Judaism 101: Thoughts on Passover

Given that this week is Passover, I decided to ask the Judaism 101 panel to share some of their thoughts on the holiday, and on what it meant to them. This post is the result of that conversation.

(Judaism 101 involves ten Jewish readers of my blog answering questions about Judaism in a panel format. (I introduced this project and provided bios of each panelist here.) Feel free to ask questions or ask for clarification, but remember that the goal here is to learn more about other faith traditions and understand differing points of view, not to score points or argue about who is right or wrong on this or that issue.)

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Rachel

In a turn of phrase destined to get Libby Anne in a lot of trouble, I’m going to play Satan here—Satan in the Jewish sense of the accusatory angel, determined to make sure we Jews aren’t just letting it slide.

One of the leftist critiques I’ve heard of Passover is that it is very much a narrative of equal parts victim and exclusion: we were enslaved, Hashem saved us, now we’re special. This both defines how we look at ourselves as Jews (we are perennial victims, saved not through our own merit but through divine intervention, making us helpless), and the prism through which we view other nations (“us versus them”: they will murder us, enslave us, rape our women and enslave our children, they are the other that we must wipe out.).

Is this what the Passover story says? Is this a fair criticism? If this doesn’t reflect Passover to you, why not? How do you deal with the problematic aspects to the story—for one, did all the firstborn Egyptian sons really deserve to die?

Would love to hear feedback on this question, as it comes up every year over the seder.

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Hilary

Rachel—great questions, and a good way to get us off of stories about cleaning.  I will think on them and get back to you.

My first thought, though, about us vs. them is that when most of your seder guests, and most of your family, isn’t Jewish, it turns us/them on its head.  ‘Them’ turns into ‘us’ very quickly when ‘they’ are your parents, in-laws, and grandparents.  More on this when I figure out what I want to explain about being Reform. My last comment about picking and choosing in the Torah was made too quickly, I need to slow down and think through what I mean and how to say it.

How do we balance the historical fact that ‘they’ have imprisoned us, murdered us, burned us at the stake, burned our villages, raped our women, all of this before the Holocaust, without falling into being perennial victims, which can easily flip into being victimizers? How can our seders address that?

 ———-

Rachel

Hilary—Right, and it’s something I’m thinking about. I grew up at all-Jewish seders where the important thing is that we all had the same basic framework: no one would question the veracity of the Exodus or the existence of Hashem. These are givens, we base our lives around them. And a seder where it’s all Jews with the same framework—or Jews with a non-Jewish audience aware that they are guests at the table — then these assumptions can go unchallenged without disturbing anyone. But when we have all of these people at the seder table who are challenging these assumptions—these people who do not feel personally redeemed and do not relate to the seder, these people who would consider themselves “other” by the traditional framework, perhaps whom even we ourselves may consider “other”—how do we continue with the same narrative?

You know, this isn’t really a 101 discussion that I’m starting. Should we post some 101 resources? It’s hard for me to figure out what would be relevant to people—there are so many kinds of seder! You can have a traditional Orthodox seder, a social justice seder, a fun-for-the-kiddies seder, a BDSM seder (for which my friend told me the tagline was, “the escape from—and swift return to—bondage”; I can’t find that particular haggadah, but I did find this.)

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Hilary

A BSDM seder !?!?!? That’s a new one. Although in my book “Friday the Rabbi wore lace: An anthology of Jewish Lesbian Erotica”  there’s a great story of a Jewish lesbian bondage commitment ceremony between a dom and a sub. I’ve been to a chocolate seder once, that was interesting, where all the food and divine references where different types of chocolate. I’m sure somewhere there is a Dr. Who seder, or a Klingon one. I just tried googling “Dr. Who Seder” but didn’t get any hits.  That would be fun to make up.  

I think some basic Passover 101 definitions and resources would be good for other people when they get this.

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Petticoat Philosopher

This is a great conversation to have, although it’s too late and I’m too tired to contribute all that I wish could right now. I certainly agree that it is is possible to do Passover in such a way that message is just “We’re really special because our God is really special because he kicked our enemies’ asses” and that is certainly an interpretation that very fairly earns criticism. But that is not the Passover I grew up with or the one I continue to celebrate with my family now.

