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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?
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.Published in