An estimated 70% of American Jews participate in a Passover Seder — the highest rate of involvement in any Jewish religious observance. This year, as we recount the story of the Exodus and symbolically taste the bitterness of slavery, we also must ask what, in 2016, makes this Passover different?
At my Seder table this year, as we remember how we wandered homeless in the desert, we will talk about many difficult topics, including the 60 million refugees worldwide who are seeking safe haven as part of the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. Remembering the S.S. St. Louis, filled with refugees from Nazi Germany looking for a safe harbor along the East coast of America, we know we cannot sit idly by. As a Jewish community, this is our story, and we have a religious imperative to act. Along the same lines, we must reinforce our support for an America built by myriad immigrants from the world over, all of whom come here seeking one thing: a better life than the life they had back home.
An election is no excuse to spread hatred about immigrants — or any race, class or subset of Americans. Varying viewpoints on Israel, too, are always a hot topic at many family tables, including mine. This year, conversations focused on Israel and the Middle East may devolve into more generational disputes with no one listening to others’ voices or concerns.
All of these subjects can be fraught with disagreements and, much like Thanksgiving and other family gatherings throughout the year, these intimate gatherings can make for pointed arguments that detract from the joy of the holiday. The risk of such an outcome is especially high this year, an election year in which our political discourse routinely denigrates differing views.
So should we just avoid those prickly subjects? Steer clear of talk about candidates, platforms, policies and anything potentially objectionable for the sake of a happy holiday?
Lucky for us, the Seder is the perfect antidote, inviting all who are hungry to come and eat, as well as to chew on deep, probing questions — and to reject facile or glib answers.
I always find it inspiring to recall the story of the rabbis sitting together in Bnai Brak. Today, that place is an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, but 2,000 years ago it was the site of one of the most diverse groups of Jews ever to have shared a Seder together. Whether agreeing or disagreeing, they sat together engaging in machloket l’shem shamayim (arguments for the sake of heaven), a Jewish tradition that necessitates deep respect for other human beings, even those with viewpoints fundamentally opposed to our own.
Who were these rabbis? Rabbi Eliezer was a brilliant elder who held views that other sages just couldn’t abide. For example, he once dissented from the majority of the sages over the ritual fitness of the “Oven of Achnai,” a dispute that led to his excommunication. Other Bnai Brak rabbis included Rabbi Joshua, a man of little means who nonetheless had an invaluable understanding of non-Jews, and thus reflected a broader worldview, as well as Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azaria, a young sage with considerable wealth who challenged all the elitism of the ancient academies. Rabbi Akiva was the late-blooming scholar who called for the rebellion against Rome, the Bar Kochba revolt, and Rabbi Tarphon was Rabbi Akiva’s friendly sparring partner.
These rabbis held profoundly strong yet disparate notions of religion and civic duty. And yet, they found a way to sit together, to pray together and to argue in such a manner that we still learn from their debates.
That’s because there was among them a deep underpinning of respect. Were they with us today, I bet they could have talked about the presidential election and come to understand new points of view and varying ways to see the issues.
So as we all sit around the Seder table and contemplate how to avoid hard subjects — whether it’s Israel, the presidential election, immigration reform, or income inequality — let’s think again. As the Haggadah says irrefutably: Talk about the most important things, and if you must you can argue, but with respect and with humility, too, because you may not have the whole answer. Indeed, we may really need that opposing view to clarify our own.
When we have these hard conversations in a constructive manner, we can liberate ourselves to grow and learn. We can discover a new kind of freedom, a new kind of religiosity that isn’t self-righteous or self-important, that doesn’t exclude the views of those who disagree, but includes and even seeks out the challenging arguments for the sake of heaven.
At the end of the evening, whether or not Elijah the prophet or Miriam the prophetess visits our home, if we are able to embrace the diversity inherent in those arguments and maintain respect for divergence of opinions, redemption will already have begun.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.