Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Screen_Shot_2014-04-14_at_12.56.03_PM

Max Fisher points out that the Passover seder is a popular ritual among American Jews, even those who aren’t observant:

Passover, which commemorates the ancient Jews’ Biblical flight from Egypt to Israel, is celebrated by nearly three out of four US Jews, and 42 percent of secular Jews. If you live in a place with a significant Jewish population, there’s a pretty good chance you know someone who’s going to a seder — the ritual-heavy dinner that marks Passover — or are going yourself. Among religiously observant Jews, 78 percent attend a seder.

Compare those numbers to the share of US Jews who fast during Yom Kippur (fasting is a central component of observing the holiday, and many Jews who fast will do so partially). Only 53 percent of US Jews fast; its 62 percent among religious Jews and just 22 percent among secular Jews. In other words, a secular Jew is about twice as likely to attend a Passover seder as he or she is to fast during Yom Kippur, even though the latter is by far the more important holiday. About 22 percent of US Jews report themselves as secular, so the fact that they are so much more likely to observe Passover is a big deal for its cultural prominence.

Goyim are getting into the holiday as well:

[F]or many, the allure of Passover stretches beyond a curiosity ticket to a Jewish ritual. The seder itself and the themes it explores have a way of resonating outside the boundaries of the tribe. Rick Weintraub, a Jewish-born convert to Christianity, has been leading seders in churches for about 30 years. Around 500 Christian participants will join him this year at The Hills, a church in North Richland Hills, Texas.

The seder speaks to Christians on two levels, he explains.

On the symbolic side, the motif of the sacrificial lamb, whose blood was painted on Israelites’ doorframes to ensure they were “passed over” during the killing of the firstborn, resonates with the image of Jesus as the lamb of God who suffered in order to save others. On the historic side, Jesus and most of his disciples were Jewish, and their last supper is widely thought to have been a Passover seder. Just as the seder allows Jews to relive the exodus, the ceremony allows Christians to recreate the last supper. Weintraub explains that by observing a seder, “the Passover becomes a living event.”

But Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy discourages this, calling it disrespectful to Jews:

Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.

Spinning the “Old Testament” this way reduces the prophecies, the ambiguities that Jewish scholars have debated for centuries in the Talmud and in yeshivas, the morals derived from stories of flawed protagonists and, in fact, the entire narrative arc of the Jewish people as simply a preamble to the main act. Because Jewish people do not believe this interpretation of their holy texts and given the atrocities committed by members of our own faith because of this difference in belief, it’s like adding salt to the wounds of history for a Christian family to take one of the most sacred Jewish celebrations and twist it to reflect our own beliefs.

And Bernard Avishai worries that Israel has lost touch with the holiday’s core message of freedom:

I’ve noticed a new conceit this year on Reshet Bet, Israel’s dominant radio station. Almost all the broadcasters signed off with the phrase “pesach kasher,” a kosher Passover, something you did not hear in Israel a generation ago (and I have not heard since Talmud Torah, the orthodox school I went to in Montreal, in the nineteen-fifties). Guests speak about where the line in Europe passed between sweet gefilte fish and the salty kind. One rabbi, to his credit, spoke of the importance of complicating the intimacy of the family meal by remembering the refugees of the Syrian civil war and from sub-Saharan Africa, though he did not suggest what could be done about them. Not one interviewer asked about the universal importance of political freedom. (Is there even any point in asking why nobody thought to invite a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, you know, to ask what it felt like to be denied the most obvious forms of it?)

Presumably, the radio celebs were trying to be ingratiating to religious people; most of the radio hosts live secular lives in Tel Aviv, and are not fussing over cleaning their houses of leavened bread. The thing is, ingratiation suggests a communal expectation—in this case, that listeners increasingly think of Passover in terms of dietary strictures and ritual symbols, old-style laws, not the move from slavery to emancipation.