Most American Jews are aware that the Passover Seder is one of the most observed rituals in our community. According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 79% of American Jews attend a Seder. But have you stopped to ask why? One theory was raised by sociologists of the American Jewish community, Marshal Sklare and Joseph Greenblum, in 1967:
Five criteria emerge as important in explaining retention of specific home rituals. Thus, the highest retention will occur when a ritual: (1) is capable of effective redefinition in modern terms, (2) does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style, (3) accords with the religious culture of the larger community while providing a “Jewish” alternative when such is felt to be needed, (4) is centered on the child, and. (5) is performed annually or infrequently.”
The Passover Seder fulfills all of his categories. (1) The Seder is able to be redefined in modern terms. Each year more haggadot are published relating the story to current events. In the 1980’s we had the Soviet refusnik’s Haggadah. Today we have the social justice Haggadah. (2) The Seder does not demand social isolation. In fact, the Seder is a perfect time to invite people, including non-Jewish friends, family, and neighbors to share in our traditions. (3) The Seder accords with the larger culture. Passover is about celebrating freedom, one of the basic and most cherished of American values. (4) It goes without saying that the Seder is geared toward children and keeping them occupied. (5) To the gratitude of many a Jewish homemaker, the two Seders come around just once a year.
Sklare’s observation is encapsulated by one of the latest edition to the library of haggadot, the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, two much-celebrated writers who are certainly known for their Jewish perspectives but not for a particularly pious outlook. They received much attention for their endeavor – Foer even appeared on a late night talk show to promote the book – but I can’t help think how odd the book seems in light of the Jewish tradition. We expect a haggadah to be prepared by rabbis and Jewish scholars, but as Englander noted in an interview, he is an atheist who left the Orthodox community to live a secular and unobservant life. And now he has translated one of the most beloved texts in Judaism.
At first glance the New American Haggadah may seem like a strange and even heretical concept, but it fits right in with a particular kind of American Judaism. It certainly represents a “redefinition in modern terms” of the Passover experience. It brings the Seder right into the center of American culture by making the text a source of commentary for some of the most celebrated writers of the contemporary literary world. But mostly, this new haggadah is exciting because it celebrates the idea of taking the Seder and “making it your own.” I recently heard someone say that the best entrepreneurs are the outsiders, the ones who aren’t part of the establishment. This is what makes American Jewish culture unique – we have an independent spirit that looks for inspiration outside of the expected sources of wisdom.
If non-scholars can create a haggadah, that should inspire us to make our Seders our own as well. Many people have literally done so by creating their own haggadot, or at least adding supplements to them. How will you create a unique Seder this year? What happened in your life that could add meaning to the Passover story? As you partake of the rituals of the Seder, may you find wisdom and meaning by making this holiday your own. Hag Kasher Vesameach!