✡ Symbols, Stories, and perhaps a little Politics with your Bitter Herbs

Sunday evening, I had the honor and privilege to organize, and essentially lead, the Men’s Seder for our synagogue brotherhood, using a liturgy that I cobbled together from the MRJ Mens Seder, my personal Seder, and materials from the Temple Beth Hillel Seder we used in 2018. I did not design the Seder to espouse a particular point of view, but to teach about the symbols of the holiday, explore how we use symbols in the Seder to teach lessons, and to explore what we are teaching about men and men’s issues. Still, during the service, one of our attendees got up, made a speech about how leftist the liturgy was, and stormed out (he has since apologized to me for the outburst, which I accepted). This has left me vaguely troubled and thinking … and sometimes the only response is a blog post.

For the most part, religions use holy days to do one of two things: mark the passage of time, and tell stories. The former are occasional (think Rosh Hashanah or Rosh Chodesh); the latter are prevalent. Sometimes the stories that are told are repeats of the religious fables, but sometimes the stories convey a different message and meaning. Often, that meaning is to remind people of themes central to the religion. For example, while Chanukah ostensibly celebrates a miracle, it more importantly reminds people of a military victory and the battle against assimilation. The story of the recent holiday of Purim is a continual reminder of the fight against antisemitism; the central notion is that Haman is a character that keeps showing up, and against whom we must continually fight.

This brings us to Passover, and the Passover Seder. Although one might like the Seder to be apolitical, it is an inherently political story. It is a story that reminds us to stand up to oppressors, to fight for our freedoms, and to welcome the stranger into our midst. All are Jewish values, at the core of our moral system. They are why we tell this story, and why — in home rituals — people augment the telling to highlight the fact that this wasn’t just in the past. The battle against those who want to oppress us continues to this day. The need to fight for freedom for ourselves and others who are oppressed continues to this very day. The need to welcome the stranger in our midst, because we were once strangers in a strange land, continues to this day. The need to remind ourselves that it wasn’t just God who brought us out of Egypt while we were passive, but God working through us to stand up and say, “No, Let our people go!”, and to get up and leave. These are battles we fight to this day.

People add symbols to their Seder plate to take this historical story and demonstrate that the battle to move from oppression to freedom continues to this day. Whether is it the battles of women for equality and a voice, of LGBTQ individuals to be seen, oppressed people in nations from Eastern Europe to Palestine to Africa to America to be free, to workers under oppression, to …. you name it. People use the home service and the Seder to draw parallels to the causes near and dear to them, and to show that the battles fought by Moses and Aaron and Miriam and the people in the desert were not just “one and done”, but continue everyday until oppression is gone.

In the service I developed, I did not intend to take a side. I did intend, however, to explore how the Seder is used in this way. I did intend to remind people that the battle was not done: that there still is ethnic violence, that there still is oppression of Jews, that there are still battles to be fought. I did intend to raise the question of how to bring back the men’s voices: with the increasing movement of women into leadership roles, men’s voices have been disappearing. Perhaps they consider the roles devalued, perhaps … something else. In any case, we need both voices, talking equally and not over each other. How do we recover that was a question I intended to raise.

But then I got accused of having an “agenda” that someone didn’t like. And that, for a people-pleaser like me, continues to gnaw at me and bother me. (On the other hand, the complaint that the liturgy was too long is a valid one — this was essentially a first run through, and we’ll trim and evolve for next year)

But what bothers me more is the notion that a Seder should be apolitical. We’re telling a story every year that is — at its heart — inherently political, inherently subversive, inherently agitating. There’s a reason that Early Christians were scared about the retelling of the story at the Seder. It wasn’t the antisemitic tropes you hear about — it was the message that in every generation we must rise up and fight oppressors, that in every generation we must remember that we were strangers. It is a message that is at the heart of Judaism: a religion that (unlike Christianity) lives for today, and making this world a better place for everyone.

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