For starters, Passover had a very real-world significance for my family because my grandmother was not only a survivor of the Holocaust, she was also liberated on a Passover day, an event which she commemorated at every seder. So yes, the seder was a time to remember our our people’s victimization and deliverance from oppression—something which was not just myth or history but living memory to my family. But we remembered these things with a purpose. We meditate on our past to remind us of the responsibility it gives us to stand in solidarity with others who have also been oppressed or are still being oppressed. It’s the opposite of “us and them,” it’s a time to dismantle that dualism. When I see other people being scapegoated, othered, victimized because of some group affiliation that I do not happen to share, people who fear violence because of who they are, I remember what a thin and fragile layer of space and time it is that separates me—us—from “them.” I remember that if I had lived a few decades earlier, in a different place, I would be the “them,” as my grandmother was, and that their cause must be my own.

This belief was very much a part of my grandmother’s Jewish identity and on several occasions she said that it was in these terms that she understood the concept of the Jews being “chosen”—not chosen in the sense of being better or superior to others but chosen by our experience to “understand the underdog,” as she put it—chosen by history and endowed with a responsibility. Passover was a time to reflect on all of this and we often spent as much time talking about relevant current events as we did dwelling on the actual story of the Exodus, which was very much a boon to my budding social conscience as a kid. For these reasons, Passover was always and remains one of my favorite things about Judaism, and something which is very central to my Jewish identity and values. To quote a part of one of our Haggadahs (we had two very similar ones that we used, depending on whose house we were holding the seder at) that I think sums up this concept pretty well:

“Although we, who mouth the words and recite the ritual, are reliving an epoch which is peculiar to Jewish history, the drama that is Passover is no longer ours alone.  Its enactment is not confined only to the dining rooms of our own homes; it has been embraced by the world at large, and is continually being reenacted on the stage of mankind [at this point there's be a murmur of confusion, as some of the relatives would forget to say "humankind" and the guests would look sheepish because they didn't realize they were supposed to] by all who seek avenues to assert their condemnation of oppression and tyranny, by all who labor in the vineyard of the Lord searching for freedom and peace.”

Also, like Hilary, I was also brought up in a mixed family. We celebrated and still celebrate Passover with my mom’s family, so we had majority-Jewish seders but there was always, at the very least, my dad and the father of two of my cousins ( one of my aunts’ ex, who still celebrates with us), and usually some other non-Jewish guests so that was another reason that the us/them thing couldn’t really stand. My dad is actually a pretty big fan of Passover himself. He also strongly values social justice, as does his own family of origin. (His mother and my maternal grandmother actually became very good friends.) And commemorating a history of oppression—well, that’s actually something that a guy descended of dirt-poor Irish/other-Celtic-nations people doesn’t have too difficult a time getting behind. LOL. If anything, I feel like my mixed background gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of the message of Passover as it was taught to me—I could see the common elements among my different ancestries and it taught me to look for how “the drama that is Passover” plays out among so many others.

This does not address every element of “Satan’s” challenge (and I could go on longer about the elements I already did address and probably will at some point…) but it is a start!

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Ki Sarita

The meaning of Passover to me is

  1. Family—a real family bonding time
  2. Tradition—the primary site for the passing down of Jewish identity in general, and our own family heritage and traditions in particular
  3. Celebration of Freedom. which I made sure to celebrate by not going to work.

I’d wait for Passover all year.

The main practices are:

  1. Eating Matza “the bread of poverty” (The past few years I always joined groups making my own matza, now having moved to Israel where I don’t have connections I haven’t been able to.)
  2. The “seder”, a long ritual meal with many symbolic activities as well as liturgy designed to evoke the exodus story.
  3. Refraining from bread, cakes products and so forth.
  4. Scrubbing the house from any traces of leavening, really transforming the entire house. (Many housewives would dread this but I looked forward to it. I’m doing it in my apartment now even though I’m in advanced pregnancy, and my partner doesn’t really get it. He wasn’t raised Orthodox as I was. It just wouldn’t feel Passover otherwise.)

The scrubbing, the preparations, the seder, really all these turned into family bonding and Jewish identity experiences. It’s hard for me to be away from my family at this time. I had hoped to recreate to a certain extent my family seder (perhaps collaboratively with other homesick expatriates) but couldn’t find folks to invite.

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Libby Anne

I thought I’d take a moment to interject with a few questions.

First, and some of you have already answered this, is the question of the personal significance Passover has for you, and also the mechanics of how Passover is celebrated. For instance, if I were asked to talk about Thanksgiving, and specifically about things about it that meant something to me, I would talk about how my mother used to put two kernels of corn on each of our plates to remind us that that winter after the first Thanksgiving food became scarce and many people nearly starved. That had a big impact on me and helped me focus the holiday not on gluttony (haha) but on being thankful for what we had.

