Whose History is it Anyway?

The Passover Seders that my family has hosted for the past thirty-plus years are radically different from the ones I grew up with. In my parents’ home, those attending a Seder were most often family, or occasionally a close friend of my sister’s or mine. But in the relatively sheltered world of my youth, having non-Jews at the Seder, as guests, would not have been a serious option.

Since my older daughter’s years at Barnard, a number of her non-Jewish friends have become regulars at our Seders, not to mention our Shabbat and holiday table. They are wonderful young women, and very much a part of our extended family. And now my younger daughter, also at Barnard, has continued the tradition. Additionally, my work in the rabbinate has brought me a rich friendship with a local Protestant minister who has been at our Seder, and contacts with local Catholic clergy once brought the Bishop of Brooklyn to our Seder, along with a wonderful priest and nun who work with him.

Like I said, it’s not my parents’ Seder anymore, and that’s just fine with me, and with my wife. Sharing the rich rituals of Passover with those seeking to understand Judaism better seems so perfectly right and natural to me, and I’m proud of the Passover experience that is now ours.

But it’s not without its challenges.

The most obvious, not surprisingly, emanates from texts like the one traditionally uttered when welcoming Elijah into our home. Pour out your wrath upon the nations who have not known you…. who have laid waste to Jacob…. Pursue them with fury and destroy them… There are lots of Jews who have problems with this text, and one can only imagine what it would sound like to those not of our faith community. I am loath to exclude that text from the Seder just because of its "political incorrectness."

Instead, even with the Bishop, we used it as a vehicle to raise the issue of historical memory, and the natural, human desire to have justice be done to those who have harmed us, if only on a cosmic scale. Jews have a right to their anger.

But what I have found even more challenging is the tendency to freely use the theme of enslavement and redemption- so central to the Exodus story- as a metaphor for all struggles for national liberation.

There is, of course, the stirring African-American spiritual "Let My People Go," which used our historical experience leaving Egypt as inspiration for the civil rights movement here in America in the 1960’s.

In a prophetic sense, it has always seemed to me that the civil rights movement drawing inspiration from our experience was the example par excellence of our being a light unto the nations.

And, of course, we borrowed the metaphor from ourselves to ignite the nascent Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970’s. How many of us marched chanting "Let my people go" to gain the freedom of Soviet Jews, and similarly, to fight South African apartheid?

But at some point, the challenge of making Passover meaningful has to mean more than simply using our historical experience as a metaphor for everyone else’s struggle. This story is our story. It is the beginning of our national history. It happened to our ancestors, and for better or for worse, it is the story of how we came to be a nation, and fought a winning war of national independence.

It was a painful struggle, and not without its cost in human suffering. Most such struggles are painful. But it is our story regardless, and no matter who sits at the table, the Haggadah needs to be understood as a chronicle of our ancient ancestors’ struggle to be free.

The Seders are over, but the lesson remains as the holiday lingers. Of course we can and should inspire others with the powerful story of our history. But most of all, we should inspire ourselves.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a conservative congregation.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.