A Meaningful Seder
Among the myriad laws of Pesach there is a rule that I find it very hard to persuade my congregants to accept! It is not some minutia of kitchen preparation, or even the amount of matzah they should eat at the Seder. Surprisingly enough, it is the requirement that they understand the story of the Haggadah while they read it. It seems such a simple idea – instead of struggling through the text, just about managing to get through it in the original, read the story in a contemporary English translation. Actually, the idea of reading the story of the Exodus in the vernacular is particularly interesting to a British rabbi, as it recorded in the name of the rabbis of the mediaeval rabbi of London. Now I use the word ‘contemporary’ with care, as there are many translations that are so out-of-date and archaic, that they are no use at all. One I saw recommends searching for Chametz with ‘a wax randle in the gloaming’, which, apart from the obvious spelling mistake, leaves the reader with the impression that he is about to engage in some wacky Victorian pantomime. Others are so full of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ that they require translation themselves.
Why is so difficult to get those who are not fluent in Hebrew to read the story in a translation? Why would anyone choose to labour uncomprehendingly over the original text, syllable by syllable, instead of enjoying the drama and charm of the age-old story in a language that they can understand? Responses to this question vary. Some say, ‘we have always done it like this.’ Others feel compelled to use the Haggadah they received as a Bar Mitzvah present in the 1930s. Still others assume that it must be better to read it in Hebrew, even if they don’t understand it. At some level, I suppose they are right - for those who have a good grasp of Hebrew, it is preferable to read the Haggadah in the original; after all, Hebrew is the language of God and of the Torah and expresses nuances and concepts that cannot be fully translated into English. But these are entirely lost on the non-Hebrew reader. In fact, reading an unintelligible story loses more than nuances, it loses everything else too.
In reality, I think that there is more to this problem than Haggadot and Hebrew. It cuts to the heart of our own self-perception and attitude towards Judaism. Incredible as it may sound, for many people, part of the Seder experience seems to be the mystique of not understanding! Some people are actually troubled by the prospect of understanding and enjoying the procedure. Since their earliest recollections are of incoherent mumbling, this is how things must remain for evermore. Any endeavour to disturb this state of affairs is met with resistance. ‘It was good enough for my grandfather, so why isn’t it good enough for you?’ Surely some attempt to think through the long-term consequences of this attitude is called for. For whatever reason, previous generations were happy to accept that Judaism called for martyrdom – whether it was sitting through an unintelligible Seder, or tolerating lengthy, unrewarding Shul services. Younger people are simply unwilling and unprepared to do so. Worse still, many of us still expect youngsters to participate in this way and become frustrated with them when they refuse. It is hardly surprising that a generation that is well educated, advantaged and surrounded by exciting life alternatives, is also uninterested in a meaningless experience. Let us be honest – why would anyone participate willingly in a meaningless experience?
But the most destructive aspect of this is feeling comfortable with the unintelligible model. It permits us get away without a challenge - without allowing the real message of Pesach, and indeed of Judaism, to have any impact upon us. Happy with the meaningless, we have convinced ourselves that the experience has nothing to offer, and fulfilled our expectations by rendering it impotent; as such, it need not disturb our lives in any way at all. We have turned the Seder, without a doubt the most powerful educational tool in Judaism’s armoury, into a gun loaded with blanks. We have inoculated ourselves against the most exciting inspiration to creating a vibrant Jewish future that exists. It suits us to extract the teeth of the Seder by keeping it incomprehensible, for in that way, we will require no self-examination, no reconsideration of the way we impart Judaism to our children and certainly no modification of our Jewish lives.
This problem pervades every area of Jewish life, but at the Seder, the contrast between the reality and the ideal is most evident. Seder night this year is a perfect opportunity to begin the revolution. It is time to fully exploit the magic of the Seder - the original all-singing, all-dancing, multi-media inspiration. It is time to recognise that young Jews need meaningful Jewish experiences if they are to play any part in the Jewish future. It is time to turn the Seder back into a real event, with genuine communication between parents and children, and consign the mumble-through-the-text and dash-to-the-meal of the past to the waste bin of failed Jewish experiments. Throw away that old Haggadah.
Old Haggadot must be treated with respect. Please ask a rabbi how to dispose of them properly.
A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review
A Meaningful Shavuot
Pesach has Matzah, Rosh HaShanah the Shofar and Sukkot the four species and the Sukkah, but Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seems to be lacking in specific observances. It has been suggested that while the other festivals commemorate seminal historical moments through the observance of the Torah, Shavuot is about the Torah itself, and, as such, it needs no ceremony. Instead of the externality of ritual, Shavuot invites us to focus on the significance of the origin and ideology of the Torah system itself, and to admire its momentous impact on humanity. Sadly, perhaps as a result, it is the least understood and observed of the festivals.
