Wednesday, April 1, 2009

steal this seder

The first few years of my working "adult" life I only had one set of good dishes for Passover, and they were dairy. The main course of the seder was usually salmon - maybe a smaller fish poached in foil in the oven, maybe a large whole filet roasted with potato crust. For desert, a pesachdik English Trifle. Nobody complained.

That was twenty years ago, and when I read Alex Witchel's surprise at a dairy seder I got a bit huffy. But when I read her surprise at a seder where people asked questions, I just got sad. If you look at the earliest discussions of the seder it's clear - clear - that the point of the meal is for there to be dialogue. Many of the practices we know today began is tricks, stunts, things done purely to get the children to wonder, What the hell is going on? And just as the question was supposed to be spontaneous, so too was the answer which was not supposed to be a recitation, but was a response geared to what the child could understand. All of which goes back to the biblical precident: "And when you enter the land the Lord will give you as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your childeren ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord...'" Exodus 12: 24-27

When the seder becomes merely a repetition, whether as a mind-numbing plod through the English or as a breathless race through the Hebrew, the participants - no, the witnesses - miss out on the original program. That's a shame, less because they're not doing what they're spozed to than that they're losing the opportunity to connect as active individual subjects with the text, with the ideas, and with each other.

It's a shame, but it's not a surprise. I think the experience Alex describes is what most Jews are used to. Which is pretty strange, because I don't think most Jews actually get much out of it. It's not that they don't like the larger gestalt of Seder. They like the family gathering, and the sense of history, and the food, and the songs, but they don't really connect to the telling part, the part that was once thought to be its reason to be. And yet, it's not like being at a High Holiday service, where a cantor is singing and a rabbi is talking and an usher is shushing and your role is to follow along. The seder belongs to the people. Every family gets to run their own, and many families simply run it down.

Now, it's quite possible that some families have such respect for the ancient rabbis that they wouldn't dare trifle with anything they said or prescribed, any more than they could imagine them joking or being ironic, and so they take their seder straight as a discipline, a form of obedience. But outside of the Orthodox community there are few Jews who feel that way.

I think that the real reason is that for all too many people Judaism is like some obscure musical instrument or piece of forgotten machinery. The idea that it could be helpful, that it could be used for one's own purposes and in one's own way has long been forgotten, let alone the knowledge of how to use it, and so it sits in its glass case while we look on.

There are rabbis and community leaders who see this as a yet another sign of the degraded state of the folk, but it's not the folk's fault. It's us, the rabbis, who are to blame because so many of us are so concerned with doing it right that we've never said, "Make Jewish practice yours, make it a tool to help you do the work you need to do." Partly because a lot of us are not so sure how to do that ourselves, and partly because then we'd lose some control. If the quality of your seder depends on how closely it follows my script, well, then I get to be the arbiter. But if it depends on how well it works, then my teaching is going to be tested in the crucible of your experience and that can be kind of scary. For me - but for you, too. Because if you're bored with my script you can happily blame me, but once you take it into your own hands you become responsible for its success.

Scary as it is, there is no other way. Not if Judaism is going to be alive, not if it is going to be a real participant in the world, a discipline for making holy art out of life, for finding one's place and one's task in the midst of the confusion. It's got to be used, and lived with, and played with, and experimented with, and if that means sometimes getting it wrong at least that's better than not getting it at all.

Most Jews, and certainly most Jews reading this, are in a pretty good condition, all things considered. There are dangers, there are anti-Semites, but by and large we're not oppressed; we're not impovrished; we're not enslaved. It's not Jews who need to be liberated this year - it's Judaism.


Noah said...

R. Josh: How would you like to collaborate on a Haggadah project?

The title: the 104 Questions Haggadah.

I can send you my first draft of the 104 questions if you like, and we can discuss in shul.

Wolf said...

Greetings, Josh. Michael Wolf here. I liked your post about Pesach. I agree with what you say, but want to add one slight variation. While no one has ever accused me of being a supporter of rabbis, in this case I think the dynamic is a bit more complicated than you describe. It isn't only that controlling rabbis try to get people to “do it right.” As a non-rabbi teacher, I have students – both adult and younger – constantly asking me what the “right” way is, whether I am teaching Bible or Hebrew or math, for that matter. I have come to accept that there is some impulse that makes us all ask about the “right” way to do various things. And when I tell people that there is no one right way, but there are many different ways, they tend to be disappointed. Just this morning some of my math students were annoyed that I kept discussing multiple ways of converting percents into fractions. They didn’t want to find the way that worked best for them. They wanted to be told what the “right” way was. They can live with the idea that they will fail the test or get a wrong answer more easily than they can live with the idea that there are lots of different ways and everybody should find the way that is best for them.
My point is that I think a similar dynamic also works around Jewish life in general and seder in particular. Hazal wanted dialogue, but amchah wanted to be sure they were doing it correctly! Yes there are obsessive/compulsive rabbi-types who nudge people, but there are at least as many ordinary Jews who just want to know what the trules are so they can get on with it.
All of which I find occasionally depressing – except for one thing. As arid and dull as many sedarim may be, Jews go through the ceremony anyway. There is something about Pesach that works for people, even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue and exploration that Hazal were trying to stimulate. So, yes, we need rabbis (or teachers) who don’t give in to the “This is the right way” syndrome.” But let’s not underestimate how hard it is to actually get that message across. As you note, “once you take it into your own hands you become responsible for its success” which is just plain hard for people, including you and me.
Hag sameach.