Guests for Pessah

The Haggadah tells a decidedly Jewish narrative of how a group of wandering herdsmen was transformed into a people with its own country.

Seder table illustrative 521 (photo credit: Tim Bedison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Seder table illustrative 521
(photo credit: Tim Bedison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
The Pessah Seder is understandably seen as a Jewishonly affair: The ceremony commemorates the establishment of Jewish peoplehood. The commandment to eat the Paschal lamb was specifically designed to differentiate between the Jews who were about to leave Egypt and non-Jews, as the Torah clearly states: “No foreigner shall eat of it” (Exodus 12:43) and “No uncircumcized person may eat of it” (ibid, v. 48).
These eating restrictions remained in place as long as the Temple existed and the Pessah sacrifice could be brought.
Despite the many attempts to emphasize universalistic messages of freedom and liberty, the Haggadah tells a decidedly Jewish narrative of how a group of wandering herdsmen was transformed into a people with its own country. At least one passage from the Haggadah – “spill out Your wrath on the gentiles” – sounds downright antagonistic to the non-Jew. It would seem there is no place for non-Jews at the Seder table, at least not as a preferred policy.
Yet in the Diaspora, due primarily to high levels of intermarriage, it has become increasingly commonplace for Jewish families to include non-Jewish spouses at the Seder table. (The 2000–01 National Jewish Population Study found the intermarriage rate among American Jews was 47 percent.) For the sake of ensuring Jewish continuity, Diaspora Jews must encourage Jewish spouses in mixed marriages to set the tone for their children religiously and educationally, thus keeping open the chance for future Jewish commitment, identification and, when appropriate, conversion. To accomplish this the non-Jewish spouse must be made to feel comfortable within the Jewish tradition, whether he or she converts or not. Incorporating non-Jews in the Pessah Seder provides a perfect opportunity to introduce the non-Jew to the Jewish people.
In Israel, thankfully, Jews have for the most part been spared the ravages of intermarriage. But there is, we believe, a good reason to incorporate non-Jews in the traditional Pessah ceremony here, too. There are approximately 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of Return. Most are related in some way to the Jewish people, either through marriage or through patrilineal descent. But they were not born to a Jewish mother and are, therefore, not Jewish according to religious law.
Since religion and citizenship are inexorably connected in a state that defines itself as “Jewish,” a central step in the full integration of these immigrants is to facilitate their conversion to Judaism if they wish it. Becoming acquainted with the Pessah story, the founding holiday of the Jewish people, seems a logical place to start.
The same is true for those thousands of foreign workers who have come to Israel, who have established families and raised children who speak no other language but Hebrew, who celebrate Jewish holidays, who serve in the IDF and who are as Israeli in many ways as their Jewish schoolmates and friends.
The Pessah Seder should not be revised to be made “relevant” for non-Jews by remaking the traditional Haggadah text to include stories about, say, the American Civil Rights Movement or even accounts of discrimination or prejudice against non-Jews in 21st century Israel (although these subjects could be raised during the evening in open discourse and compared with the Biblical Exodus story). The authentic, unadulterated Haggadah story should be presented to non-Jews, complete with potentially controversial verses such as “spill out Your wrath...,” and be discussed openly and unabashedly.
Jewish law does not restrict the inclusion of non- Jews in the Seder. The prohibition against drinking wine handled by non-Jews is easy to avoid and does not apply to most wines that are pasteurized. Teaching Torah to non-Jews interested in converting is permitted.
It is also permitted to teach to Jews when non- Jews uninterested in converting are present. Even the prohibition against cooking on a holiday for a non- Jew is not an obstacle, since food for the Seder is invariably prepared in advance. The bar on non-Jews eating of the Pessah sacrifice when the Temple existed did not prevent them from taking part in other aspects of the Pessah ceremony.
The old insularity that has largely kept the Seder a private Jewish affair made sense when Jews were an endangered minority fighting for survival in the Diaspora.
Today, the reality has changed.
In the Diaspora, intermarriage has forced Jews to be more inclusive for the sake of continuity. In Israel, the return of the Jewish people to its homeland, where it no longer needs to fear assimilation and intermarriage, can enable the Seder to serve as a means to integrate non- Jews into Israeli society and teach them about the origins of the Jewish people – and, perhaps, even arouse their interest in officially joining that people.