In reality, the Torah does describe special observances for Shavuot, but they are restricted to the Temple era. One of them affords us a remarkable insight into the deeper meaning of Shavuot, as well as a glimpse of the Torah’s attitude to the use of the material world. Two distinctly shaped loaves of bread were brought to the Temple on Shavuot in a special celebration. This may seem of academic interest, except for the fact that most unusually, the Torah prescribes that they are baked from chametz – leaven, the villain of Pesach. Shavuot falls seven weeks after Pesach; the intervening forty-nine day period is known as the omer, during which the days that are counted in anticipation of the coming festival. It is understood that physical redemption, celebrated at Pesach, is only the start of a process that led to its goal – the revelation at Mount Sinai. As such, the spiritual journey starts with Pesach and climaxes at Shavuot. It is a matter of great interest that such vigorous efforts are required to remove chametz from the Pesach environment, yet the omer period concludes by placing leaven loaves in the Temple, the locus of Jewish spirituality.
This resolution of this discrepancy reveals a great deal about the significance that Judaism attributes to physical pleasure. Pesach, during which chametz is strictly forbidden, seems to represent the limitation of physical enjoyment, whereas Shavuot signifies its ultimate sanctification in the Temple itself. As such, the omer period, which bridges the gap between the two, offers an opportunity to develop from the radical position represented by Pesach to the more mature one offered by Shavuot. The extent of the role played by physical pleasure in religious life has been the subject of extensive theological debate throughout history. Some systems of thought adopt the position that religious achievement is only possible when it is divorced from material experience. Celibacy, cessation from normal life and even quite extreme ascetic acts are not uncommon amongst religious groups, which have concluded that these offer the only route to true spirituality. Judaism addresses this issue, but reaches a quite different conclusion. Abstinence is never an ideal, but in various forms, may sometimes be used as a very temporary device for achieving a higher goal.
Perhaps the most significant example of this idea is the observance of Yom Kippur, when, since the pleasures of food and marital intimacy are proscribed, one ‘afflicts’ oneself by disengaging from the physical world. Yet the Torah requires us to abstain in this way for only one day near the start of each year; this serves as a way of reawakening our spiritual lives at the year’s outset. This is not the ideal, but a powerful kick-start to spiritual growth. The mystical thinkers hint to this notion in observing that Yom Kippur, which we are accustomed to considering the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is somehow inferior to Purim, the day on which we rejoice and imbibe alcohol to excess. The observance of Yom Kippur may be essential, but its self-denying nature means that it can never be more than a powerful, yet short-term instrument. In contrast, Purim, when properly celebrated, enables the Jew to reach the heights of ecstasy using the most physical means at his disposal, and hence articulates a Weltanschauung much closer to the Torah’s ultimate model.
It seems that the human tendency to become immersed in material pleasure must be addressed by a temporary emphasis on its ephemeral nature and thus comparative insignificance. This is achieved by a strong, albeit brief involvement in spiritual-only pursuits.
The process that leads the Jew from Pesach to Shavuot is now clear. The requirement to abstain from chametz on Pesach is reflective of the nascent moments of Jewish nationhood that the festival commemorates. A group of ex-slaves with the potential for spiritual greatness, yet still beset by the mentality engendered by centuries of deprivation, was likely to abuse the newly accessible pleasures of the material world. Thus at the moment of their national genesis, it was necessary to forbid the consumption of chametz, which represents selfish use of the physical world. Yet the goal is not the rejection of physicality, but its integration into the Divine system. The seven weeks that elapse from Pesach to Shavuot enable a personal transformation to take place, hopefully culminating in a mature attitude to the use of the material world. All physical pleasures may be used - indeed must be used, but in a context and within a framework. These are defined by the Torah, the guidebook to the meaningful use of everything. This, the purpose of the Jewish mission, could not be given to the embryonic nation when they left Egypt, but by Shavuot, they were capable of understanding and implementing it.
This concept is represented by the two loaves of chametz that were the focus of the Divine service in the Temple on Shavuot. The two loaves are said to represent the twin passions that drive so much of human enterprise – material success and sexual satisfaction. These ambitions, so frequently eschewed by religious systems, are brought, as it were, right into the Temple on Shavuot, assuring us that the elevated use of every physical experience lies at the heart of true Jewish living.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.