A salient question in the Jewish community since the disclosure of the results of the PEW Study survey has been what is the future of Judaism and the Jewish people? This question has hit the Jewish people square in the face and is forcing us to take stock of who we are. I have poured hours upon hours over the study, op-eds, and in Jewish institutional settings trying to grapple with the results of the study as well as the question of who is a Jew and what defines Judaism. So many answers have been proffered around the world and our country and yet the answer has been staring all of us in the face, particularly in the last 8 days.
I was asked to teach a class this past week on the history of Passover. Upon embarking on my research my interest quickly peaked upon reading a particularly interesting Haggadah, A Feast of History, by Chaim Raphael. He claims in his recounting of the history of the Haggadah and the Seder that, “we are brought face to face through the Haggadah with the most relentless of all questions: what is the meaning of the Jewish role in history. Put even more simply: what is a Jew?” It all seems so clear, through the history of the Haggadah and the Seder we can glean from our ancestors in each generation how they viewed Judaism and practiced Judaism in their day and age. Even more so, just like sedimentary rock we see the building up of one layer after the other and how the terrain of Judaism, as it were, has changed and evolved.
We are witness through Jewish memory and our yearly experience during Passover of the saga as we choose to recall it of the Jewish people from the time of the Torah until today, but the “story” as it were goes far beyond just a retelling. We don’t spend the whole Seder merely recounting history but engaging in songs, activities, lessons, and questions. Each of these components of the Seder build an image of who a Jew is according to our internal definitions and what Judaism is to us. We discover through the Haggadah that we are a people who believe in one God, are afraid of elevating any one man to a position of a deity or demi-god, love and insist upon questioning, are stiff-necked yet grateful, are resilient and insightful. We learn what our ancestors want us to recall but we also embark every year on making the Seder relevant for us, whether that be through modern Haggadot or activities, songs, and discussions that we bring to the table.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Seder and Haggadah is if you look at its framework it represents clearly a Greek symposium, an intellectual meal that was held during the time of the writing of the Mishnah which was codified around 200 CE. What is so significant about this little tidbit of information is that the Seder was created to be relevant to the Rabbis who began to create the tradition of the Seder directly in relation to the milieu of their times. We also can see through the sedimentary layers of the Seder that each piece that was added reflect the times of the Jews who lived then. Dayenu is one of the first examples. It is suggested that Dayenu (It would have been enough) is one of the first parts of the Seder, written most likely around the time of the Maccabees (c. 160’s BCE) the story reflects the feeling of gratitude that the Temple still stands and that the Jewish people are whole and in their land. Fast forward a little over a thousand years and we see the advent of welcoming Elijah into our homes a custom that was introduced during the times of the crusades when the hope for the Messiah was more poignant, as Jews were living through horrific massacres and where praying for salvation from their pain and sorrow. The Jewish hopes had changed based off of the circumstances under which they found themselves.
We only have to turn to the Haggadah and her story to realize that Judaism has always evolved and made itself relevant to her people in the day and age we live. We also can turn to the Haggadah to realize it is a litmus test of who are the Jews and what is Judaism. We shouldn’t just see ourselves in every generation as it instructs us in the Haggadah but we should see who are the Jews as a people in each generation reflected in the Haggadah. We should be able to pick up this book in one evening not just to read our past but to understand our present and who we are. If the Haggadah has not evolved for our generation then we are failing to usher Judaism into the present.
Therefore, as we continue to grapple with how to respond to where we are going as a people we should turn to our new Haggadot and determine what they say. If our Haggadot are vibrant and relevant to not just our generation but also to the generation of our children than the survival of our people is doing well. The day a generation will find it insignificant to have at least one Seder, will be the generation that will see the end of Judaism.
So a call for next year, on this end of Pesach tonight, is not just next year in Jerusalem, but rather next year for Judaism.