Pick and Choose Jews — Choose Seder Night

Have you ever met a Pick and Choose Jew? I meet lots of them at Hebrew University, where I run a Beit Midrash program for American overseas students studying abroad. This group of millennial Jews has become so prevalent that, at least from the students that I see, they are quickly becoming the majority.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean when I say “Pick and Choose Jews.”

One student, let’s call him Nathan, grew up Modern Orthodox in Philly, but these days he doesn’t wear a kippah or tzitzit. He no longer identifies himself as religious, but that doesn’t mean he’s totally irreligious either. The first time we sat together, he told me that, “I only keep the mitzvot that make sense to me.” For him that meant staying away from tefillin or any other mitzvot that he deemed “irrational.”  But he has a passion for Torah learning and a love of Shabbat.

Another student, let’s call her Abigail, grew up in a Reform home until her teenage years. In ninth grade her parents took an abrupt and unexpected turn towards Orthodoxy due to their connection to a local Chabad rabbi.  In college, she joined a secular Jewish sorority. But unlike the majority of her sisters, she always attended Chabad Friday night Shabbat programs. She would even gather a few of her sisters together once a week and take turns reading a book based on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman (The Garden of Faith) before going out for beers at the local bars.

When someone asks me if the students with whom I work are religious or not, I always smile.

“Not in the traditional sense,” I answer.

Pick and Choose Jews transcend the binary religious/secular categorization. They come from parents with mixed denominational backgrounds, or even mixed marriages, and therefore they don’t associate themselves with one movement or institution. Often they have had a personal connection to Chabad, either from growing up, from their travels, or from campus, so they have some sense of traditional Judaism. They piece together their Jewish identity based on their diverse experiences and do what resonates with them; therefore, when Pick and Choose Jews choose a mitzvah, they do it out of personal dedication, as opposed to a religious obligation.

This phenomenon shouldn’t surprise us, considering that this generation was raised on the idea that identity is only a construct of our experiences and emotions.

I’m not here to judge these students, or bemoan the lowly state of our Jewish youth. I hold my students in the highest regard. They are all proud Jews, even if they define that differently than I do, and I deeply appreciate their struggles with and passion for Judaism.

I’m not writing this simply to note the phenomenon either, though I find it fascinating; I’m here to make a plea.

Pick and Choose Jews, please choose the mitzvah of “Telling the Story of Leaving Egypt!”

That’s right, Positive Mitzvah # 157 according to the Rambam. The Sages did us a great favor about 2,000 years ago and laid it out for us in the Haggadah. It’s perfect for Pick and Choose Jews! There are no gender distinctions here—men and women have the same obligation of telling the story. You can go brief and give just the basics, and then get right to the matzah ball soup, or you can choose from one of the bazillion commentaries and go all night long—your choice.

Additionally, the telling is intended to be done in an interactive question and answer format. That way everyone can share his or her opinion.

These are important facets of the mitzvah, but there is a much deeper reason why I’m pushing the Seder Night story. For the Pick and Choose generation who view their identity as a construct (and maybe for all Jews as well), I feel that this is the essential mitzvah. Let me explain.

What is the essential ingredient of identity? I don’t just mean Jewish identity, but identity in general.

According to my dear friend Rabbi Mike Feuer, the creator of The Jewish Story podcast, it is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

In other words, the stories that we tell about ourselves, whether in our own heads, or the stories that we tell about ourselves to others, is the way in which we build and strengthen our identity.

So what stories am I telling about myself? Am I telling myself that I am a descendant of Avraham and Sarah, and that my people spent 210 years enslaved in the Land of Egypt, only to be miraculously freed by the Creator of the Universe?

The way in which we tell the story of leaving Egypt is the way in which we construct the core of our Jewish identity.

It’s for this reason that the Sages who assembled the Haggadah were so adamant that we put ourselves into the story.

What does the Haggadah say about the son who doesn’t know how to ask? We say to him, “This is what God did for me when I left Egypt!”

Later the Haggadah tells us explicitly that, “In every generation, one must look at himself as if he personally has come out of Egypt.”

This story must be told as a first-person narrative; if it’s not a story I tell myself about myself, then it won’t impact my core identity. It could be an interesting story, or even an inspiring story; but it won’t be my story.

It is for this reason that the Rambam tells us that if we are all alone on Seder Night (hopefully no one is ever in such a situation), then we should tell the whole story of leaving Egypt to ourselves.

Tell the story to myself? Why bother?

Because at its core, the telling of the Exodus story is for me. The more personal and intimate the telling, the more detailed and relevant the telling, the more the story of leaving Egypt shapes my core vision of self, for the present and for the future.

And when I envision myself as someone who was freed from Egyptian servitude, then my whole worldview looks different. Critical life choices will be filtered through this lens. The future picture that I paint for myself of who I strive to be and the causes that I champion will look dramatically different.

So for the Pick and Choose Jews, as well as the rest of us, telling the story of leaving Egypt not only connects our personal story to the story of our ancestors, but it shapes our identity. Especially for a generation raised on the idea that identity is only a construct of our experiences, for the sake of our future we must ensure that our personal experience includes leaving Egypt.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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