The Pesach Seder: Meaning-Making
by Marc Silverman
Anyone familiar with the main components of the festive ritual meal and celebration of the Pesach Leil HaSeder (the evening of the Passover feast) would readily agree that this occasion is a superb example of “embodied learning” at its highest level. Beautiful settings, dishes, wine glasses, and cutlery; the decorative Seder plate itself with its colorful display of foods, each symbolizing an aspect of the Passover story; textual readings, reciting, singing in unison or individually in turn, and the resulting sense of community and solidarity among the people around the table; the savoring of delicious foods and no-less-delicious wines; lively conversation and cross-generational dialogue: For the participants, all these elements combine to engender what can be a transforming cultural and educational experience and a life-enriching formative memory. The powerful “Seder experience” and its transformative potential perhaps explain why, of the rich array of Jewish holiday celebrations and traditions, the Seder ritual is the one most prominent and widespread among Jews today.
Yet despite our genuine praise of the Seder, we must acknowledge the all-too-frequent appearance of a painful gap between the real Seders (sedarim) we experience and the ideal transformational Seder we envision and only occasionally experience. By way of a brief personal testimony, I can honestly say that of the fifty-odd Seders I have experienced and can remember, no more than five actually yielded the kind of transformative learning referred to here.
Why is this gap so powerfully present in so many of our life experiences? What factors militate against the Passover Seder’s realization of its transformative potential? What forces derail its travel on the track of growth inducement?
In the following, I will try not only to identify these factors and forces, but also to suggest ways of overcoming them. I am hopeful (always!) and relatively certain that readers who share my frustrations concerning the gap between the real and the ideal Seder will find some of my arguments and suggestions fruitful and useful; at the same time, I hope that even those readers who are quite satisfied with the Pesach Seder as is will find these ideas thought-provoking.
IDENTIFYING AND SURMOUNTING THE MILITATING FORCES
The main factors militating against an existentially meaningful, compelling, and transformational Seder experience are philosophical/ideological or personal/psychological, or a combination of both. An overarching theme informs my view of these different forces: I believe that insensitivity to rich, diverse types of contexts on the one hand and a preference, whether conscious or unconscious, for texts rather than contexts on the other hand are at the core of the Seder’s inability to attain its transformative potential. Consequently, the philosophical/ideological forces least conducive and most hostile to a meaningful Seder experience are dogmatism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, and authoritarianism; the least conducive and most hostile personal/psychological forces are inflexible, rigid, monologic rather than dialogic personality traits – the powerful “presence of the absence” of interpersonal or social intelligence.
This description of the forces hostile to the experience of a meaningful Seder assigns the responsibility for success or failure to those who conduct the ritual feast. Placing the onus on the leader(s) is consistent with our view of the Seder as an exceptionally rich cultural and educational opportunity. There is widespread agreement among educational theorists, from the most conservative to the most progressive, about the central role of teachers and educators: They hold primary responsibility for inspiring, facilitating, and guiding the learning and teaching processes. Those of us who are teachers and educators are well aware of the rabbinic maxim that though we humans are not necessarily expected to finish the work we’ve undertaken, we are duty-bound to remain committed to our tasks and to refrain from abandoning them!
Caring, wise teachers realize that the finite, partial nature of their control over the myriad and potent forces at play in educational contexts– forces that include things, occurrences, and persons—precludes any attempt to exercise full control in their classrooms and over their learners. Such teachers are not and cannot be “control freaks.” However, the converse is equally true and relevant: Teachers’ realization of the intrinsic and extrinsic limitations on their control does not excuse them from serious preparation for the educational encounters awaiting them on the one hand, or from responsibility for implementing and inspiring the learning processes they have so carefully planned on the other hand.
These reflections on the role of teachers and educators are also applicable to the role of Seder leaders. Bearing in mind the general points made in the opening section of this essay, we now turn to a more detailed analysis of the forces that keep a Seder from being meaningful.
