The three most widely celebrated Jewish holidays are Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover. Yom Kippur is celebrated with a fast and prayer. Over half of Jews in America fasted for at least part of Yom Kippur in 2012. An even greater number attended a prayer service on Yom Kippur. That’s a huge number considering fewer than a mere 55% of Jews believe that religion is either very or even somewhat important in their lives. Hanukkah gets a holiday boost and also benefits from being really easy and really simple to observe. Lighting candles and exchanging gifts is fun. Pew didn’t even measure it. Passover stands out with 70% of Jewish people participating in a Passover seder in 2012.
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The beauty of so many Jewish people joining together in prayer on Yom Kippur is the singularity of the event. Everyone observes Yom Kippur in the same way. The only real differences are in degree. But the flavor is the same wherever you go. People are solemn, they are careful to be on their best behavior, they pray, and they seek forgiveness. We celebrate in public. We see our friends and neighbors. It’s almost alarmingly social in the sense that Yom Kippur is a holiday that takes place among our fellow Jews; diverse people coming together with unification of purpose. Services are a sea of white, symbolizing purity and simplicity. That is Yom Kippur for everyone, pure and simple. I find it inspiring to unite with my fellow Jews every year for 25 hours. My shul is packed all day and the experience of celebrating Yom Kippur with every kind of Jew of every level of observance is something I cherish. It’s a special kind of unity.
Passover seders are the complete opposite. Many people have never been to a seder other than their own family seder. The seder takes place in the home, not in the public square. It’s private. Jewish law required that all participants in the Paschal Lamb ritual be arranged in advance. There is no public display of Passover. This is further reflected in the incredibly diverse practices and quirks of every single seder. No two seders are alike. Even among people who are of nearly identical in ethnicity and level of observance, seders are particularly individualistic. Like a religious fingerprint, every seder has its own flavor and identity.
We would expect nothing less from an experience that allows and inspires so much creativity and adaptation. The seder is a marvel of Talmudic wisdom. It’s an incubator of religious and social identity, Torah thought, and innovative energy. Yet, most of us will never really know exactly how our friends celebrate at their seders. There are so many moving parts and nooks and crannies for personalization that the possibilities are endless. This is where I find the true beauty of the Seder experience. It’s in the diversity and individuality.
Of course we need both. Judaism requires times of conformity and obedience but it also requires times of creativity and originality. Tradition must be coupled with innovation. This has been the secret of Judaism that keeps Jews in the pews on Yom Kippur and even greater attendance at the seder. It’s been our ability to revere the old and infuse it with the new. Judaism doesn’t stay the same but it’s sometimes hard to draw the lines of where the change took place.
There are plenty of ancient ideas available to modern man should man wish to live according to the wisdom of the ancients. A veritable smorgasbord of modern ideas can become one’s creed and credo. But it’s hard to find options that harmonize the vintage with the chic. Judaism is that option.
The seder, our birthday as a nation, celebrates our efforts towards harmonization. As slaves, we absorbed Egyptian culture but we escaped with our Jewish identity intact. The text and rituals of the traditional seder are very old, but so much of what we do at the seder is new. The seder itself represents our commitment to syncretism, as it is likely modeled after the Symposium of the Ancient Greeks. I have not heard of any Greeks who have kept the tradition of Symposium alive. But 70% of Jews will be at a seder this week. And 100% of those Seders will look different than the others. Yet, even in our diversity of practice, ritual, and belief, there is a special kind of unity in Judaism that we feel when we each do our own thing, in our own way, but together, as it always was and always will be.