Of Priests and Prophets: the Passover Message of Jewish Peoplehood

by Irina Nevzlin Kogan and David Chivo

More than any other Jewish holiday, Passover brings out both the “priests” and “prophets” in our communities. How they will spend their time over the next several weeks is emblematic of the state of our communities and highlights what needs to be undertaken to engage a larger segment of the Jewish people.

First we have our Passover priests. Many will spend countless hours purifying their homes; others will fret over every aspect of the Seder meal; some will carefully choreograph who will sit with whom; and a few will even peer over the Haggadot to be intimately familiar with all the rituals.

Our Passover priests resemble many of the leaders who oversee our venerable institutions. The Jewish community is fortunate to have capable people overseeing the finances, operations, policies and programs of our organizations. And without them, the constellation of organized Jewish life would simply not function.

But what about the prophets of the Passover holiday? Far fewer in numbers, many of them draw their inspiration in the opening volley of the Haggadah: “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.”

For the Passover prophets, they’re moved by what our Sages understood long ago: Passover is for everybody. Moreover, the holiday rituals don’t exist for their own sake, but rather, to create holy, welcoming spaces in our homes and communities so that the richness of Jewish life infuses our religious and cultural practices. The Passover prophets live what Dr. Ron Wolfson so eloquently describes in his new book “Relational Judaism,” creating, advancing and expanding connections between Jews in order to strengthen the bonds among our people.

This year happens to mark the 36th anniversary of our institution, Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People. During these years, Beit Hatfutsot has undergone its own transformation. It has moved from an institution that steadfastly and proudly recounted 2,000 years of the Jewish Diaspora to one that tells the inspirational story of Jewish people – a living story characterizing how our collective triumphs and countless accomplishments binds each of us to our unique Jewish identities and to our belonging to the global Jewish community.

As such, it is no coincidence that as we approach Passover, the leadership of Beit Hatfutsot takes stock of how this holiday defines us and calls us to action. Without the priests, we don’t have the infrastructure to support Jewish life practices, rituals and institutional engagements that comprise the underpinnings of our community. Yet, without a new prophetic vision we lack the novel ideas as well as the 21st century interpretations of our wisdom tradition that’s required to make Jewish living and being accessible in rich new ways, and via relevant and meaningful experiences.

The inherent tension between priestly and prophetic approaches to Jewish living has always been a key element of Jewish peoplehood, and an important check & balance, but it is when one force subsumes the other, our sense of collectivity, connectivity and solidarity tends to gets weakened.

In communities around the world, our metaphorical Seder table is set, the meal is prepared and our priestly hosts serve those already seated. Yet we urgently need more prophetic voices in Jewish life to also reach the hearts and minds of Jews not presently at the table and to let them know that we welcome them, embrace them and love them. After all, the very concept of Jewish peoplehood is that of inclusivity and belonging, not partition and exclusion.

As we gather in the coming weeks at our own Passover celebrations, may we thank the priests who keep our community intact and functioning and may we also renew our efforts to enable today’s prophets in Jewish life to chart new courses so that more Jews join us, change us and ultimately make us stronger.

Hag Sameach!

Irina Nevzlin Kogan is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People. She was previously the President of the NADAV Foundation in Israel. David Chivo is the North America Director of Beit Hatfutsot’s Renewal Campaign, a project launched with the Government of Israel and the NADAV Foundation to advance the Museum’s renewed vision and mission.