Next, have Jews continuously celebrated Passover, and in about the same form, since it was first instituted, or has it changed over time and differed from place to place? I ask because many Christian holidays, such as Christmas, have changed over time and differed across geography, and that makes me curious whether Jewish holidays are the same.

I have heard the term “Passover week.” What all is involved in that? Are there any good links or resources that you would point people to to learn more about the basic history and traditions of Passover?

Do the different persuasions of Jew celebrate Passover in the same way, or differently?

Those of you who are secular Jews (i.e. agnostic or atheist), do you still celebrate the Passover? Does the significance you see in the holiday differ from the significance other Jews put in it?

Feel free to ignore any or all of these questions, I just thought posing some questions might be helpful in guiding the discussion.

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Ki Sarita

I really enjoy your questions Libby Anne.

Fascinating about your  family practice with the two kernels of corn. That is exactly the type of symbolic acts that appear throughout the seder to remind us of the exodus.  As I’ve grown up I’ve rejected many of the tenets of traditional Jewish belief, about God and the Torah and such. But no one can convince me the exodus didn’t occur. Because I was there myself. That’s the effect Passover had on me. (As for gluttony… did I forget to mention the huge family dinners with piles of food??? I suppose I left it out because that heavy bloated feeling is something I’d rather not include…. ;)

During the Temple times, the Passover ceremony centered around the Paschal sacrifice I believe. The Seder includes some symbolic acts “in memory of the Passover sacrifice”.

The haggadah (literally “the tale”, a liturgy and guidebook for the seder) has been around I think since the Geonic period, the period that directly followed the Talmud, so it’s relatively standardized, similar among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Yemeni Jews. Of course people can and do add their own rituals and readings to the haggadah, (or delete or alter some that are bothersome) or create a seder around a particular theme close to their heart (LGBT, social justice, feminism…. and beyond).  This is not very common among Orthodox Jews though, as far as I know.  I don’t think we have a lot of information about how Passover was celebrated prior to the Haggadah emerging. Maybe someone on the forum knows more than me.

I think many Jews far removed from Jewish life still do something, however small to celebrate Passover…. although my partner didn’t. My partner grew up a secular Jew with nothing to do with Judaism except for having been circumcised as an infant. (Which I suppose may open up a whole new topic?)

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Petticoat Philosopher

Haha, yeah, The Reform movement originally tried to ditch circumcision, and many adherents did, but it proved harder to kill than a zombie—probably because men then were probably no better than they are at listening to thoughtful criticisms of the practice and hearing anything but “Your penis is inadequate!” Though there are more and more Jews now who are rejecting it. But I digress…

Yes, many secular/agnostic/atheist Jews celebrate Passover. Many of them are my relatives. One of them is my mother. One of them might be me. I find that Passover, because of its applicability to social justice issues, tends to be something that many progressive Jews who do not have much use for the religious aspects of Judaism very much care about. Some of them even observe the prohibition of “chametz” or leavened grain foods (a big part of what defines “Passover week”), though they may be otherwise completely unobservant. In my city, the local chapter of the Workmen’s Circle, a secular Jewish social justice organization (that is historically socialist and bound up with the labor movement in America) holds a seder every year. So yes, Passover is very much a tradition that thrives outside of traditional, religious Judaism.

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M

Passover was always hugely significant.  We got together with family more for seder than we did for Thanksgiving!  We used a haggadah that was a bit more progressive than most—instead of the wicked child, for example, it referred to the misguided child.*  My aunt also went through and changed all the gendered references to G-d to be gender neutral.  Everyone took turns reading parts of the story as soon as they were old enough (about 7-8), so it wasn’t super boring even as a child.

To me, Passover was at the core of what it meant to be Jewish.  It reminded us of the bad times, when everyone was against you, and it it reminded you that even if it was safe now it wasn’t safe for everyone (everyone in the world, not every Jew).  It set you apart from others (eight days of no wheat products stands out at a public, 99% Christian school, especially one that has pizza party rewards) but not in a detrimental way.  And it reminded everyone that activism was still necessary—if G-d looks after the Jews, which isn’t necessarily true, He certainly doesn’t look after other people.  There was still oppression and slavery in the world and it was up to us, who “had been there in Egypt”, to work against all forms of slavery and oppression.

