Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg

At the Seder, We Are One People

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate when they were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.

With these words, Jews from all over the world – Ashkenazi and Shephardi, Israeli and Diaspora; Orthodox and Reform; liberal, progressive and in-between – begin the Passover Seder. The text, with roots that are 4,000 years old, enhanced and embellished in every generation, is profoundly collective, as is the Jewish religion and culture as a whole. We were slaves, we left Egypt, we were rescued, we became free. We, the descendants of the Israelites, we the Jewish people, are at the center of this ritual.

In addition to the words, the Seder is community-based — from the first Passover in Egypt until today. We celebrate as families, friends, and welcome strangers into our homes, proclaiming “let all who are hungry (and alone) come and eat.” Together, in whatever group we form for the Seder, we retell the story of the plagues and the midnight march from slavery to freedom, drink the four cups, eat the matzah and bitter herbs, and say that if God had not rescued us, we would still be slaves.

The Jewish emphasis on the collective is not unique to Passover. On Yom Kippur, which, in terms of ritual, is the opposite side of the Seder feast, we atone for our sins and ask forgiveness collectively and publicly, not privately or silently. Also, daily and shabbat prayers take place in a minyan, and without the required quorum of at least 10 people, we cannot read Torah.

The focus on community that is central to Judaism and Jewish culture, stands in contrast to the individualism that is central to today’s Western culture and society, and is a source of tension. The Seder and surrounding rituals, including the prohibition on bread (not to be eaten or even seen for seven days  – eight in the Diaspora) are impositions on individual freedoms, restricting people from doing their own thing, or creating personal rituals.

Indeed, to be Jewish is to be bound by group rules and regulations, to be taken more seriously or leniently. This is a fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity (beyond theology), which the founders of the church did away with. Christianity emphasizes the individual, and does not require a minyan for prayer or celebration.

For Jews, the practice and customs central to group identity are more important than the theological principles. The rabbinical prohibition proclaimed in Pirkei Avot of not separating oneself from the community, regardless of differences, remains central. Over 2500 years ago, the followers of Hillel and Shamai fought bitterly “for the sake of heaven” over rituals, but this did not prevent their sons and daughters from marrying each other.

However, many younger Jews today – particularly the so-called millennial generation — have grown up in a culture that gives priority to individuals, at the expense of the wider collective identity. Our culture and communities have been atomized, with less and less of a sense of commonality and shared history. Among Jews, like the wider society, people today tend to define themselves more by sub-tribes each intently embracing their own identity – ideological, religious, gender-based, etc – than as being part of the Jewish collective.

These divisions are exacerbated by a loss of the knowledge of and connection to history that once kept us glued together as a people. In 2,000 years of exile, Jews from all over the world, with different cultures and languages, identified with one another because of this shared history, and a sense of common fate. The successes of Zionism and the return to our ancient homeland are direct results of this heritage.

In another Seder highlight, we sing Dayenu — telling God “it would have been enough for us” to be freed, to get the Torah, and enter the Land of Israel. After four thousand years, our identity and our future remain bound together as one nation. Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)