Illustration: A Jewish family celebrating Passover at a seder.
A Jewish family celebrating Passover at a seder (illustrative). Photo by Dreamstime
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When I launched this blog last year, I named it The Fifth Question -- a riff on the four questions asked by the youngest at the Passover seder -- to evoke the tension between Jewish traditional grounding and progressive commitments in Israel and abroad.

With Passover almost upon us, there is a lively debate afoot about whether - and to what extent – should the lessons of the holiday be expanded. Part of this debate has centered on the contents of the seder plate. At our seder, we try to remember to include an orange, a symbol of the struggle of the LGBT community, and women more generally, within organized Judaism.

But this year, another fruit is being called for. Launched by Rabbis for Human Rights, the how-many-slaves-made-your-seder campaign encourages celebrants to include a tomato in solidarity with tomato pickers in Florida who work in near slave-link conditions.

Writing in the Jewish Week, Steve Lipman reminds us that innovative symbolic additions to the seder plate are nothing new (he lists ten; the earliest being a brick during the American Civil War in place of charoset). But in the last few years, these new symbols have landed in the mainstream, helped along by things like Miriam’s cup standing alongside the one awaiting Elijah’s lips, or a “fifth cup” some pour after the traditional four cups of wine have been blessed to address an array of social justice issues.

Some might see the attempt to universalize the story of Passover as misplaced energy being spent on looking outward when we should be looking inward. With intermarriage rates continuing to climb alongside a continuing struggle to maintain Jewish affiliation levels as well as educate the next generation, there is much to work on within our own community.

Skeptics of seder-plate additions might add that it’s Passover, a Jewish holiday, after all. Can’t we enjoy telling and retelling our own story without having to explicitly link the story to the struggles of others? Can’t we just have one night (or two, in most Diaspora homes) to ourselves?

The tension is heightened by the fact that it’s not always clear who it is who needs welcoming and connection: is it Jews who have been traditionally excluded from the mainstream and who now seek their place? Those who are poor, or disabled, or immigrants, or non-white, or single, GLBTQ, or who are part of interfaith families? It is all too easy for communities to become clubbish, where newcomers -- or anyone not fitting a “mold” - can find it difficult to break in.

Some might see this era as a peculiar one in Jewish history. We are desperately trying to preserve ourselves just as we are also trying to save others. But we might see it as a thrilling era, when looking outward is precisely what will lend Judaism relevance for the future. And surely pursuing social justice ultimately connects with the core ethical imperatives of being a human being.

Pursuing a social justice imperative is something broader; it seeks not only to welcome those who have felt cast out, not only those who seek to cast their lot with the Jewish people, but to find the far-flung strangers.

Maybe those who feel we should be granted a night to think about our own story without having to cast our net outward feel that way because their Judaism is not being truly nurtured on every other night of the year. Being Jewish means bringing a certain Jewish subjectivity to bear in everything one does; wrestling with life’s questions of identity every day, pausing to think about time and the rhythm of daily life by the light of candles and the taste of wine every week, thinking about new possibilities by the light of the moon each month, and yes, gathering with family and friends each year to tell our story of slavery. In doing so, we shine a light into the dark corners of the world that still harbor people needing to be freed.

Being Jewish isn’t just about gathering for a seder or lighting a Hanukkah candle, or dipping apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, as evocative in entrenching cultural memory as those experiences are. The Jewish condition is backward looking, forward looking, deep and broad. We must not stop at four questions. We are here, on this earth, to keep asking. Happy Passover.

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