People’s Committee for a Free Seder

Gershom Gorenberg

My friend Josh has a lovely riff on the Seder at his blog, Frost and Clouds – a smart comment on a dazzlingly stupid article in the New York Times. The Times reporter found about colleagues – writers Judith Shulevitz and Nicholas Lemann who have a dairy Seder every year, and wanted to know if any rabbi considered this a real Seder.  Then the reporter found out that Judith and Nicholas and their guests sit around munching appetizers and asking questions about the meaning of freedom for hours before they get to main course before they eat.  Our reporter thought that the idea of the Seder was to read through a set text, without asking anything or thinking about, and then eat.

In other words, the reporter thought that a particular main course was an absolute requirement of Judaism, and had no ideas that asking questions at a Seder is an absolute requirement – and felt sure that enough other people “knew” the same things that she could base an article in the Times on this knowledge. I’d like to think that this reflects extraordinary ignorance, but I think it’s probably very ordinary ignorance.

Josh comments:

…for all too many people Judaism is like some obscure musical instrument or piece of forgotten machinery. The idea that it could be helpful, that it could be used for one’s own purposes and in one’s own way has long been forgotten, let alone the knowledge of how to use it, and so it sits in its glass case while we look on.

And he speculates that among American Jews,

There are rabbis and community leaders who see this as a yet another sign of the degraded state of the folk, but it’s not the folk’s fault. It’s us, the rabbis, who are to blame because so many of us are so concerned with doing it right that we’ve never said, “Make Jewish practice yours, make it a tool to help you do the work you need to do.”

This may be a little too tough on rabbis. American Jewish life, especially non-Orthodox life, is based heavily on vicarious experience: rabbis to be Jewish for you, Israelis to have a homeland for you. The common Jews are like football fans, who come to the game when they want, and don’t expect to get tackled, or have the players sit down next to them in the bleachers.

Partly, this reflects unconscious copying of the surrounding religious model, in which clergy are the intercessors. Even more, it reflects the consumer culture of buying vicarious experience: Everyone has an iPod, some go to concerts, very few have friends over to play music in the living room.

The responsibility of liberating the Seder, even from the text of the Haggadah itself, falls on the participants. A discussion that begins “so once we were slaves, and now we’re free. What the hell does that mean?” and that forgets the text and stretches in every direction that a family and friends can take it – that conversation comes closer to fulfilling the mitzvah than does a quick read through the text. Organize, and smash the rote boredom.

2 thoughts on “People’s Committee for a Free Seder”

  1. Regarding Nicholas’ and Judith’s dairy seder—I hate to be the one to break this to them and the other vegetarians , but when the Beit HaMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) existed and when it will be rebuilt, everyone has to eat the “Korban Pesach” (Passover Sacrifice) which is meat.

  2. Years ago we took the kids to the Old Homestead for The Seder That My Husband Fondly Recalled From His Childhood. In the ensuing years, Husband’s dad had found some Recon Haggadot that had an “introduction” about as thick as a New York phone directory on the subject of…tah-DAH! slavery and freedom, which we went around the table and took turns reading. Can you say “tedious”?

    Too many Jews — North American and otherwise — have this idea that somewhere out there is this elusive Seder With CONTENT to which only certain Jews With Background hold the key. If only Jews would realize that unlike a violin, the Haggada is precisely an instrument that you can pick up at age 20 (or 40, or 60) and “play right the first time”: It’s all there, set out for you like a script, that each director takes and makes her own. You can’t “do it wrong”; the important thing is Just Do It. Believing that you have to attend a “led Seder” is on a par with consulting a rabbi (as if she’s some guru with Special Knowledge) about what to name your child. But don’t get me started on names…

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