Opinion

The Secular Jew’s Joy in Forgoing That Croissant on Passover

I can manage without one and not feel that my human rights have been violated. The key thing is the openness to the religiously observant ‘other’ and slight concessions for the sake of solidarity

Soldiers from the Givati Brigade and Combat Engineering Corps celebrate Passover at a seder in Ashkelon, April 22, 2016.
Ray Scally

They say that in a certain shtetl in Eastern Europe a group of young atheists once wanted to provocatively rebel against their parents’ religious tradition and the rabbis’ repressive authority. Their daring decision: to hold a banquet featuring pork on Yom Kippur at the local cemetery. What could be more extreme to prove one’s liberation from the shackles of religion?

Of course, those young people erred. Their decision only proved the extent to which they weren’t liberated from the shackles of religion, and the extent to which their thinking was still locked into religious concepts, even by way of contravening them.

I don’t know whether this story is only a fable, but I remembered it upon reading Dr. Ram Fruman’s article in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last week, “What About the Freedom to Eat Leavened Products on Passover?” He makes this issue a question of liberty and human rights.

I agree with Fruman that some of the practices that limit access to leavened products (chametz) during Passover are problematic. But the very fact of his focus on leavened products shows that Fruman – like those young Jews in Eastern Europe – is still ensnared in the chains of religion. To him, secularism means doing exactly the opposite of what religion ordains, and that’s pathetic. It’s also worth realizing that anyone who keeps trying to prove there’s no God has a real religious problem and is far from being liberated from religion.

One of the achievements of Zionism – a political and secular movement at its base – was that it poured modern, humanist and liberating content into religious traditions and concepts. Thus Zionism took Passover, which traditionally concentrated on God Almighty leading the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, and transformed it into the festival of spring connected to the Land of Israel and the Zionist agricultural project, and to the festival of freedom. Thus Zionism portrayed Passover as a model of national liberation from an alien yoke, and as a slave revolt.

In a speech, Max Nordau – a secular thinker by any measure – depicted the Exodus from Egypt as the first anticolonialist liberation movement and as history’s first slave revolt. Zionist socialists hailed the Exodus as a symbol of class struggle against exploitation, just as they interpreted the biblical laws about fallow years and jubilee years as path-breaking social legislation (a matter with which non-socialists agreed, and which was manifested in the Jewish National Fund’s land-lease regulations).

In this way a holiday that’s of course religious became a holiday that expresses national and universal solidarity. In parallel, during the 1960s, rabbis in the United States conceived Passover as a symbol of African-Americans’ struggle for equality and freedom. All this is negligible for Fruman; all that interests him is leaven.

I confess my own sins. Alas, one of my favorite foods is the cheeseburger. (And I’m not talking about the health issue.) When I eat one at one of Hebrew University’s restaurants, I regret that I have to forgo the cheese a burger I find far less tasty. This is without a doubt a contravention of my rights – every day of the year, not only the seven days of Passover. Do I feel that this is a violation of my basic human rights (to eat whatever I want without being constrained by religious strictures that I certainly don’t accept)? Or do I see this as an expression of my willingness to be inclusive and considerate of the opinions and customs of others?

Obviously, if the campus restaurants didn’t keep kosher, observant Jews wouldn’t be able to eat at the university; they perhaps wouldn’t be able to study there. It’s clear to any reasonable person that my forgoing of my favorite kind of burger is marginal relative to the broader significance of inclusiveness, openness to the religiously observant “other,” and willingness to make marginal concessions for the sake of broad solidarity.

I understand Fruman’s feelings about the prohibition against bringing food with leaven to a sick friend currently in the hospital, but is this such a huge concession? Is this such a mortal blow to his basic rights vis-à-vis solidarity and consideration of the other?

Berl Katznelson once laid down the law that the workers’ kitchens in the labor communities, which of course did not observe kashrut, would nevertheless not serve pork. He did this because of the symbolic significance of pork in the history of the Jewish people. (“They killed us because of it,” he said.) This was a wise and moral decision.

Similarly, many of us fast on Yom Kippur not out of faith but out of identification and solidarity with Jews around the world or in their own families. I’d very much like to eat a croissant, which I love, during Passover, but I can manage without one for a few days and not feel that my basic human rights have been violated. I assume that for Fruman, any act of Jewish identification and solidarity carries no weight.

During the festival of freedom it’s worth remembering that liberty is indivisible. If we demand the right of self-determination for the Jewish people in an independent and sovereign state, this right is also accorded to the Palestinians. This is truly more important than leavened products.

The fact that most Jewish families in Israel celebrate Passover one way or another points to one of the achievements of the Zionist revolution – how to pour new content into old vessels, not to renew our days of yore but to find an expression in our own times of Jewish identity with its historical roots. Anyone who focuses on the issue of leavened products misses the point.