This year I had the privilege to take a course that my Rabbi likes to call “Jewish Identity in the Modern Era.” Although the official title of the course is “Modern Jewish History,” my rabbi, the teacher of the class, felt that the official title was a bit of misnomer because the course tracked the history of ideas and not the history of people or nation. The course focused on the history of idealogical trends within the Jewish people in the modern era. We learned about the history of the Reform, Conservative, Neo-Orthodox, Mussar, and Chasidut movements, to name a few. It was a course that changed my life and I am very thankful to Rabbi Morris, for giving the opportunity to take the class.
In one of our first classes, Rabbi Morris posed what seemed to be a very simple question— “What unites all Jews?” The first suggested answer was the Torah. Although all denominations of Judaism possess some relationship with Torah, Rabbi Morris pointed out that the Torah might be the most highly contested issue amongst the Jewish people. Almost all ideological divides in Judaism today stem from the different opinions on the extent to which Torah should dictate everyday practice. The second suggested answer by the class was Israel. Rabbi Morris noted the fact that Jews vehemently disagree amongst themselves about the religious significance and political legitimacy of the modern state of Israel. Various Jewish communities and individuals hold the mutually exclusive and incompatible beliefs that Zionism is racism; that making Aliyah is a mitzvah incumbent upon all Jews; that the Torah prohibits Jewish presence in Israel until the coming of the Messiah; and that Medinat Yisrael is the first stage of the coming Messianic age.
At this point in our discussion, many of us had lost hope. Maybe there was truly nothing that united all Jews. Maybe each denomination was truly a different religion from the next and “Jewish brotherhood” was a fake term that was only used in inspirational speeches. However, one of my classmate offered an answer we agreed upon. He suggested that the ultimate thing that unites all Jews is our history. While our previous answers focused on Judaism as a religion, we were neglecting an indisputable and unique quality of Jews— we are a people.
My classmate has statistical evidence to support his claim. The 2013 Pew Research study shows that 73% of people say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. To an overwhelmingly large percentage of Jews, the most essential part of being a Jew is remembering our past. However, I believe there is stronger proof that the Pew Research study discovered. The Pew Research discovered that 70% of Jews participated in a Passover Seder in 2012.
With those who avoid money on Shabbat making up only 13% of American Jews, it is very interesting that so many people participate in a Passover Seder. The Seder is so deeply rooted in ritualistic practice, one may have thought that it would be a practice exclusive to the Orthodox and other traditional leaning communities. Yet, it is a practice that is almost universally maintained regardless of religiosity, affiliation to a denomination, or location. I believe the reason why the Seder is so common is because the Seder is the quintessential recognition of Jewish history. No matter which Haggadah you will be using, you will read about an enslaved people amongst an oppressive nation. You will learn about how they experienced back breaking labor and had broken spirits. You will discuss how they received their redemption and freedom and ultimately became a nation. Essentially, at the Seder we discuss the Jewish origin story and we are all connected to that story.
I believe people connect to their history because it shows that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Your successes and failures, your pleasures and plights, your ups and downs are no longer just yours, but are shared throughout generations. Specifically, in the context of Jewish history, one becomes connected to thousands of years of traditions, stories, and teachings. Through the history our people, we are able to transform ourselves from individuals into a part of a nation. It is through our history that we are connected to each other and an integral part of ourselves becomes defined. It is our history that makes us who we are.
I believe a major lesson we can learn from the Passover Seder is that amongst all of our differences, all Jews do indeed share something. We share our history, our story. We share a story that is uniquely ours. We share story that defines us. We share a story that makes us complete.