Fixing the Seder

by David Steiner

“When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.”
Vaclav Havel

My favorite non-fiction is a collection of essays by the belated former president of Czechoslovakia, the playwright, Vaclav Havel. It’s called Living in Truth, and it is about the complexities of truth in a world of nations, countries, “isms” and religions. Jews have an abridged version of Living in Truth in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kittubot, 16b-17a.

  • Standing on one foot, the tradition tells us to lie when it is appropriate, despite Torah’s command to keep far from false matters. This was a radical decision of the rabbis. They had to choose between the literal text of Torah and the spirit of Torah, to “be pleasant with people.” Their decision opened two Pandora’s boxes: they allow the spirit of the law to trump the Torah, and they set a subjective standard for when it is appropriate to lie.

When the generation that followed Hillel and Shammai grappled with the Roman occupation and the destruction of the Temple, they dealt with something huge: a major crash in their belief system. My teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe, says that they had three choices. They could continue to believe in the same truths as they did before the Promised Land was taken from them and the Temple destroyed. They could find different truths and eventually deal with the fragility of those beliefs, or they could synthesize the old truths with the new realities. According to Darwin, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Our Rabbis led us to option number three, synthesis, and made a new Passover Seder that addressed the veracities Jews were facing: no sovereignty, no Temple and no centralized leadership. Their Seder had to substitute for the Passover sacrifices, and it had to fortify their claim that “Torah, worship and acts of loving kindness.” replace the Temple rituals. They also needed to address the leadership void, which is why the Haggadah virtually dismisses Moses’ role in the Exodus. God had to become the centerpiece of Jewish life for a people without a land.

The rabbis lied to us and left out the human leadership of Moses, his siblings and others. This was lying by omission. Aaron, Moses and God alternated in triggering the plagues, but you would hardly know that from the Seder rituals. Moses’ carrying the bones of Joseph reminded us of the importance of history in shaping a nation, but this story is not told on Passover. Aaron, the spokesperson extraordinaire for his brother, is completely absent, and we never mention Nachshon, who according to the Midrash, gave us the courage to step into the splitting sea. Likewise, there is no echo of the trimbrels the women danced to after crossing the sea, even though Miriam taught us the importance of culture when she insisted on carrying musical instruments despite the hurried departure from Egypt. Clearly, the exodus was a collective effort, but at the Seder we give all the credit to God.

This is not new to rabbinic education. The tradition makes curricular choices for us, and not all choices are good. When the midrash touts Abraham over Noah for his leadership in the face of an angry God, we applaud them, but when they raise King David above his numerous fallibilities, we start to wonder what is their agenda?

Alexander Pope was right when he exclaimed, “to err is human.” Our tradition struggles with this and often tells us, “Our leaders don’t err!” But wouldn’t it be better for everyone to hold David accountable for his mistakes. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who stood up to Hitler, later in life said, “Democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others that have been tried.” Why? Because he was upset about being replaced as Prime Minister after his World War Two successes. Churchill was the right guy at the right time, as was King David, but neither was without flaw. Making great leadership appear flawless is a mistake. I would like to believe that this is the reason why Torah tells us that God insisted on making Moses pay the price for his mistakes.

In the Jewish world today, we continue this harmful pattern of cleaning up for our leadership. Why does the Madoff story hurts so much? Because we can’t justify it. All we can do is distance ourselves, but this doesn’t help all the Jewish institutions that invested with him. We rush to count the number of Pulitzer Prize winners that are Jewish, and celebrate Jewish Olympians, but we shy away from the Madoff’s and Meyer Lansky’s in our past.

This error is human. We want to think of ourselves as good, and we want to forget those that taint our collective self-image, but this must be recognized as a rationalization. The truth is that we are complex, and inside each of us is a struggle between righteousness and our instincts. This is why we learn in Pirkei Avot, “Who is a hero? S/he who conquers his or her instinct. (gender neutralization is mine)”

As a people that feel strongly about individual and collective agency, we also need to look at the behavior of Israel. In this Rabbinic style of describing Israel, we have the only democracy in the Middle East, and we have a nation that will,

  • [F]oster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

These lofty standards were established as goals for the newly independent state, but let’s not make claims out of our aspirations. One small example is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel signed in 1954, but has never developed into a corresponding domestic legal framework. This was never an issue until the beginning of the millennium when refugees started making their own exodus by foot from Egypt to the Promised Land. These refugees lived in Israel, in relative safety, until 2012 when they started to be deported back to war torn South Sudan.

While studying at the Shalom Harman Institute between 2009-2011, my family lived with me in Israel and my children went to Israeli schools. My youngest son had Sudanese schoolmates that became his close friends. They too were deported to South Sudan. Poogi was fortunate. His Israeli teacher is funding his studies in a boarding school in Uganda. Deng’s parents fled the fighting in Juba and took their family to Cairo. Now Deng suffers persecution for being black and Christian, and his education is practically non-existent. Both Poogi’s and Deng’s plight is the result of the decisions of the government of Israel. Then Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishai, speaking publicly said, “They should be put into holding cells or jails, and then given a grant and sent back” MK Danny Danon (Likud) said, “Infiltrators are a national calamity. We need to deport them out of Israel before it is too late. The Sudanese can return to Sudan, and the rest return to their respective nations in Africa and Eastern Europe. It has been done in the past and must be done again.”

Israel is a “Start-Up Nation.” It is also a country that struggles with its values. As a Jewish country, it is caught between Rashi’s proclamation, “the poor of your city first,” and the Torah’s instruction to have one law for ourselves and the strangers who reside amongst us, because we too were strangers in a stranger land. As a democracy, Israel is caught between the obligation to be a state for all its citizens and the need to be a refuge for Jews all over the world. As we struggle, Israel should remember that countries are the product of human beings, which makes her the sum of all of their flaws and the laudable fruits of their labors. If we do to Israel what the midrash does to King David, we are liable to overlook the errors that could otherwise be instructive in making us better.

When we sit at the Passover Seder, we will tell ourselves a story. The telling of this story is purposeful, and in each generation the purpose changes. Nearly two thousand years ago, our Rabbis wanted us to continue to be a nation with culture and values despite the absence of a land and sovereignty. God played a big role in building that civilization, but the world has changed. Today, the Jewish people have a country and can be sovereign as Jews if they chose to be. This requires a different type of leadership. Just as it was appropriate to tell the bride at her wedding that she is beautiful, even if it were a fabrication of the truth, likewise it is appropriate to stop lying by omission and bring back human leadership into our national narrative. Appropriateness, as the Rabbis demonstrate, was a good reason for superseding Torah’s command to keep far from false matters. Now it’s time we take their lead and tell an exodus story at our Seders that is appropriate for our current disposition: a free people with our own land.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.