Last Thursday, President Obama hosted a private Passover Seder in the White House. It was news because in the 232 years we have been a nation, no President had ever hosted a Seder before. Of course, we never had a Jewish president before so that might explain it. While the Seder was welcomed by America’s Jewish community, they can be forgiven for wondering why it took so long. The most likely reason amounts to tacit Anti-Semitism. Supporting the state of Israel and all that is fine, but actually participating in some solemn Jewish customs in our most public of houses somehow seemed a bridge too far to its previous Christian chief executives.
While Seder is a Jewish tradition at Passover, as I discovered you don’t have to be Jewish to have a Seder and find meaning in the event. For some reason, I got through fifty-two years without having attended a Passover Seder. That changed last night when our friend Fox, who also happens to be Jewish, invited a small group of us mostly Gentiles to her brownstone apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland for a belated Passover Seder. It was probably significantly toned down from Passover Seders in most orthodox Jewish families, but it was a Seder nonetheless from dipping sprigs of parsley in a bowl of salt water to the washing of hands (twice), to the matza ball soup (quite delicious!) to the singing of Next Year in Jerusalem.
Passover Seder is something like a Jewish Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims gave thanks having made it to the New World and for their first harvest. The Jews celebrate their miraculous escape from Egyptian slavery as well as remember its horrors. Unlike Thanksgiving, which is primarily an occasion for overeating and maybe a little giving of thanks, Passover Seder commemorates the liberation of a people, which is perhaps a lot more meaningful. (I grant you the Pilgrims in their own way went to the New World seeking their own liberation, or at least an escape from religious persecution.)
Christians today are busy celebrating Easter, their holiest of days. Many of the more devout ones also celebrated Holy Thursday last week, infamous of course for The Last Supper. I was one of the many people who had largely tuned out that The Last Supper was a Passover Seder with Jesus as the guest of honor. Just as Christmas was timed around Winter Solstice to bring in the heathens, the timing of Easter over the Passover seems a trifle suspicious. What are the odds that Jesus just happened to die on the cross during the Passover? (One in 52, actually.) The Catholic mass strikes me at least in part as a way to co-opt and disenfranchise Passover Seder. Jesus broke matza on Holy Thursday and shared it with his disciples, the closest thing he had to family. During a mass, priests break the host into parts, and hosts are shared with the faithful during Holy Communion. (By the way, while matza is pretty boring bread, I prefer it to communion wafers.) In a way, Catholics celebrate Passover Seder every time they go to Mass.
Thanksgiving really is a holiday-come-lately. Passover Seder was already an ancient custom when Jesus held The Last Supper. Perhaps that was why my first Seder yesterday felt special, because I was participating in a ritual far older than Christianity. Moreover, its message is timeless. Who cannot feel joy at the miraculous liberation of a people? Who cannot feel touched that the Jews over so many millenniums take time once a year to never forget their enslavement, their long years in the desert and their return to the Promised Land?
Passover and Exodus, like many religious events, likely has a core truth to it, but is probably mostly myth. It is likely that not all Jews went to work in Egypt and even after the Diaspora we know some Jews still lived in Palestine. Few actually believe that the waters of the Red Sea parted for the Jews, although they may have found a relatively dry path on their way to the Sinai over the Reed Sea, while Pharaoh’s armies got stuck in the muck. Whether Yahweh sent plagues or Egypt was going through a bad time is hard to say. I doubt any plague disproportionately spared the Jews. It is doubtful Jews were interminably lost in the desert for decades. It is much more likely that, like Gypsies, they were treated as uninvited guests wherever they went and kept roaming but stayed near sources of known water. In any event, Exodus makes for a compelling story and likely does speak to the reality that large numbers of Jews were enslaved in Egypt and managed to break free. Much of Jewish history and law derives from Moses’ oversized presence.
In fact, as bad as enslavement was back in Pharaoh’s time, the Holocaust was much worse. The state of Israel does celebrate a Holocaust Memorial Day, which in their calendar falls between April 7th and May 7th. The Pharaoh’s sins against the Jews were relatively minor compared with Adolph Hitler’s: Pharaoh wanted to enslave and abuse the Jews, not annihilate them. Passover is so established that it will never go away, but perhaps in time Jews will elevate Holocaust Memorial Day to a holiday of similar stature and magnitude.
More Gentiles like me should consider incorporating Passover Seder into their annual customs. The Unitarian church I attend hosts an annual Passover Seder. I had never considered attending before. I will be more likely to attend them in the future. My experience is that it is impossible to attend a Seder without feeling some of the suffering, oppression and liberation that Jews have experienced. In my opinion, Americans of all faith should routinely practice Passover Seder. So plaudits for President Obama. As acts of leadership go, this is a minor but important one. Let us hope it will be celebrated annually in The White House from now on.