And, of course, it also includes four cups of wine, uplifting songs, a focus on our children, and good food.
Through all these elements, we build a sense of family ties and national belonging, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, wrote, both “vertically” across time and “horizontally” across our communal spaces. At the Seder, we use communication to build a greater “us,” nurturing our sense of identity with the preceding generations and with Jews everywhere.
Participating in a Seder is one of the most universal experiences of Jews in the world today, regardless of geography or religious affiliation. Therefore, as we approach this Passover on the heels of the epic rupture in communication and belonging that the Jewish nation has experienced over the past weeks, we must use the lessons we will relearn at our Seders to ensure that we proceed on a constructive and unifying course when the political debates resume after the holiday.
A constructive national dialogue is essential to the future of the State of Israel and its relationship with world Jewry. It is true, as many have correctly noted, that the current controversy has been caused by deeper issues than just concerns about the correct balance between Israel’s legislative and judicial functions, especially issues related to the changing demographics and religious identification of both Israel and the Diaspora, and the impact of these changes on culture, economics, the military and individual liberties.
But the fact that the current tensions have deeper causes and will take much more work to fully resolve is even more reason to approach the debate with the greatest of care and sensitivity.
DURING THE current crisis, political speech has been the prevailing form of communication in the Jewish world. Rather than building the greater “us,” political speech aims to enhance the sense of “us and them,” highlighting differences and ignoring commonalities, while portraying the concerns and positions of the other in the most extreme fashion possible. To be sure, there are substantive differences between the opposing factions, but there is so much more that is shared. And despite the noise, all are part of a greater “us”.
How do we make it right?
Political speech must be eclipsed by national dialogue, with personal attack replaced by substantial debate. Airtime and credit must go to those on all sides promoting shared values. We should focus on:
- Unity: Entrust the dialogue to those – such as President Isaac Herzog – whose goal is building the greater “us” rather than widening the gap between “us and them.” Unity will not be achieved by those who seek political or other benefit from the continuation of the struggle, but by the strong, firm, and calming voices of those whose priorities are peace, unity and stability, and who celebrate every step toward consensus and every bit of progress achieved.
- Engagement: Approach the other with a listening ear, genuinely seeking to understand their concerns. Let all four sons sit around the same table, pose their questions, and get to know each other. While strangers are misunderstood and feared, engagement invariably bridges gaps and humanizes both sides.
- Humility: As Hillel taught by personal example, dialogue begins with the acknowledgment of the genuine concerns of the other party. Build reassurance by amplifying shared values and by not exaggerating differences. Move forward with the beautiful prayer of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk on our lips and in our hearts, asking God to “place into our hearts appreciation for the goodness of our fellow beings, and let us not seek to find fault with them.”
The upcoming holiday presents us with an opportunity. Both sides have demonstrated their passionate commitment to the future of Israel, as they each see that future. Neither side is going away. This is the moment to reduce demonization by building personal familiarity.
WHILE AT a far lower temperature, the American Jewish community faces similar underlying issues to those at the core of the current tensions in Israel. Here, too, segments of the community are moving in different directions, posing challenges that will only be addressed by partnership and communication.
We write these words together not as a “feel good” Passover message, but as colleagues and friends with different vantage points on the Jewish world doing our best to live up to these values and behaviors in our own work. We each make mistakes, and we check each other’s work, but, in the face of the challenges in Israel and at home, we are committed to doubling down on dialogue, collaboration and mutual respect.
And we are not alone in this, as we are part of an outstanding group of Jewish communal leaders talking and working together through this challenging time.
The Haggadah records how after a long and productive night of dialogue, the sages were reminded to conclude and to recite the Shema prayer. With the words “Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel,” we express our commitment to our nation, Yisrael, along with our commitment to the one God. May all of us arise from the Seder table with a renewed sense of identity with the generations that preceded us and with Jews everywhere.
Eric D. Fingerhut is president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU).