Avi Weiss
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This year, we need an ‘ethics of dissent’ for seder night

All Jews are family, and the test of family is how we love each other when we disagree, not when we agree
Illustrative. An Israeli family seen during the Passover seder on the first night of the week-long Jewish holiday. (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)
Illustrative. An Israeli family seen during the Passover seder on the first night of the week-long Jewish holiday. (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

Sitting around the seder table this year will no doubt be family members representing different political and religious views. With the searing judicial reform debate in Israel still on our minds, the seder could pit siblings, parents and children, against each other — a microcosm of the conflict playing out all over Israel and the Jewish world.

As a means to inspire civil discussion, we should begin the seder by adopting the prayer recited by some before the morning daily service: “Behold, I accept upon myself the commandment of the Lord to love my neighbor as myself.”

Perhaps this mandate will spill over, reminding all of us, no matter where we stand, that when raising a voice of moral conscience, of Jewish conscience, and lobbying, and protesting, and marching, and militating and negotiating with each other, we should do so lovingly — as family. And the test of family is not how we love when we agree, but how we love when we disagree.

A cornerstone of my rabbinate has been that Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) must be viewed as a large family. And so, whenever considering the needs of Am Yisrael, I find myself substituting the word “family” for “nation” — and do my best to act accordingly.

The idea of nation as family emerges when analyzing why the Book of Genesis precedes the Book of Exodus. After all, if the Torah is a book of law given to the Jewish people, it would be logical to begin with those laws, as they are found in the Book of Exodus.

However, it can be suggested that Genesis is the story of the dissolution and subsequent reconstruction of family. Only when the family comes together can the nation be born and the Book of Exodus begin, teaching that the best model of nation is family.

Being part of the Jewish family does not mean that we agree on everything. What it does mean is that when we disagree, we should do so agreeably. Those whom we oppose should not be viewed as enemy…but as family. We must be machmir — absolutely uncompromising – on the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, loving our fellow Jew.

In order for us to achieve this while staying true to our individual principles, an ethics of dissent should be drafted. Here are some humble suggestions:

  1. Language must be used with care. While a word is a word and a deed is a deed, words lead to deeds.
  2. Dissent is acceptable, delegitimization is not. No purpose is served in invalidating the other.
  3. Whether one supports or opposes the judicial reform, ahavat Yisrael requires total and unconditional commitment to the security of the State.
  4. Right and left should recognize that neither has a monopoly on loving the land and people of Israel. When disagreeing, we should not malign the motives of the other.
  5. As difficult as it is to imagine, each side has what to learn from the other, as both the Knesset, the body that enacts law, and the Supreme Court, the final protector of human and civil rights, are vital to the future of a strong, Jewish, democratic Israel.

As a rabbi born at the conclusion of the Shoah, I have, for decades, joined colleagues in the streets of New York, Washington, and the world raising a voice of protest against what we believed were insults and threats against the Jewish community. Whether it was demanding that Soviet leaders “let our people go,” or demanding that the sanctity of Auschwitz never be defiled, or demanding justice from the mayor of New York after Yankele Rosenbaum was murdered, our clarion call was “Never again!”

In these struggles, our voices were loud, stark, and abrasive. Yet, for me, there has always been a clear difference between fighting an external enemy, and disagreements within the Jewish community. In these internal disputes, we are, in effect, disagreeing with members of our own family. The rules, therefore, must be far more benevolent, based firmly on principles of acceptance, loyalty and love. The idea of family and the rules that govern family relations are, I believe, at the heart of ahavat Yisrael.

Today, the schism within our nation, nay, within our family, poses a threat to the very survival of Israel. The theological concept of “chosenness ” means, in part, that God promised that the Jewish people would be eternal. It does not mean that in every generation Jews as a people would be sovereign in a Jewish state. Whether we remain sovereign depends on us.

Throughout my life, Passover seders accentuated the threat from external forces and our belief that no matter the obstacles, we will, with God’s help, overcome. This year, the focus should be on the internal strife ripping us asunder and what we can do to help repair the breach.

And so, when breaking the matzah for the afikoman, we may consider a self-reflective question, specifically given the terrible divide: What can I do to make things better? And when opening the door for Elijah, who is to announce when redemption is near, we should imagine warmly welcoming to our table a fellow Jew with different views from our own.

And, as the seder draws to a close with the hope of Le’shana ha’ba’ah be’Yerushalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem — we should each declare: I am a kitzoni — an extremist Jew. Not on the right or left, but rather, an extremist in ahavat Yisrael, loving my fellow Jew.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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