Think About It: About the Passover Seder, pluralism and tolerance

In other words, Passover is for me folklore, the folklore of my people, though I respect all those who view it from a religious perspective.

A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Passover does not have any religious meaning for me. It is part of my culture and heritage as a Jewess, and is allegedly part of my history. Even though the story about the sojourn of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt, their connection to the construction of the pyramids, and finally the exodus from Egypt which we celebrate during the Passover might have some factual basis, there is no concrete evidence, as is true of many other biblical stories.
In other words, Passover is for me folklore, the folklore of my people, though I respect all those who view it from a religious perspective. As I see it, this is what pluralism and mutual tolerance is all about.
I admit that when I celebrate the Seder with religious friends, I enjoy every moment of the ceremony – the full ceremony, as I remember it from childhood, when my grandfather ran the family Seder. He, incidentally, was also secular, but went to synagogue every Saturday morning and every holiday, and celebrated the holidays kehilchatam – as prescribed by Jewish law – as he was used to celebrating them back in pre-revolutionary Russia.
The Seder as celebrated by secular individuals today is, of course, something quite different. It is usually cut short after the festive meal, when one moves straight to the songs – “Ehad Mi Yode’a,” “Chad Gadya” and all the rest. If the secular Seder is spent with people I like, and especially if there are children present, I also derive pleasure from this less strict ceremony. I even admit enjoying cooking the traditional Seder meal, which I cannot do for a religious Seder since my kitchen is not Kosher.
The Haggada I use in some of the secular Seders I have attended in recent years is one called Halaila Hazeh – Haggada Yisraelit (“This Night – An Israeli Haggada), which includes the traditional Haggada plus additions (no deletions) that make it more relevant to the present day and palatable to liberal seculars, who find some parts of the Haggada disturbing, especially “Pour out your wrath upon the Gentiles, those who have not known you, and upon those kingdoms that have not called upon Your name.”
In Seders I have attended in Berlin, with the participation of Israelis, local Jews and gentiles, I always felt uncomfortable when we reached this phrase. The Israeli Haggada adds the following (which is of unclear origin): “Pour out your love upon the Gentiles, those who know you, and upon those kingdoms who call Your name, for the good which they do for the seed of Jacob, and they shield Your people of Israel from their enemies.”
Those who do not stick to the traditional Seder are sometimes inclined to speak of the events described in the Haggada against the background of current events. This is tempting if one is trying to give the Seder some contemporary meaning, but is liable to give the event a sour flavor, since in connection to our celebration of the holiday of our freedom, one cannot avoid mentioning, for example, the African asylum seekers, whom the State of Israel seeks to ship off to countries in Africa that are not exactly awaiting them with open arms. Are their history, freedom and wellbeing of less importance to the state authorities, our leaders, the majority of Jews in this country, and even to the Almighty than are ours?
The comment, two weeks ago, of the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, which referred to blacks (he used the derogatory term “kushim”) as monkeys, places this whole issue in a highly disturbing light, since Rabbi Yosef is one of the two highest official, state-paid rabbis in Israel today – a man with a good deal of power, who together with his Ashkenazi counterpart dominates a monstrous religious apparatus which dominates large sections of the Israeli public domain.
True, Yosef was not referring to the African asylum seekers, and the subject at hand was quite esoteric, having nothing whatsoever to do with black people but rather with the blessing for trees that is said once a year, in the month of Nisan, with regard to edible-fruit-bearing trees that are in bloom. Yossef decided to compare this blessing with the blessing of “Meshaneh Habriyot” (“changing that which is created”) which applies to deformed or “discolored” human beings and even strange-looking beasts.
Yosef explained – and only God knows why this was the example he chose, and what it has to do with trees – that the blessing applies to Blacks both of whose parents are white “but gave birth to a monkey,” and that therefore, if one is in the US and sees a black person one need only say the blessing if his parents are white.
When enlightened persons started protesting in disgust, Rabbi Yosef’s office stated that “he was quoting the Babylonian Talmud,” as if quoting a largely outdated, unenlightened, politically incorrect text originating in the second and third centuries makes what he said OK.
It is not OK, and neither my belief in pluralism and tolerance, nor the law of the land, can tolerate such sayings and beliefs. In an era in which MK Nissan Slomiansky (the current chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee) and many of his colleagues seek to increase the role of Halacha (Jewish law) in our lives, it is high time that its various components – including the Babylonian Talmud – be modernized and updated, throwing out what is objectionable and even contrary to the modern liberal laws of the State of Israel, and keeping what is worthy.
It is probably too much to ask that the same be done with the Haggada, and I am aware of the fact that large sections of the Israeli population believe that it is the secular laws of the State of Israel that ought to be amended to correspond with the religious laws, and not the other way around.
The religious holidays, including Passover, are a time when religious Jews come in large numbers to the Western Wall to pray. I recently told a religious friend of mine that I have stopped visiting the Wall because I feel that it has been hijacked from the people as a whole, including those of us who are secular, and turned into a strict, open-air synagogue.
My friend answered that the Wall is a religious symbol, to which I answered that to me it is a national symbol, and part of my concrete history as a Jewess – not just a piece of folklore. I added that the fact that those who manage the Wall (a religious authority headed by a rabbi – not the Jerusalem Municipality or the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry) do not believe that even the secular Paratroopers who freed the Wall in June 1967, in the name of the Jewish people, should have a say in its current character, indicates how serious the problem is.
In the final reckoning it is our freedom to choose what to believe in, how to live, and how to express our identity as we may see fit, that is being eroded, together with many other principles of liberal democracy.
Happy Passover.