Passover and the two fall celebrations of Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah are the holiest days in the Jewish year, the high holidays. Many religions welcome the spring with rituals that reach into much earlier times. Jews celebrate for eight days the story of their liberation from slavery by God, who passed over Jewish homes when he killed the first-born children of the Egyptians. Religious observance takes place at home, and is focused on one highly ritualized meal, the Seder dinner, usually on the first night of Passover.
For several hours, a prescribed text is read by everyone around the table. At specified moments, unleavened bread, horseradish, a green vegetable dipped in salt water, and a lamb shank are eaten, and wine is drunk four times, accompanied by praise for God, Adonai.
Seder is always about family and friends. For thousands of years, Jewish families have lit candles, eaten the bitter herb, drunk the wine, said the prayers, and told a story about their spiritual ancestors being enslaved in Egypt, until Moses led them to freedom through the Red Sea, miraculously parted by God.
The Passover story is framed as a lesson from parents to children. The youngest at the table asks what is special about Passover, and is told about the bitterness of slavery and the joy of liberation. The text is about ancient Jews and Egyptians, but the lessons are universal. Jewish parents tell their children to hate oppression, to understand the vacillating but ultimately evil ways of dictators, and to believe that freedom will eventually come.
The historical Passover story symbolizes every oppression and promises liberation to those who are persecuted. Every subjugated people has its own Moses, who told Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
For many hundreds of years, when they ate the bitter herbs Jews thought of the persecution they suffered as a religious minority by the Christian majority across Europe and America. After the Holocaust, the widespread oppression of Jews has disappeared, just in my lifetime. Jewish families in most places in the world no longer yearn to be liberated.
As Jews in the US have shifted our liberationist gaze from ourselves outward to others, demand has grown for new versions of the Passover text, the Haggadah. The civil rights movements which took off in the 1960s, supported then by most Jewish Americans, influenced what Jews recited and thought about at Passover dinner. Modern texts eliminate the sexist language of the traditional Haggadah and honor female biblical figures, such as Miriam, sister of Moses.
The tragedy of Nazi genocide, which touched nearly every Jewish family, the welcoming of immigrants into the US, and the promise of freedom for all that America embodies have all influenced the political beliefs of American Jews. A poll taken last month by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that one of the most important political values among Jews is “welcoming the stranger”, which 72% think is important. Even more important, for 84%, is “pursuing justice”. That means caring for the poor and ending discrimination. When asked what is most important to their Jewish identity, twice as many American Jews select a commitment to social equality as select support for Israel. Two-thirds say that the American government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor. About three-quarters believe that the American economic system favors the wealthy. 81% favor the “Buffett rule”, increasing the tax rates for those who make over $1 million per year. About 70% favor the DREAM Act, allowing children of illegal immigrants to gain legal resident status if they enter the military or go to college. Over 80% favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally.
This year, as usual, the Exodus story made all of us around the Seder table think of those people whose oppression we hope one day will end. The religious centrality of the Passover story of liberation might partly explain the liberal political attitudes of American Jews. The Haggadah explains that it not enough to remember that we were oppressed long ago. We must relive that slavery and realize that the struggle for freedom never ends. Because we were enslaved, we must help others become free.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 10, 2012