America Needs Its Own Passover Seder — Son of Spengler

 

One of my daughter’s teachers posed the question: Is Passover a liberal holiday, or a conservative one?

By “conservative” and “liberal”, he was referring not to contemporary American political movements, but the terms’ classical meanings. Is Passover a holiday of continuity, or reform? Does the “Festival of Freedom” celebrate national liberation, or individual liberty?

The question is terrific, because it brings into relief the two essential features of the Passover Seder. The Seder’s origin is found in Exodus 13:3-8:

3 And Moses said unto the people: ‘Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; there shall no leavened bread be eaten. 4 This day ye go forth in the month Abib. 5 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee, in all thy borders. 8 And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.

 

The Seder’s first essential feature is educational. The Seder is designed to tell the Passover story to the children, to propagate the Jewish nation by educating children about the formative experience of the Jewish nation. The Hebrew word “seder” literally means “order”, and the order of the Seder service is designed to prompt curiosity in children. It is experiential, as we not only tell the story, but re-enact key parts of it. It is fundamentally conservative, in that its purpose is to propagate the tradition and the importance of life within it.

However, the Seder has another essential feature. In the course of prompting curiosity in children, it does the same for adults. More than any other contemporary Jewish practice, the Seder is filled with ambiguities, contradictions, tensions, and questions. Matzah is a symbol of oppression (“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt”) — and also liberation (“There was insufficient time for the dough of our ancestors to rise when the holy one, Blessed be He was revealed to us and redeemed us”). Bitter herbs are dipped in sweet charoset. We celebrate our liberation… while recognizing that the ultimate liberation is yet to come. Adults, in the course of answering the children’s questions, must perforce wrestle with the questions themselves in order to provide meaningful answers. What does freedom really mean? The Seder requires a profound level of individual engagement, and challenges individuals to improve themselves and the world around them. In that sense, the Seder’s message is fundamentally liberal.

And even while Jewish affiliation and observance decline in the US, the Passover Seder is the most-observed Jewish ritual, with some 70 percent of American Jews participating in one each year.

The United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, shares a lot of its values with the Jewish tradition. The Founders drew inspiration from ancient Israel; both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed that the national seal should illustrate the Exodus. America has codified its values and legal authority in its seminal written texts — a practice some nations have tried to emulate, but few have done effectively — and imbues those texts with moral significance. Both nations rightly see themselves as exceptional. Yet anyone not born into either nation may join it (unlike, say, England or France or Russia or China or Japan or Korea), by embracing its values and demonstrating knowledge of its history and practices.

America, though, lacks an analogue to the Passover Seder. We have days that commemorate our history — Independence Day, Memorial Day, even Constitution Day — but nothing designed to pass on American values and history to the next generation. We have nothing that compels us to ask: What does freedom mean? What does it mean to be American?

The answers will differ depending on your perspective, but I think that if we could set aside an evening for everyone — liberal and conservative and independent and everything in between — to ponder the questions, America would only benefit.

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  1. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Passover is about salvation. The Jews of Egypt were passed over by the angel of death and freed from slavery if they were willing to identify themselves as God’s people. Passover is about faithfulness and gratitude.

    What salvation would an American seder celebrate? To whom should Americans be thankful, if not to God?

    I don’t object to the idea, but I wonder how it would be translated into modern secular terms. The Jews did not merely accompany God out of Egypt; they were led. In the words of King David, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Who leads modern Americans? What passes over them, and why?

    It doesn’t have to be a perfect equivalence. I’m just musing.

    • #1
  2. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Great minds think alike?

    Dennis Prager advocates a 4th of July seder for the same reasons you espouse.

    Some fans took him up on it and tried to come up with a specific implementation.

    Prager also talks about how “the greatest generation” failed to pass on its values to their children, and how most Americans today don’t have a succinct way to articulate American values.
    He advocates what he calls Americanism, or “the American trinity” communicated to us through our forebears on every coin:

    • Liberty
    • E Pluribus Unum
    • In God We Trust

    http://www.prageruniversity.com/Political-Science/The-American-Trinity-2nd-Edition.html

    • #2
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    captainpower:

    Great minds think alike?

    Dennis Prager advocates a 4th of July seder for the same reasons you espouse.

    Interesting. It’s nothing formal, but I usually think of the 4th of July as a time to reflect a bit on the questions, “What does freedom mean? What does it mean to be American?” Especially as the sun sets and the fireworks start, for some reason.

    • #3
  4. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    captainpower: Dennis Prager advocates a 4th of July seder for the same reasons you espouse.

    I was about to post the same thing.  I find a couple of details of Prager’s draft ceremony eye-rollingly lame — I’d have to re-listen to remind myself what they are — but I’ve a very low tolerance for historical sentimentality.  That said, it’s an excellent idea and something I hope to do with my future kids.

    • #4
  5. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    To Prager’s point about the importance of rituals and commemorations, liberals have simultaneously downplayed our most important memorials and undermined the very concept with excess. These days, every day is claimed to be special for one reason or a dozen. Every cause has its day, its ribbons, its heroes, etc. When everything’s special, nothing is.

    If the purpose of a holiday is to inspire and educate young children, then it is important to remember that a history is not just a series of facts. A history is a story, which means telling about characters and events in a way that relays meaning. The story of America, like any great story, must be about the best in people. 

    That’s why George Washington’s celebration is such a loss. Why did his story begin with a mythical young boy who “cannot tell a lie”? Because that is the foundation of all our hopes as Americans. It’s not just a glorious system of limited and cooperative government. It’s a strong and honorable people whose natural nobility is enshrined in that system, for which so many have since toiled and bled.

    • #5
  6. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    RE: Aaron Miller #5

    Prager complains every year about “President’s Day” sapping the meaning from the celebrations of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays.

    Instead, it has become a celebration of all presidents.

    If I recall correctly, he also decries the manipulation of holidays to create more three day weekends; the point of a holiday is to stop in the middle of whatever you are doing to remember the significant figure or event.

    • #6
  7. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    The United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, shares a lot of its values with the Jewish tradition.

    My  Jewish friends and I could not agree more and share a common belief that the ‘National Seder’ is called Thanksgiving Day.

    • #7
  8. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue
    @TrueBlue

    As a Catholic, I recognize that America is essentially a Protestant country.  Surely, if we’re going to pick a national religious holiday, it should be Easter.  Right?

    • #8
  9. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue
    @TrueBlue

    After all, the American ethos of “all men are created equal” is universalist in a way that no strictly Jewish holiday could be.  Or am I missing something?

    • #9
  10. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    True Blue:

    As a Catholic, I recognize that America is essentially a Protestant country. Surely, if we’re going to pick a national religious holiday, it should be Easter. Right?

     Speaking as a Protestant, my answer is no. See comment #7.

    True Blue:

    After all, the American ethos of “all men are created equal” is universalist in a way that no strictly Jewish holiday could be. Or am I missing something?

    Judaic culture may not have promoted this universalist value but it does, most importantly, help to sustain it with devotion to and emphasis upon the work ethic, education, and financial success.

    • #10
  11. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Couldn’t. agree. more.

    So far, I think the discussion has missed something very important that Catholics and Jews share: the notion of “recapitulation.” As I understand it, when Jews celebrate Passover, it isn’t just a history lesson. Participants are encouraged to behave as if they are present at that first Passover in Egypt, and therefore experience the story personally, in union with their forbears. 

    For Catholics, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the recapitulation of the Last Supper. We believe we are taken out of time, and are living that moment of the institution of the Eucharist as a crucial moment in the founding of Christ’s church. This is a transcendent experience when properly understood.

    I have no quarrel with Americans commemorating the Founding in a like manner. I think there is no better way for children (and adults) to connect with the Providential history of this country and the ideals for which it stands.

    My family has used Prager’s guidelines for the 4th of July seder. That and the annual viewing of the movie musical 1776 are highly recommended.

    • #11
  12. Syzygy Inactive
    Syzygy
    @TzviKilov

    Like everything else, modern liberalism is attempting to take over the seder. What is traditionally a holiday about escaping one’s ego and self-centeredness through faith and connection to a higher power and a greater mission had become yet another opportunity to celebrate the self, whether the self is an oppressed minority of a self-hating majority guilty because it thinks it is Gd and can mold the world. Conservatism is the belief in unalterable gdly values; liberalism is the belief in absolute values, to be enforced absolutely, all of human invention. Passover is largely about escaping a liberal mindset.

    • #12
  13. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    captainpower: Dennis Prager advocates a 4th of July seder….

     Wow, I had no idea. In addition to the links you provided, see here for a proposed service. It’s kinda-sorta in line with what I envisioned. I like the use of symbols, but the text isn’t very amenable to discussion.

    I was thinking more of using the Gettysburg Address as a jumping-off point for discussion. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” — Why did Lincoln start with 1776? How close did it come to realizing the proposition? Etc. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” — Was the Civil War an extension of the proposition? Or a realization of a new proposition? Etc. “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” — How many died in the Revolution? In the Civil War? In subsequent wars? What do their sacrifices mean?

    • #13
  14. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Aaron Miller: I don’t object to the idea, but I wonder how it would be translated into modern secular terms. The Jews did not merely accompany God out of Egypt; they were led. In the words of King David, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Who leads modern Americans? What passes over them, and why?

     That’s how the Jewish people attained peoplehood and freedom. I imagine an American “seder” would touch on different themes, because America attained peoplehood and freedom in a different manner.

    • #14
  15. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    EThompson: My Jewish friends and I could not agree more and share a common belief that the ‘National Seder’ is called Thanksgiving Day.

     Thanksgiving does have a common national rhythm to it, it has a historical sensibility (Mayflower, Pilgrims, etc.), and includes a certain amount of re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving. But it lacks the pedagogical aspect. The day’s observances don’t have that drive for inspiring children to understand what it means to be American, and to pass it down to their children in turn.

    • #15
  16. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    True Blue:

    As a Catholic, I recognize that America is essentially a Protestant country. Surely, if we’re going to pick a national religious holiday, it should be Easter. Right?

    I wasn’t suggesting that the country adopt a Jewish national holiday (or any other religious holiday). Rather, I was suggesting that America could benefit from adapting the form of a particular Jewish ritual — the Passover Seder — in order to inspire Americanism in generations of Americans. The idea is to construct a vehicle for Americans of all shapes and sizes to discuss among themselves — and particularly with their children — what is the meaning of freedom.

    • #16
  17. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    True Blue:

    After all, the American ethos of “all men are created equal” is universalist in a way that no strictly Jewish holiday could be. Or am I missing something?

    I’m not suggesting that America adopt a Jewish holiday. But as a side point, it’s worth considering that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence does not mean that everyone has equal gifts, or starts out with equal advantages. Rather, it means that no one has a natural-born right to rule over anyone else. It is an argument against hereditary monarchy and nobility.

    EThompson: Judaic culture may not have promoted this universalist value….

    Actually, I think Judaism was one of the earliest proponents of this idea. Judaism has been described as a “theocracy”, in which every individual is accountable before God. Even Israelite kings had no divine right — they were just as bound by God’s Torah as the lowliest servant.

    Judaism believes that the Jewish people as a whole has a bilateral relationship with God, in which God will preserve the Jewish people as long as they keep the Torah. But Judaism doesn’t consider individual Jews any more special than individual gentiles.

    • #17
  18. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    True Blue:

    After all, the American ethos of “all men are created equal” is universalist in a way that no strictly Jewish holiday could be. Or am I missing something?

     You are, indeed. The Torah says that G-d made man in His image. All men.

    The difference between people is whether or not they realize they have that kind of potential. The vast majority of people do not believe the Torah is literally true about every man having a soul which is literally on loan from the Creator. And so they lead very limited lives. 

    • #18
  19. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Thanksgiving does have a common national rhythm to it, it has a historical sensibility (Mayflower, Pilgrims, etc.), and includes a certain amount of re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving. But it lacks the pedagogical aspect. The day’s observances don’t have that drive for inspiring children to understand what it means to be American, and to pass it down to their children in turn.

    Any holiday has the power to inspire if observers choose to educate the young of its particular significance. As a child, I was inundated with the messages of Thanksgiving- devotion to hard work, appreciation for religious freedom and above all, the ability to adapt to challenging new environments.

    • #19
  20. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    True Blue:

    After all, the American ethos of “all men are created equal” is universalist in a way that no strictly Jewish holiday could be. Or am I missing something?

    The sabbath seems to have caught on in a lot of places. The thing about “all men are created equal” is that even the faithful immediately launch into an explanation of how this is true vis a vis the state and/or the law and otherwise in no way applies to that jerk over there. And does anyone not raised in the US even venture that much of a defense? And some wiseacre will always chime in: But women not so much, ay?

    It’s a credo. No! It’s a conversation piece! It’s a credo and a conversation piece!

    • #20
  21. Joan of Ark La Tex Inactive
    Joan of Ark La Tex
    @JoALT

    I have always wondered why the Passover  is such a highly celebrated holiday among the Jewish community which is predominantly liberal. On PBS radio last week, I found my answer. The station dedicated an entire hour discussing the Passover holiday with interviews. This is a channel which discusses minimally Christian-Judeo  traditions and values. Naturally, it interested me and I listened to the whole show. It defined Passover as a Jewish holiday which commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt. With themes of freedom and renewal. Freedom from slavery.  After detailing the food and recipes, the political message was a reminder of American slavery. An event that occurs not so long ago. Once again, the enemy is America. Not state tyranny but individual tyranny. Now it seems logical, the Seder is a liberal holiday to the liberals. As you so well summarized its individual focus.

    The Seder requires a profound level of individual engagement, and challenges individuals to improve themselves and the world around them. In that sense, the Seder’s message is fundamentally liberal.

    • #21
  22. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    Since we “believe that all men are created equal” before God Who gives us the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” one might see where a national holiday for Americans would also be a holy day for God, and might justly include services in one’s local congregation remembering and celebrating that vision that was given to us.

    • #22
  23. Layla Inactive
    Layla
    @Layla

    Son of Spengler: We have nothing that compels us to ask: What does freedom mean? What does it mean to be American? The answers will differ depending on your perspective, but I think that if we could set aside an evening for everyone — liberal and conservative and independent and everything in between — to ponder the questions, America would only benefit.

    The jaded inner Layla says that, along the political spectrum, the answers to these questions are now so radically different as to render any such exercise pointless (at best). This is one of those ideas that I would’ve loved in my 20s and now see as futile in my 40s. Sad but true.

    Nearly all of the energy I used to expend on instilling “Americanism” in my kids, I’ve redirected toward the development of their religious life. Maybe *that* liturgy will survive the onslaught of the secular statism of this age.

    • #23
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