Choose Your Metaphor

Are the four most unpopular words of the seder in North America the last four?

The concluding refrain of the Haggadah is a rousing messianic pledge “Next Year in Jerusalem!” Yet I wonder how many American Jews are actually saying, let alone singing, this messianic pledge nowadays?

According to surveys of American Jewish life, a Passover seder is the most popular act of Jewish observance in this country. That makes the seder a unique opportunity to create an educational experience for families, especially for those whose encounters with Jewish learning are at best sporadic. By asking us to recite the account of the Exodus and to take a few symbolic actions that signify our personal identification with the events of the past, the seder reinforces the hard lessons as well as the promise of Jewish history.

But how is an increasingly assimilated American Jewish population that prefers seders to be family get-togethers punctuated by a few obscure rituals going to accomplish this task?

Seeking Relevance
One answer has been to try to tap into the universal themes present in the Haggadah and create versions of the seder that highlight various causes. To that end, we now have, among a great many different varieties, “freedom” seders meant to show the identification of the civil rights struggle and other human rights issues with the Exodus or “green” seders that provide an environmentalist take on Passover.

By making the seder more “relevant” to a host of contemporary issues and concerns, the purpose appears to be to not only promote the cause that the seder theme represents, but to indirectly reintroduce Jews to the powerful message of their own traditions.

Invariably, such efforts raise the hackles of some who fear that Jewish concerns are being subordinated to other agendas, even when these agendas are entirely praiseworthy.

Some nine years ago, I engaged in a somewhat angry exchange with one reader who particularly objected to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s decision to hold a “freedom” seder centered on the struggle for freedom by the people of Chinese-occupied Tibet.

At this Washington, D.C. event, the Dalai Lama, the venerated Buddhist sage and leader of the Tibetans, reportedly got his first taste of matzah and saw the easy parallel between the ancient passage to freedom of the Jews with his own people’s desperate struggle against the pharaohs in Beijing.

But to that reader, the Tibetan seder was a hijacking of a Jewish story for a non-Jewish purpose.

I disagreed. Human rights, especially when it concerns the plight of those who are victims of communist tyranny that seeks to destroy religious faith, is inherently a Jewish issue. The RAC was right to identify with this cause which, if anything, promoted the noblest aspect of Jewish belief.

But years later, even though I still think that event and others like it are entirely admirable, I have to admit that I am more troubled by the proliferation of universalist interpretations of Passover than ever before.

Such events are popular and useful staples of the community relations world, but the question remains how much of contemporary Jewish life is more attuned to the Passover knock-offs than the original merchandise?

Though the tension between the parochially Jewish aspect of our faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Passover is, first and foremost, a rite of Jewish freedom and not merely an empty metaphor into which any other story can be funneled at will.

Many Jews here see the struggle for freedom more easily in righteous causes, such as combatting genocide in Darfur or the racism of American nativists and bigots, than in any Jewish cause. But while such advocacy is praiseworthy, it also ignores the primary threat to contemporary Jewish existence: the rise of Islamist Jew-hatred, which seeks to destroy the connection of the Jews to their land that was their ultimate reward for their struggle for freedom.

It is at Passover, when channeling the spirit of ancient Jewish history is so important, that we must resist the temptation to forget that this tale of struggle and redemption has a particular end. The passage of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom isn’t just a fairy tale we tell our children. It is about the birth of Jewish identity and the connection of a people to a place and a faith.

It is no small irony that while so many of us are working so hard to superimpose other causes, however worthy they might be, onto our own traditions, there is a concerted attempt by most of the Arab and Islamic world to erase our history.

Despite withdrawals and peace agreements all aimed at satisfying Arab demands, the attacks on the Jewish State emanating from its enemies and their Western intellectual cheering section have increased in recent years. And the legitimacy of Zionism and the connection of the Jews to their land is their target.

Obliterating the Jewish past enables those who seek to portray Jews as “colonists” in their own country to claim that any and all forms of terrorism are acceptable means of resistance against “occupation.”

Their revisionist history may be laughable, but when it is stacked up against a Jewish world that often seems more willing to push aside our own history and assert the claims of others, it is highly effective.

‘In Every Generation’
We are commanded by the Passover liturgy to remember that “in every generation men rise against us to destroy us.” But the current incarnation of evil that calls itself Hamas or Fatah or Islamic Jihad cannot succeed without severing our faith that the ancient events we speak of on Pesach are somehow tied to our modern lives.

As Bar-Ilan University’s Professor Gerald Steinberg recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post, “The Passover seder is our collective opportunity to reclaim and reassert Jewish history.”

The stories we retell this week are not merely attractive myths that allow us to pose as morally superior to other ancient cultures. They are the cries of countless generations of Jews who dreamed not only of universal freedom, but of a rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Though many of us may prefer to skip the portion of the seder that follows the festive meal and others may fall asleep before the last words are spoken, let’s not forget to root our celebration in support of a real place that is no empty metaphor.

“Next Year in Jerusalem!”

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