Think about it: Passover – the feast of freedom

Whatever one may think of the actual text of the Haggada, it is undoubtedly an ingenious layout for keeping everyone busy and engaged, even if one might resent the distribution of roles (where are the women, except in the kitchen?).

Seder  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Several years ago a friend suggested that we hold a Seder without the Haggada, which, in her opinion, is an outdated, anomalous and politically incorrect text.
Instead, she proposed that we organize a meal (not necessarily a kosher-for-passover one) around the concept of freedom, which, she argued, is the leitmotif of Passover. I objected.
Whatever the merits or demerits of the Haggada, the traditional Seder, based on the Haggada, is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition with which both she and I grew up as secular Jews, and besides being an enjoyable social event, spent with family and/or friends and involving very specific and detailed culinary planning and preparations, also involves childhood memories and nostalgia.
Whatever one may think of the actual text of the Haggada, it is undoubtedly an ingenious layout for keeping everyone busy and engaged, even if one might resent the distribution of roles (where are the women, except in the kitchen?).
True, following the return to Zion, there were attempts, especially in the kibbutzim, to rewrite the Haggada, so that it would be better suited to the new era and circumstances.
Non-Orthodox streams in Judaism, feminists and others have also produced new versions, befitting their beliefs or ideology. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vegans produced their own version, without the carnage of Had Gadya .
However, personally I never managed to connect to any of the alternative Haggadot. There is no escape from the fact that there is something a little unnatural about invented traditions.
The closest I have been willing to go toward an alternative text and narrative is to bring with me to the Seder a copy of “Halaila Hazeh – Haggada Yisraelit,” which was written by Mishael and Noam Zion and published in 2002 in memory of Marla Bennett, who was massacred that year in a terrorist attack in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University, and which includes the full traditional Haggada, with various modern explanations and additions, and fun illustrations by Michel Kichka.
During Seders I attend from time to time abroad, to which gentile friends are occasionally invited, I am happy to have a text I can add to the embarrassing “shfoch hamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yaducha,” (pour out Thy wrath upon the nations who knew Thee not) which blesses the gentiles who have protected Jews in difficult times. I have heard the traditional explanation for the original paragraph, but always find it wanting. Just as I would consider it offensive if in a Christmas celebration Christians would pray to God that he pour out his wrath upon the Jews who reject Christ as the son of God and the Messiah, so I believe it is offensive to ask God to pour out his wrath on the gentiles, who do not believe in him as the God of Israel.
But back to the concept of freedom. It is certainly a topic worthy of serious philosophical conversation, with or without an accompanying meal, but preferably without children, who out of sheer boredom might well start playing out their natural freedom instincts.
I have frequently wondered about the historical accuracy of the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt, which like most other biblical stories undoubtedly has a grain of truth in it, but is unfortunately not backed up by concrete evidence or archeological finds. However, assuming that the Jewish people were, in fact, slaves in Egypt, gained their freedom with or without the help of the Almighty, and then made their way at snail’s pace to the Land of Israel, dayenu – a reason to rejoice, and count our blessings.
However, if we look at how various sections of the Jewish people view the concept of freedom today, here we are likely to find a reflection of all the schisms that divide us into different political, economic and social camps, which at times seem to threaten our continued existence as a sovereign, independent state, as if there is something ingrained in our collective DNA which prefers longings for liberty and freedom to liberty and freedom themselves.
Freedom for the haredim and freedom for liberal secular Jews represents something very different. While for the liberal secular Jew freedom implies being able to live one’s life as one chooses, without any religious coercion or other interference (beyond obeying the law of the land), for the haredi man freedom implies being able to spend his whole life studying in a yeshiva, without having to work, and without serving in the army. What freedom means to the haredi woman is less clear – I wonder whether the word “freedom” has any meaning for her, unless the almost total absence of personal choice can somehow be interpreted to mean the freedom to live as God created woman (according to Orthodox Judaism) to live.
For members of the National Religious settlers in Judea and Samaria, freedom means the right to live anywhere in these territories, which are viewed by them to be inalienable Jewish land, irrespective of facts on the ground, the rights of others and how the international community views the situation. To some this sense of freedom is taken to extremes, as we observed last week in Yitzhar, which demonstrates how easily “freedom” may turn into “anarchy” and “lawlessness.”
For neo-liberals freedom means an unbridled and unregulated free economy, even though its social consequences are ruinous, while in the eyes of social-democrats there can be no freedom without a well-ordered welfare state. There are, however, those who try to combine the two approaches, and thus Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who strongly believed in the free market and the right to private property, nevertheless stated that the state is responsible for providing its citizens with sufficient food, adequate housing, clothing, schooling and health services.
However, what is most disturbing is that there are many who believe that it is only Jews who have the right to enjoy full freedom in Eretz Yisrael. The concept that the other inhabitants of this land including Israel’s Arab (Palestinian) citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, foreign workers, African refugees and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union also deserve full personal freedom, not to mention basic human and civil rights, is totally foreign to them, and anyone who dares advocate this concept is considered by them to be a self-hating, apologetic Jew, lacking in dignity and self-respect.
This is, in a nutshell, just a taste of what is involved in a serious discussion on what we mean by the word “freedom.”
I prefer to spend the Seder reading the Haggada, eating a traditional Seder meal, and singing the Passover songs. It is a welcome respite from all the daily concerns.
Hag same’ah!
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.