Abi Dauber Sterne

Arguments at the Seder?

Artwork by Bridget Gottdank.
Artwork by Bridget Gottdank.

Pesach is almost here, and we’ve probably never been so unprepared for our Seder table conversations.

Many, like us, come from a family with differing and competing opinions about nearly everything – from whether Trump or Biden ought to win the American election, to whether Israel ought to continue to fight Hamas or push for a ceasefire, to whether Israel should or should not respond to Saturday night’s attack from Iran. Or, of course, whether firm or fluffy matzo balls are the best.

On this special night, do we engage in the most pressing disagreements between us, or do we decide to focus on family time and the Pesach story? We don’t believe there is a right answer, but we do believe that whichever direction you choose, there are pitfalls.

If you decide to engage in disagreements, you risk having a dinner filled with pointless screaming matches. On the other hand, if you decide not to engage in arguments at all, the risk is a boring dinner, where we all avoid what’s important to us. As Priya Parker puts it in her book, “The Art of Gathering,” “there is no warmth without heat.” That is, a great event is great because there is just the right amount of heat – or excitement – to generate warmth, but not too much heat that the event bursts into flames.

Is it possible, at the seder, to hold some balance between banning arguments altogether and engaging in heartfelt disagreement? 

Three thoughts and practices that might help keep our seders in balance this year, and keep your arguments healthy:

First, think about the tone, nature and goals of the conversations and arguments that you have. Rather than trying to persuade or convince others that you’re right – given that we are rarely successful anyway in convincing someone with a very different perspective of our viewpoint – try understanding why others believe what they do. Try what we call a healthy argument, in which we aim to grow, to learn, to gather as many new perspectives or ideas as possible, rather than trying to debate everyone to death.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our differing opinions, but we should do so to add to the variety and depth of the conversation and not in order to “win.” 

We recommend employing the curiosity of the gatherer rather than the hunter. Ask questions to gain understanding, not to point out the weaknesses of Uncle Jeff’s argument. In many ways, the Seder itself is all about asking questions whose answers are constantly shifting and developing. Not only does the Haggadah give the smallest child a role in the event by having them ask four key questions, but it also presents us with four sons, characters (or archetypes) who can be known not by their beliefs but by the questions they ask. 

A second approach to healthy arguments is to think about linking concrete here-and-now topics to the more conceptual questions at the heart of the seder itself. The ritual of telling the Pesach story, like many rituals, can help us move from the timely to the timeless, by creating a bridge between the ancient story we know so well and the issues that feel urgent this year. For example, rather than digging straight into arguments about how much Israel should consider Gazan civilians in its long war against Hamas, you might wonder about the conflicts that arise when we feel the need to choose between “us” (particular people) and “all” (universal). Try: Is Pesach about freeing all the oppressed of the world or is it a particular story about the Jewish people? Or, if you’re thinking about whether, in this moment in history, we can still feel thankful, try: The song Dayenu suggests, ‘this would have been enough.’ Given the history of the Jewish people, and immediately following a barrage of rockets from Iran, when can we feel gratitude for what has been given to us? 

A third approach is one we’ve learned from our work with For the Sake of Argument, and can be liberating, especially at a Seder table. How about adding an additional answer to the age-old question at the heart of the evening: “How is this night different from all other nights?” Our answer might be “because tonight we allow ourselves to change our minds if we so wish, and no one is allowed to embarrass us with our previous opinion.” This need not be an all-year-round transformation of your family, but perhaps just for this one night, we might choose to leave ourselves a tiny bit more open to others than usual. 

In this way we might find a way to move beyond the painful narrowing of our family and political discourse and emerge from that narrow place — Mitzrayim  — and into liberation

Chag Sameach.

Written by  Robbie Gringras and Abi Dauber Sterne .

About the Author
Abi Dauber Sterne is co-author of Stories for the Sake of Argument, and a rabbinical student at the Hartman Institute and Midrasha B'Oranim. For more information about Abi's her work, see
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