What Does Your Passover Seder Say About You?

Are you a particularist Jew or a universalist one? How do you view your commitment to social justice?

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About 250 Israelis and other Jews gather to celebrate a Seder ceremony in the city of Rishikesh, India. April 2003
About 250 Israelis and other Jews gather to celebrate a Seder ceremony in the city of Rishikesh, India. April 2003Credit: Nir Kafri
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

There are almost as many seders as there are families. And with thousands of Haggadot out there, not to mention the new DIY Haggadah websites, there are nearly unlimited ways to mark the holiday. But there is one division among seder styles that sheds light on deeper questions about the boundaries of our community: seders that generalize the Exodus story to additional instances of oppression and seders that don’t.

To some extent, this distinction is part of the particularist versus universalist debate in Jewish life. Rabbi Daniel Gordis has been among the more vocal opponents of what he sees as a dangerous turning away from tribal commitments among today’s younger Jewish generation. We can see this most markedly in the case of debates around contemporary Israeli policies.

The conversation became particularly ugly when Gordis attacked fellow rabbi Sharon Brous for comments she made about Palestinian suffering during the 2012 Gaza conflict.

There are some additional questions here to be asked, though: not simply whose suffering is more important, but what is our purpose in sustaining the Jewish narrative, and how do we understand our task?

Two years ago in these pages, when I discussed some contemporary additions to the seder plate , such as coffee beans, tomatoes and oranges, I suggested that perhaps those who resist generalizing the story of Jewish slavery and freedom do so because their Judaism isn’t being sufficiently nurtured on all the other nights of the year. But there may be some deeper collective psychological trends as well.

What is particularly intriguing is how each “side” (if we can call it that) of this social justice binary sees itself and perceives those on the other side of the divide. Advocates of social justice seders ­— those who might regularly seek out the Haggadah supplement from Tikkun, American Jewish World Service or the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center — might see themselves as compassionate and philosophically generous.

Conversely, those who dismiss such expansion of the Passover story might see themselves as wiser, more grounded, and less naive; we must shield our own, the thinking goes. Those on this side likely experience the Jewish condition as one of isolation, an isolation that demands self-protection. And where they do see natural porousness, they see that as a different kind of threat: the threat of assimilation and therefore of the kind of existential "collective angst” that social psychologists have used to explain the desire to preserve one’s own ethno-communal identity.

The tension becomes even more fraught when the issue goes beyond noticing or alleviating the suffering of others — underpaid coffee growers, exploited tomato workers, victims of far-flung natural disasters, prisoners of the human trafficking industry — and the suffering is wholly or partly caused by our own collective actions, or by those who claim to represent us, politically or symbolically.

Sometimes these actions are subtle — the turning-a-blind-eye type of everyday consumer choices, or giving fewer philanthropic resources than we could. But at other times these actions are more deliberate: the government of our declared homeland building settlements and running checkpoints, initiating night raids, arresting children, running centers of administrative detention without the application of due process.

The trouble with this debate, of course, is that a circular tendency sets in. For every Jewish person who reads the paragraph above and nods soberly (or perhaps believes I haven’t gone far enough), there is another who believes it to be a form of moral slander, who sees those words as victim blaming, who sees those Israeli actions as necessitated by the stance of the enemy.

Sins of omission and sins of commission; idealism versus realism; prudence versus folly; the totality of Hillel’s tripartite question (“If I am not

for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”) versus only one part of it; and the boundaries of community: There is much that remains to be discussed around our tables.

Which seder will yours be? How do you view your own social justice commitments and the boundaries of your communal attachments? Comment below or tweet me @sucharov, and let’s start the conversation even before we drink the first cup of wine.

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