That was honestly one of the hardest things about giving up on Judaism for me, was deciding not to observe Passover.  My husband is not and never has been Jewish, so it was hard for him when I would take all the bread and such out of the house, and we don’t plan to raise our (future hypothetical) kids with any form of religion so it made sense to give it up.  I still go to the family seder every year, but it’s more of a family reunion and less of a religious occurrence.  The family that hosts it is also not very observant, so the seder part is kind of slap-dash and people rush through it fast to get to the food part!

As for the Passover week—the holiday itself lasts eight days.  Traditionally, there’s seders on the first, second, seventh, and eighth days.  Most Conservative/Reform Jews just do one on the first night, or even the first night that’s convenient ;-).  Giving up leavened products and other grains and legumes wouldn’t be hard for only a day or so!

Seder’s actually one of the things that all types of Jews celebrate in a similar, though certainly not identical, manner.  The full Orthodox seder lasts for something like five hours and is all in Hebrew, while some kid-friendly ones last only about an hour, but they all cover the same story and the same ceremonial aspects.  Seder means “order” and there is a specific set of steps you’re supposed to go through in order.  How much verbiage there is differs, but the steps are the same pretty much everywhere.

*The parable of four children.  Basically, four children ask about what the seder means and what Passover is: a wise child, a wicked (misguided) child, a simple child, and a child who is too young to ask.  Then it goes over how to answer each of them.

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Rachel

What is the personal significance of Passover to me? A lot of it is tied up in springtime and freedom, renewal and revolution—Passover is a pretty explicitly political holiday, after all, and has been used to invoke as much throughout the ages. I’m listening to this sermon/rendition of “Go Down, Moses” to get in the mood:

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All of the Jewish holidays have a practical, as well as a spiritual, component. They’re all tied to the weather and climate of Israel, and to the farming and harvest seasons there. Passover is spring and the beginning of the wheat—that’s why we have a green vegetable on our seder plate. (As there’s currently snow on the ground over here, perhaps I should put a potato there instead?)

Passover has definitely changed since the beginning. I always laugh a little when Christians hold seders because that’s what Jesus would do, but they use a modern haggadah or set a cup for Elijah; the historian in me rolls my eyes at anachronisms, and the hagaddah wasn’t formalized until the Middle Ages. There was originally a passover sacrifice — a Korban Pesach in Hebrew, what I think Christian refer to as a paschal lamb—of an unblemished one-year-old lamb or goat, and then the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

There are also major differences between ethnic groups within Judaism. As I alluded to earlier, my family is Ashkenazi, but my husband’s is Sephardi: Sephardim allow a whole different range of foods than Ashkenazim do, including rice and corn. This makes Passover so much happier for me. My MIL also gave me a copy of a Ladino Haggadah, Ladino being a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Sephardi Jews: I can’t understand it, but it’s beautiful!

Also, here’s a good guide to keeping kosher on Passover (and how some of the rules developed).

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Hilary

Ladino is a beautiful blend of Spanish and Hebrew, kind of like how Yiddish is a blend of German and Hebrew.  Here are some songs from YouTube:

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Avram Avinu—Abraham our Father

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Eight candles, a Hanukah song.  I’ve sung this in my temple choir.

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El dia de Purim, a Purim song that I’ve sung in choir. I’m alto, Penny is soprano.

The chorus is:

Biva yo, biva el Re

Bivan Todos Israel

Biva la Rena Ester

Ke mos dyo tanto plazer

 

Long live me, long live the King

Long live all of Israel

Long live Queen Ester

Who gave us so much pleasure.

I don’t know if anybody’s explained Sephardi —they are the Jews from Spain.  In 1492 Spain ended a Jewish culture that was 1500 years old.  People were given the choice to convert at sword point, leave, or die.  About 100,000 left.

Fun fact: some of the Jews expelled from Spain were skilled sailors—and took revenge on Spain and the Inquisition on the high seas.

The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: In this lively debut work of history, Edward Kritzler tells the tale of an unlikely group of swashbuckling Jews who ransacked the high seas in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition. At the end of the fifteenth century, many Jews had to flee Spain and Portugal. The most adventurous among them took to the seas as freewheeling outlaws. In ships bearing names such as the Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther, and Shield of Abraham, they attacked and plundered the Spanish fleet while forming alliances with other European powers to ensure the safety of Jews living in hiding. Filled with high-sea adventures–including encounters with Captain Morgan and other legendary pirates–Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean reveals a hidden chapter in Jewish history as well as the cruelty, terror, and greed that flourished during the Age of Discovery.

I had a very memorable Thanksgiving one year, after my mom read this and decided she didn’t want to do The Turkey Dinner so we ended up doing a total Caribbean theme, to commemorate the actual place of first contact.

