My respected teacher, colleague, and friend Rabbi Aryeh Klapper recently wrote about his nuanced opposition to adding symbols to the seder plate. First, Rabbi Klapper distinguishes between the ultimate goal and the immediate goal of the Seder:
The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to recommit us to justice, to recognizing that everything in Torah is mediated by our experience of the G-d Who hates slavery intervening to redeem us from slavery. But the immediate purpose of the Seder is to root that experience in our minds, and the minds of our children, as uncontroversial and incontrovertible memory rather than as potentially controversial history. The immediate purpose of the Seder is to establish a narrative, not to draw morals from it.
Rabbi Klapper argues that “When we impose meaning on the story, rather than simply telling it, we transform experience into opinion.” He is concerned that our expressed values will divide us. “If the controversy is allowed to feed back into the memory–if our political differences no longer stem from a shared memory–those same conflicts risk turning us into multiple people, with multiple Torahs.”
Rabbi Klapper and I agree that there is no halakhic problem with adding items to the seder plate. We also agree that cultivating a commitment to social justice is a key purpose of the seder. He adds toward the end that “it is beautiful and necessary for Jews to experience the Seder as generating obligations to act, to change the world toward greater morality and justice.” But we do disagree on a few fundamental points and I ultimately believe we should have no opposition to decorating the traditional seder plate to enhance the purpose of the chag and seder.
1. What divides us? Is it true that symbolic ritual (in this case, the Seder plate) has more power to divide us than does our discourse? I personally deeply value different ritual minhagim (customs) others have and don’t feel threatened by them. On the other hand, heavily ideological speech in religious spaces can often feel oppressive to me. Language choices are quite often, if unintentionally, inherently and necessarily political. A symbolic ritual, however, only has a political message if we ascribe one to it. I would encourage us to more closely regulate inappropriate political speech in religious institutions bolstering Jewish rituals that deepen our value commitments.
2. Core Priorities: Is achdut Yisrael (unity among the Jewish people) really more important than the cultivation of Jewish values? His assumption seems to be that decorating the Seder plate to express pressing social justice causes may divide us, and seems to place greater value on cultivating Jewish unity, even at the expense of possibly developing other Jewish values of greater importance to both Jews and society as a whole.
We have no reason to believe that voiding the ritual and narrative of the Seder of greater meaning will translate somehow into the cultivation of relevant Jewish values simply by not disrupting Jewish unity. Rather, if we take our commitment to repairing the world – perhaps the most central of all Jewish values – seriously, it must be infused into all of Jewish life, especially our pinnacle Jewish experiences (such as leil Seder).
3. Haggadah Meaning: Another assumption is that current social justice values are alien from the Exodus narrative itself and almost an imposition upon it. It seems to me that advocating for strangers today (immigrants, homeless, the sick, etc.) is precisely what the narrative is about. If one advocates for Policy X it may be a stretch, but to reject calling attention to the plight of the vulnerable today seems to be a rejection of the narrative itself. To express a Jewish social justice value during the Seder is not politics; rather, it’s a living manifestation of Torah.
One cannot believe in the Exodus without it having relevance today. Rabbi David Hartman z’l offered a powerful moral Pesach message. He asked: “What does it mean to “believe” in yetziat mitzryim (that the Jews were rescued from Egypt by G-d)?” He says that it means enacting just weights and measures, i.e. conducting business in an ethical manner. Jewish belief is always interconnected with, and manifest in, our actions. A people rescued from slavery by the G-d of justice makes their belief in that G-d real in the world by acting justly! His point is a message of halachta b’drachav (that we should emulate the compassionate ways of G-d). G-d acted to ensure justice; the test, if we truly believe in that story, is for us also to act for justice. It’s the measure for true belief. If we embrace a living G-d and we believe in our mission today, then we must not only have ritual objects representing the past but also meaningful spiritual practices that awaken us to the present.
4. Is the Jewish tradition so fragile? There seems to be a concern that the Seder experience is very delicate and tenuous and if we add or adjust anything (by deviating in any way from the concretized retelling), we might lose that core experience, our continuity, and reverence for the original text. I admire these concerns. As a traditionalist myself, I am generally much more interested in a process of transvaluation (giving new interpretations to old practices) than I am in an evolution of ritual. But I think we must trust ourselves and the tradition a bit more. Adding in meaningful flavor to our Jewish practices that bolster our Jewish commitments should not be viewed as threats to the existing ritual but as testaments to what they can give birth to.
5. Fear of Meaning-Making: “When we impose meaning on the story, rather than simply telling it, we transform experience into opinion.” What is the alternative? To check meaning at the door and have a meaningless Seder to avoid bringing our full selves into the ritual? If I did not actualize the Seder as a rocket launch to fulfill my ethical mission in the world, it would make it an irrelevant experience for me. It might be socially fun and intellectually intriguing, but not ethically transformative. The Seder table is not a classroom where we ask the teacher to bracket values discourse and expression. Rather it is a thinktank for spirituality, a playground for creativity, and an intimate quarter for personal revelation and sharing. Decorating the seder plate to inspire more questions and discourse about modern injustice and oppression is a fulfillment of the main traditional goals of the seder.
One resolution could be a more pluralistic approach where each individual at the seder has their own Seder plate and that they decorate it as they please, a synthesis of both our individual interpretations and experiences of the rituals and narratives, as well as the common elements of them that we all share.
If we truly believe that the Torah is about inspiring us to repair ourselves, our community, and the world, then those values must be manifest in all we do. These values are not a threat to the Seder, but the very life of our spiritual tradition.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”