John L. Rosove

Questions to Ask and Thoughts to Consider at Your Seder Tables

More American Jews sit at a Seder table than attend any other single Jewish event in the year, and in doing so across America we become one people here and with Jews around the world. What Jews do at their Seders, of course, is wide and varied. Some simply eat the food with family and friends and do little ritual while others celebrate every ritual, read every Midrash and commentary, sing every song, and debate every feasible theme and challenge presented in the Haggadah. Some Seders are geared towards small children and others to thoughtful adults. There is always plentiful food, favorite recipes shared only during Pesach, and hopefully a place is nurtured where the hearts of children turn towards their parents and the hearts of parents turn towards their children.

This year, more than in any year in my life-time, we Jews are confronted with existential challenges concerning the nature and future of the greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the past two millennia, the establishment and development of the State of Israel.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

That’s the meta-question. Here are other questions you might consider raising at your Seders this year followed by a few insightful comments by thought-leaders about the Jew and Judaism in the world that resonate with me this year especially, and I hope with you.

  1. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  2. How worried are you about the threat to democracy in Israel and the impact of the ongoing military occupation in the West Bank on Israelis and Palestinians?
  3. Do you believe that the State of Israel ought to emphasize mostly its Jewish character, its democratic character, or both?
  4. With which do you identify – Jewish universal humanitarian values or Jewish particularistic tribal values?
  5. With which group(s) do you feel the greatest sense of camaraderie and identity: Haredi Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Reform Jews, “Just Jewish Jews,” Jews-by-Choice, non-Jews married to Jews, Jews of intermarried parents, settler Israelis, secular Israelis, traditionally oriented Israelis, Reform movement Israelis, conservative Zionists, progressive Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists?
  6. With what element(s) of the total modern Jewish experience do you most identify? God, Torah, the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, Jewish learning, holiday and life cycle celebrations, Jewish social justice activism, Jewish liberalism, Jewish conservatism, Jewish history, Jewish ethics, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Jewish culture, Jewish/Israeli art, Jewish/Israeli literature, Jewish/Israeli music, Jewish/Israeli films/television, Jewish food, Jewish survival, antisemitism, Jewish politics, …. other?
  7. What do you believe (of the above) will be the key factor(s) that sustain(s) Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora in the 21st century?
  8. With which do you identify the most? As “Pesach Jews” (because we were enslaved, we must remember to be compassionate, even towards our enemies) or “Purim Jews” (because we were nearly destroyed by Haman, we cannot afford to be naïve because there really are antisemites in the world)?
  9. What does “Next year in Jerusalem” mean to you?
  10. Do you agree with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s comment below about Jews being “agents of hope?”

Here are a few quotations that present Jewish identity as a font from which life’s greater meaning can be gleaned.

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better; hope is the belief that together we can make things better. No Jew, knowing Jewish history, can be an optimist, but no Jew worthy of the name abandons hope. The most pessimistic of the prophets, from Amos to Jeremiah, were still voices of hope…To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope.” -Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, On Leadership

“To be a Jew is to be troubled, to view one’s life, and one’s society, through an aspirational lens, always striving to be more. I’m troubled because this project is an ongoing process that requires constant revision. I’m troubled by the enduring gap between ideals and reality. Today, I am troubled because something very wrong is going on in our country, because our commitment to human rights and equality, to treating all people as created in the image of God, is inconsistently applied in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. I’m troubled because Israel, however committed to peace, is no longer resolute in pursuing it. I’m troubled because our power has afforded us the ability to maintain the current political status quo while desensitizing us to the moral abuses it conceals and legitimizes. I’m troubled because we can—and must—do better, but many of us are no longer trying.” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, For Heaven’s Sake Podcast

“An open ideological conflict is tearing the Jewish world in two. Most nationalist and religious Jews see their Jewish identity and values in a very different light than most progressive Jews. Naturally, the majority of one camp lives in Israel while the members of the other tend to be American. In a sense, it’s not a new divide but an evolution of the twin divides that opened up nearly a century and a half ago over whether enlightenment and liberalism would guarantee the Jewish future or nationalism and religious orthodoxy. It’s a valid debate that we need to continue conducting without insisting that either side has a monopoly on Judaism. But the debate is becoming increasingly contaminated.” -Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz

“I think there is a risk in our [Reform] movement that we will revert to the default position of liberalism, which is the elevation of universalism at the expense of Jewish peoplehood, not as an extension of Jewish peoplehood. It’s a mischaracterization to define prophetic values as having nothing to do with Jewish peoplehood, or not being rooted in Jewish peoplehood. Liberal Judaism, like liberalism itself, is broad enough to contain seemingly contradictory ideas that might enrich each other, rather than seek each other’s elimination.” -Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Tablet Magazine, January 25, 2022

“There is something singular in the past-gazing creativeness of those multitudes of literate Jews, their cumulative records, and their capacity to keep talking and making sense to each other across vast stretches of time, across languages and across cultures. They are all talking to one another. Like a constant argument at a never-ending Sabbath meal, it is not likeability or like-mindedness that keeps the flame alive; it is the lexicon of great issues and deep familiarities.” -Amos Oz, Jews and Words, p. 55

“The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man made. The Jews, therefore, stand at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.” -Paul Johnson, American Historian

“A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.” -Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, based on RAMBAM’s Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11

“The Jews were always in opposition to the whole world. The Jewish people would be endangered by unity. The quarrels and disputes are the engine that drives its culture forward, backward or sideways. That is its elixir of life. If we are deprived of the constant ability to quarrel, we will be finished. The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people.” -Professor Yehuda Bauer, Haaretz, February 26, 2013

Shavua Tov v’Hag Pesach Sameah!

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and immediate past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the newly created Union for Reform Judaism's Israel and Reform Zionism Committee (IRZC). John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of two books - “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing Company, 2017) and "Why Israel [and its Future] Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019). Both are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren.
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