TEXT VS. CONTEXT (1): AROUND THE SEDER TABLE
Not discounting the difficulty of arriving at a generalization that would encompass the diverse types, ages, and numbers of persons sitting around the Seder table, we can say that the participants rarely share a common commitment to and understanding of the Seder, its rituals in general, and the text of the traditional Haggadah in particular. Sedarim are quite often intergenerational, including male and female grandchildren, children, and young, mature, and elderly adults. Often they also include people with very different approaches to Judaism and Jewish religious tradition, whose respective learning styles differ in general and in particular, as concerns the correct balance between time allotted to cognitive learning (reading and discussing the Haggadah) and time devoted to experiential learning (eating the festive meal!).
It is more than clear and more than certain that enabling each member of the group at the Seder table to experience the going-out from Egypt and to free himself/herself or his/her community from enslavement in a personal way is predicated upon the Seder leaders’ sensitivity to the group members’ distinct cultural worlds and agendas on the one hand, and on the other hand upon the leaders’ ability to devise ways of responding to these particular worlds and agendas. It is no less certain and no less clear, however, that many Seder leaders are uninterested in exercising such sensitivity and in devising learning strategies in its light.
Such disinterest usually derives from the leaders’ commitment to conducting the Seder according to the dictates of clearly articulated Jewish tradition, often explained in the Haggadah. A powerful sense of the sanctity, the inviolability, of the Seder-related texts, textures, and ceremonies is at the core of this commitment. The reverence for tradition, the concern for its integrity and authenticity, the trustful approach to its interpretation, and the religious piety embodied in the uncompromising insistence on conducting a Seder entirely kehilchato–as designated by Jewish law, or Halacha--are both understandable and praiseworthy. At the same time, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the common, often very high educational price exacted by this faithfulness to tradition and to the traditional text.
This high cost is encapsulated in the pithy rabbinic phrase, “yatza secharo behefsedo” – losing more than one gains. The gains are canceled by the losses these very gains produced: The authenticity of the Seder readings and proceedings and the rereading and reenacting of the Seder ritual as defined and legislated by tradition (the gains) paradoxically create a rich array of negative emotions (the losses) in most of the people at the Seder table. Among these emotions one can identify anger, resentment, impatience, frustration, boredom, and ennui. Generalizing, we suggest that most, if not all, of these emotions can be subsumed in three interrelated categories: alienation, disaffection, and disenchantment.
By and large, these negative emotions are not due to any “mean-spiritedness” on the participants’ part. They usually stem from genuine, specific difficulties encountered by each person or set of diverse persons comprising the group of Seder participants. For those unfamiliar with the basic parameters of rabbinic homiletics, or midrash-making, the midrash on the exodus from Egypt in the Magid section of the Haggadah is probably the most difficult to understand. I can think of several ways of relating to this centerpiece of the Haggadah text that would not estrange participants unfamiliar with rabbinic methods of exegesis, but enumerating them is beyond the scope of this essay. What can and must be stressed here, however, is our contention that the all-too-familiar rapid, impersonal reading through of this Haggadah section is a grave pedagogic error that almost certainly will alienate uninitiated yet interested and thoughtful Seder participants. From this particular pernicious error, we can deduce a pedagogic rule-of-thumb for conducting a Seder: Genuine, meaningful, educational, perhaps even transformational connections between the texts, textures, and ceremonies of the Pesach Leil HaSeder and the Seder participants can result only from courteous, dialogic learning processes; bullying, monologic learning processes imposed from without—the banking concept of education--produce only alienation between Jewish tradition and contemporary Jews.
TEXT VS. CONTEXT (2): AWAY FROM THE SEDER TABLE
To a significant degree, the specific aspect of the “text vs. context” problem that we discuss in the last part of this essay is a direct extension of the internal aspects investigated above: what goes on inside the room at the Seder table and within the relationship between the people sitting at the table and the person(s) leading the Seder. I refer here to the general global or particular (historical, national, political, social, cultural, religious) contexts outside of—beyond and away from--the home in which the Seder takes place. These outside realities ultimately enter or already exist in the hearts and minds of the people who are inside their homes and gathered around the Seder table.