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Alexis

Hilary, by an interesting coincidence my adoptive mother’s family is descended from one of those Sephardi Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. His name was Count Don Isaac D’Abravanel, he had been Isabella and Ferdinand’s finance minister, he paid about half the cost of the Columbus voyage, and because he was a friend of the Crown’s he was smuggled to Naples on the same day Columbus left port. Eventually he turned from a life of nobility to a life of scholarship, and he became a Torah commentator just before he died.

Actually, the whole family was notable, but Isaac is kind of my favorite.

P.S. The financing of the Columbus voyage is family legend; I haven’t been able to corroborate it, unfortunately.

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Ki Sarita

Wow Abarbanel, what a true hero. There is also a legend that his own grandson was kidnapped and baptized by the inquisition, after all he had done for the country. I don’t think the legend about him financing Columbus’ voyage is at all far fetched being that he was a financier for the Spanish army.

I think many Jews who are secular still maintain a Jewish identity, and observing Passover even not in a religious sense is one of the ways one does that.

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Hilary

My personal general rule of thumb about Jewish identity is that a Jew is someone who takes Passover personally—I was personally redeemed from Egpyt. Likewise a Christian is someone who take Easter personally.

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Rachel

I’ve been busy doing Passover prep. We’re only hosting the second seder, and that only for five people, but that still requires this much cooking:

  • hard-boiled eggs
  • gefilte fish
  • matzah-ball soup (with homemade chicken stock)
  • chicken with tomato sauce and pineapple
  • brisket
  • roasted fingerling potatoes and carrots
  • salad
  • passover rolls
  • fruit
  • dessert—cookies with jam filling

Also, we’re making two forms of charoset: one Ashkenazi, with apples, walnuts and cinnamon, one Sephardi, with raisins, figs, and dates. I think the reason the Orthodox have such large families is because they need children to press into assisting with cooking. ;-) (I once hosted a seder for thirty people, mostly not Jewish. I spent the previous two days cooking in three different apartments and handed over the actual leading-the-seder ritual to another friend, so that I could spend the entire seder drinking.)

However, before the actual cooking can take place, the cleaning must happen first. This is the most rigorous cleaning that ever happens in a Jewish home. There are two levels of cleaning in a Jewish home: “cleaning for a seder”, the highest level possible, and “cleaning for a seder when my mother and/or mother-in-law aren’t present”, which is slightly lower. (If Elijah the Prophet RSVPs to my seder, he only gets that level.)

A gentile friend of mine took issue with my status “Passover cleaning is painful,” asking how come it was so much harder than Easter cleaning.

Rachel: “The difference is, cleaning for Easter would be just cleaning, right? Rigorous cleaning for relatives, but just cleaning. Cleaning for Passover is a ritual cleaning designed to eradicate every single crumb of chametz.”

Friend: “Chametz?”

Rachel: “Chametz is leavened bread, cookies, cereal, crumbs, anything belonging to or having touched something leavened. If the ancient Israelites didn’t have it, neither can we! (Unless it’s made by Manischewitz or Streit’s.)”

Friend: “Basically you have to purge your house of yeasty stuff. Wait, you can’t own it, or you can’t possess it?”

Rachel: “Technically, it’s owning. We are officially selling all of our chametzdik products to a friend of my husband’s, who will sell it back to us post-Passover. She is graciously allowing us to keep it in our house in the meantime, as she lives over a thousand miles away. All of the leavened things under our roof have been stuffed into a closet. Starting at sundown and
continuing for the next eight days, they’re all hers.”

Friend: “I was just about to ask if you could do that! I love loopholes like that!”

Rachel: “Yeah, there are a lot of loopholes in Judaism.”

Friend: “I get the impression it’s very legalistic. That sounds great. Can I become Jewish?”\Rachel: “No.”

Friend: “Oh.”

Rachel: “We’re supposed to turn away potential converts three times, to make sure they’re actually serious about converting.”

Friend: “Yeah, maybe I’ll just become a tax lawyer instead…”

As that was a slightly silly message, here’s a really beautiful piece from a Reform rabbi I like a lot, Rabbi Andy Bachman:

“Passover teaches us many things; perhaps most important is that Judaism calls upon us—through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness—that we are God’s partner in bringing about a more just and peaceful world. [...] For every plague we recall in the Hagadah, there is an answer, a small redemption, that we can bring about in our world with the work of our hands and the message of hope beating strong in our hearts. “

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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