Todd Berman

Everyone deserves a place at the table: even J Street

Passover is coming. How do I know – we started playing “the Pesach cd” (over and over and over again), we have begun the ritual of stocking up on enough food for three to four months of the holiday (at three times the usual price), and of course the straitening and cleaning of every surface looms large. Yes, as the song goes “Pesach is on the way.” And when the Seder table is set, the wine is poured, and the story begins again, my family, as always, will be filled with joy and praise for all the God has given us, the Jewish people, and the entire world.

Of course it is easy to get lost in the many aspects of both preparation and participation to ignore those around us.  Getting caught up in our own world is too easy.  Hence, the author of the Haggadah added an invitation for anyone who is unable, no matter the reason, to join the Seder.  Part of fulfilment of the rituals of the night is to invite guests. Even our bored uncle who just wants to eat and our “crazy” communist cousins find a place at the Seder.  Some of my fondest memories of childhood were the Seders we had with the entire “clan.” (My mother’s matzah balls were even featured in the food section on the local paper one year.) We don’t always agree and we don’t always get along, but this is the big night when tell our story.  We recount how God took the Jewish people out of bondage and taught the world that a slave can become a free person that revolution can take place and that redemption is ours for the asking. We want everyone there.

The Haggadah further emphasizes the desire for everyone to join us.  In one of the most celebrated passages in the Haggadah we read: “The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.”  They are all there – no matter who they are.

One might argue that in the text of the Haggadah, we respond to the “Wicked” son by “blunting his teeth.” The response we give to the “Wicked” son is the exact same that we give to the “One who doesn’t know how to ask.” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that when the “Wicked” son asks the question, we actually turn to the ignorant and answer lest he be confused by the other son at the table. But I would suggest, that while our answers to the “Wicked” are not easy and perhaps not even straight forward, he is still here; And we want him here! We want him to participate in the hopes of bringing wholeness to the dialogue.  If he doesn’t hear what we have to say, he will be lost to us forever. If he is not part of the conversation, we are not whole.

The problem, of course, is that we too often think we know who is wise, who is wicked, who is simple, and who just doesn’t get it. Fingers point, objections are raised, and arguments can turn ugly. Just look at the reaction to the latest Israeli elections both here in Israel and around the world. Who is “Zionist” and who is endangering the Jewish people?  We all think we know.

Jewish law adds another dimension to this discussion. According to the Halacha, our relationship to God is wanting when we are alone. The Shulchan Aruch says that one should strive to have at least two others at the Seder in order to properly recite the Hallel prayer. Since the Hallel, and Grace after the meal as well, are, at least partially, read responsively, we can only fully praise God when others join us. Passover was never meant to be the end of the journey. (see ShA OH 479:1 and comments of MB #9) As difficult as it may be, our people are better when we include everyone in the Jewish story.

This brings me to the elephant of exclusion in the room.

Last week we held a sharply contested election here in Israel and this week J Street, whose members by in large oppose the outcome of those elections, held a conference in Washington with 3000 people in attendance. The themes of the event, it appears, oppose the positions of the winning political party in Israel. During my lifetime, I can’t remember a more contentious moment for the Jewish people.  I’m afraid that many, if not most, of J Street’s actions are detrimental to the Jewish State. I believe that it is dangerous for masses of Jews to congregate with the hope of pushing the U.S. administration to pressure my government to make concessions which may put the lives of my family and friends in peril. That, at least, is my impression of J Streets positions and activities.

However, the decision by much of the organized Jewish world to reject dialogue with these seemingly well intentioned people is beyond my comprehension. I’m a fan of dialogue. Even if the conversations are difficult, I believe that we grow by hearing the opinions of others. I think that is part of the reason the Haggadah puts so much emphasis on inclusion. When the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected J Streets’ application for membership last year, I was confused.  Do we really want to split our community?  When Eric Fingerhut, the President of Hillel National, rescinded his offer to speak at the J Street conference, I was distraught. This has come in the wake of Hillel National disallowing campus Hillel’s from hosting speakers who disagree with Zionism. Cutting off communication with students because of their views on Israel is fraught with risk. I have tremendous respect for Hillel’s president, Eric Fingerhut, and with the Hillel organization in general.  And, while I loathe Saeb Erekat and what I have seen as a duplicitous Palestinian negotiating team, I cannot fathom the upside to cancelling a golden opportunity to communicate with the students and other members at the conference.

(To be sure, when I read that Erekat, who is a member of a tyrannically regime which refuses to hold elections and has refused time and again to give counter offers to the Israeli negotiating teams, was given a standing ovation, I was disgusted. Instead of challenging him with tough questions about Palestinian democracy and the PA’s recalcitrance which has cost the lives of many, not only was he given a free pass but he was even praised. This action reminds me of the popularity of portraits of Yassir Arafat which became ubiquitous in liberal circles in Israel during the euphoria of the Oslo accords only to be removed when Arafat’s true colors were on display during the second intifada.)

Passover is coming. Spring time with its tastes and smells hints of redemption. If we don’t invite other Jews, even those we disagree with on a fundamental level, to join with us and to participate in the grand journey of the Jewish people, then our table cannot be complete.  The larger Jewish community needs to open its doors to all its children so that we can all recite together “Next year in Jerusalem.”

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.