The aspect we refer to can be defined in terms of existing or emergent disjunctions between “burning” political, social, economic, cultural, and religious issues in societies where Jews make their homes and timeless themes, ideas, visions, and values honored on major Jewish holidays in the annual religious calendar. This disjunctive aspect often manifests itself throughout the year in different ways on different holidays. For our present purpose, we need to look at some of the disjunctions that have emerged or can emerge between contemporary issues of historical, national, political, or cultural interest and timeless major ideas and themes of Pesach.
In the process of investigating these disjunctions, we want to explain in greater depth our use of the term “timeless” to describe the themes and ideas reflected in Jewish holidays. To a considerable extent, the celebration of traditional Jewish holidays presently focuses on two distinct times: the past and the future: By remembering and reenacting the great redemptive events of the past and by hoping for and envisioning redeeming events in the future, the Jews find solace and the strength to survive the travails of the present. In light of these dual focal points, the present has no intrinsic meaning; it is viewed and experienced as a way station from which one simultaneously looks back at the past and looks forward to the (better) future. All the disjunctions to which we refer have their genesis here, at the moment when people in the modern world, including most Jews, grant intrinsic meaning to the events, problems, and challenges of the present and no longer view it primarily from the perspective of past or future situations.
In the specific case of Pesach, we are called upon to reenact our liberation from slavery by the grace and generosity of G-d’s will to redeem us; to express our boundless gratitude to this Being; and to envision and hope for the day in the distant future when we Jews and all other peoples will be wholly redeemed and liberated. But, alas, assuming we are among the majority of Jews today who take to heart the urgent political problems of our times and actively seek to resolve them, how can we possibly devote our thoughts, emotions, and energies at the Seder table, through the reading of the Haggadah, solely to our own liberation? Without in any way discounting the presence of human beings among the nations of the world who seek our destruction, are we not considerably more liberated than a great many other peoples? Indeed, if we are among those Jews who believe deeply that there is an ethical and moral basis to the argument for an independent Palestinian nation-state in areas now governed by Israel, how can we commemorate our liberation from Egyptian oppression without expressing a concern for Palestinian liberation? But can we simultaneously remain faithful to the integrity of our Pesach traditions and the Haggadah narrative and incorporate references to oppressed nations and groups, praying that they—including the Palestinian people—may be liberated?
As Jews, Jewish educators, and members of specific Jewish communities and congregations, we are called upon to respond to these and other, related questions. It might be far more constructive and might inspire far more Jews to devote significant creative gifts to the study, celebration, and internalization of Jewish texts and ideas if we were to become less preoccupied with preserving the “authenticity” and “integrity” of our tradition and more concerned with authenticating the real struggles of contemporary Jews as they enter into a dialogue with Jewish religious traditions. I am deeply convinced that these traditions will only be enriched, broadened, and deepened, and never short-changed or depleted, by the dialogic encounter suggested here.
With the wish that we all may find our own specific ways to liberate ourselves from our respective enslavements and to assist others to liberate themselves from theirs, Be’birkat Chag Pesach Ve’Aviv Sameach.
Marc Silverman has been a member of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education faculty in the School of Education of the Hebrew University for over 20 years; he teaches some BA and mainly MA courses. He also serves as a tutor to senior Jewish educators of the Diaspora studying for a year (Melton Centre’s senior educational program) or two (the Jerusalem fellows program of the Mandel school for professional leadership) in Jerusalem; he is the academic director of short-term in-service Jewish educators’ and teachers’ enrichment programs at the Melton Centre and the Hebrew University representative academic head of the Jewish teaching/educational track at Moscow State University.
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