The Passover seder has evolved and changed throughout the ages. Many of us might not know that the “four questions” were originally “three questions,” and one of the three — preparation of the paschal lamb — is no longer asked.
Until recently, most Jews read the same haggadah at their seders. Today, different denominations have published haggadahs that include new passages, omit older ones and rearrange the order. And many of us have created and printed personal haggadahs each year for our own family seders.
But the single greatest change to the seder in the American Jewish experience might be our prevailing focus on a more universal theme and message related to liberation.
Whereas the particular Jewish experience of subjugation and liberation was once the central expression of the seder, the persecution of others and their need for liberation has influenced the great majority of the changes to both the haggadah and the seder experience for American Jews.
In discussing this phenomenon with people planning seders over the last several years, they’ve often shared their concern that their non-Jewish guests or family members might feel excluded, if not offended, should their seders focus too much upon the historical Jewish experiences of subjugation and redemption or the threats facing Jews today. Some have shared that they omit entire passages in the traditional haggadah that reference the Jewish experience of persecution and liberation beyond that of the exodus from Egypt.
Ironically, I’ve found over the years that non-Jews attending seders come with the expectation, and often the hope, of experiencing a particularly Jewish occasion. When we opt to universalize the theme to the exclusion of the unique historical Jewish experience, we may be responding to our own discomfort with a particularized focus on our history of persecution or our desire to concern ourselves with the welfare of Jews living with less freedom than we might enjoy today. In doing so, we might be avoiding or even denying our own vulnerability as a miniscule minority among the world’s population.
Over the last several years, and this year in particular, world events leave us little room for such self-indulgence. While it is admirable indeed, and very much in keeping with fundamental Jewish values championing life and liberty, for us to be sure to include in our seders our commitment to the liberation of all human beings, Iran is only several months away from developing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the State of Israel, home to the world’s largest, youngest and only growing Jewish population. Iran’s radical Islamic leadership has expressed openly its aim to wipe the State of Israel off the map and, if we do not act immediately and decisively, it will soon have the means to do so.
We can make a difference, even at this late hour. And we can start at our seders.
We can encourage our guests or our fellow attendees to become involved in a nationwide undertaking to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We can begin by consulting the Web site of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at aipac.org. We can download and distribute at our seders, and to our friends and relatives nationwide for distribution at their seders, important background material on this issue and links to legislation pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate that deserve the strongest support of our representatives in Washington, D.C. Via the AIPAC Web site, we can all lobby our representatives to support these initiatives. Each of us, and all of our guests, should be encouraged to contact AIPAC’s offices as soon as possible after the seder to learn how we can all be even more helpful in this sacred and urgent mission to keep the means to annihilate the State of Israel out of the hands of those who seek such an end.
As for our non-Jewish guests, wouldn’t we be doing them a great disservice were we to ignore this issue at our seders as one of central concern to us as Jews? Shouldn’t they know that both the painful and the miraculous lessons of our history help us determine when and how we must act in the name of Jewish self-preservation? If we reclaim our Passover priorities, priorities that demand our Jewish self-concern shamelessly when warranted, more than a few of our non-Jewish guests might well join with us in our urgent endeavor to keep Iran from harming our brothers and sisters in Israel. As we invite them to expand the base of support that will be required to ensure that Iran’s aims are never achieved, we might well be surprised to learn just how much they may feel included in our seders, enlightening us about why they accepted our invitations to attend our seders in the first place.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, a Conservative synagogue on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. For more information about the synagogue, call (310) 377-6986 or visit nertamid.com.