The Passover Seder is among the most sacred, enduring and universal of all Jewish traditions.
It is worth noting, then, that no two Seders are ever exactly alike.
When I was younger, for instance, my family’s service would be led by my grandfather, who had us read very solemnly from an ancient edition of the Passover Haggadah, replete with arcane, sexist language that we kids could not begin to understand. Our recitation of the Exodus story and its implications left no detail unuttered. Including the meal, a Seder begun at 6 o’clock could be expected to carry on until well past 9.
In more recent years, my folks, my brother and I have sometimes joined close friends of ours in their more modern, “family-friendly” event, featuring a homemade, illustrated version of the Haggadah that abbreviates and clarifies the text, eliminating the dull, sluggish bits while emphasizing the songs and encouraging audience participation—not least in flinging plastic frogs at each other while recounting the Ten Plagues.
This year, our clan was graciously included in a large-ish gathering that took the “do-it-yourself” approach several additional steps. The “Four Questions” were asked not only in English and Hebrew, but also in Spanish, Polish, Latin and sign language (even though no one present was deaf or foreign-born). The singing of “Chad Gadya” became a competition as to who could complete the most verses in a single breath. (The eventual winner nearly fainted in the process.) The hidden afikoman, or middle matzo, was found not by the children, but by one of the host’s teddy bears.
This is a mere sampling of the Seders I have personally experienced here in my own tiny corner of Judaism. How the world’s remaining 14 million or so Jews conduct their annual Passover observances, I can only guess, but I suspect that they, too, are all over the map.
Admittedly—crucially, in fact—all of the disparate spins on Passover described above adhered to the same general rubric, and all contained the same essential elements: the Exodus narrative, the Seder plate, the cup for Elijah, and so forth. You might say the differences from year to year were ones of style more than substance. And as many would argue, you can alter a holiday’s details without destroying its essence.
Except that for many Jews, the details are the essence, whether during festivals like Passover or a typical Shabbat service. In the minds of folks like my late grandfather, one must never stray from the original script; it would be an insult to our ancestors if we did.
This mindset looks upon alternative approaches to Judaism with a mixture of sadness and contempt, viewing them as acts of cultural and religious effacement. Owing to the Jewish people’s history of being nearly exterminated over and over again, historical continuity is essential—a means of bridging one generation to the next.
And yet I, for one, have drawn far more meaning from our recent “revisionist” Seders than from the old-school, Rabbinically-sanctioned ones of my upbringing. They are more enjoyable, yes, but also more adept at communicating Passover’s actual significance, thereby imparting to us why we bother to observe it in the first place.
Is tradition-for-tradition’s-sake really more important than ensuring that the basis of the tradition is widely understood? Don’t let anyone tell you this is an easy question to answer. It most assuredly is not.
The tension between old customs and new sensibilities is real, and it assumes many forms. Further, we can probably abandon any hope that such a clash will ever completely go away.
To wit: We young people can pooh-pooh the “we’ve always done it this way” argument all we want—as a supporter of gay marriage rights, I do this quite often—but what happens when we’re faced with people for whom the very fact of an act’s infinite and unchanging repetition is what gives the act its meaning?
What happens when it’s our own sacred traditions that fall under scrutiny? Will we be as susceptible to change as we demand others to be? What makes us so special?
The Seder I attended this week was as memorable and entertaining as any I can recall, organized and led by people who take their faith seriously but also aren’t afraid to defy certain conventions for the sake of setting a lively table.
Yet as I shot a plastic green frog into my brother’s wine glass, I could faintly hear my grandfather’s harrumph of disapproval in a back corner of my mind, and I had to concede that his view of what constitutes a proper Seder is as valid as anyone else’s.
What is more, he could rest assured that, even at this table, at least it was Manischewitz in the glass.