My Word: Passing Passover thoughts

The level of observance depends on how strictly you interpret and abide by the rules.

Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Passover. The perfect time for asking – and answering – questions.
In 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 Zealand.
“Can you tell me, Liat, what is an Orthodox Jew?” asked the voice down the phone, speaking a long, long way from Jerusalem.
I raised my eyes, but not to the hills which I can see from my office window.
I 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, helpfully.
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.
Friends 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.
And yet 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.
The 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 narrative.
Whereas Hillel’s explanation of the laws of the Torah brings us together, fighting over religion is a sure way to topple over.
So too 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.
If only.
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 UN.
It should also be apparent that standing together makes us stronger.
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 it.
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 Post.
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