Enough of the ‘social justice’ Passover Seders

Jews are allowed to center ourselves, love ourselves, celebrate ourselves, and remember who we are.

By Mallory Mosner, FUTURE OF JEWISH    19 April 2024

artwork by Nun Aleph

Two years ago, I had a life-changing Passover experience.

I was invited to attend my first modern-Orthodox Seder (Passover ceremony) with none other than Mayim Bialik in attendance — replete with Passover-themed Jewish “Jeopardy.” It was pretty iconic.

Why was this night different than all other nights? For many reasons, not the least of which being that I was raised Reform Jewish, and none of my Seders ever had this kind of spirituality, insight, contemplation, or grounded celebration of Jewish tradition. It was a turning point in my relationship with Judaism.

It was also a stark contrast to my experience the year before.

In 2021, from middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, my partner and I joined a Zoom Seder. Not just any Seder, but a “social justice Seder,” featuring cringey racial justice replacements for the Four Questions, and lengthy polemics about our “privilege” and “responsibility as Jews” to the Jewish value of tikkun olam (Hebrew for, “repairing the world”).

The “When do we eat?” energy was strong, and thanks to some shoddy internet in rural New Mexico, we managed an early escape. But I am glad I witnessed this increasingly common display of self-flagellation, because it put me on the road to an important epiphany.

Tikkun Olam?

To be very clear, I am a strong believer and advocate for racial, economic, and gender justice (and beyond). But the term tikkun olam has been bastardized by Reform Judaism in the last 75 years, taking on a meaning far beyond its original intentions.

Tikkun olam originates in the Mishnah (the Oral Torah), which was written following the destruction of the Second Temple, and is the main text of the Talmud. The Mishnah is a study of Jewish law, and the original invocation of tikkun olam was in reference to practical laws around pursuing a fair divorce.

Therefore, equating tikkun olam with “social justice” is a gross mischaracterization of the meaning and intention behind the concept. It is true, tikkun olam refers to “repairing” or “improving” the world, but the suggestion that this refers to acts of “social justice” as core to or even synonymous with Jewish values is a huge stretch.

As Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote, “Olam is related to the word helem, which means concealment … All the problems of the world come about because we don’t recognize the true value and divine beauty of this world.”1

“So tikkun olam truly means much more than fixing the world’s problems,” added Freeman. “Tikkun olam means to repair the way that our world conceals its divine beauty and thereby improve and perfect it, bringing it to the state it was ultimately meant to attain.”

Fix yourself.

Traditional Judaism is very clear that spiritual healing and evolution come from prayer, Torah study, and doing mitzvot (commandments or good deeds). Of course, across the Jewish Diaspora there are as many unique practices of Judaism as there are Jews, and there is certainly no single “true” expression of what it means to be Jewish (although there are endless clear expressions of what is not Jewish).

Judaism is and has always involved vigorous debate (even with G-d) in the spirit of pursuing understanding, meaning, and virtue. It is sometimes difficult to figure out where that line is of what is Jewish “enough” (if such thing exists) — or at least if something is flagrantly not Jewish at all (like eating pork while worshipping Jesus on Yom Kippur).

And yet, there is something that feels profoundly un-Jewish about turning one of our most sacred, seminal holidays into a political statement to make yourself feel “noble” or “good enough.”

Personally, I feel more than qualified to speak on this, since I was a fiercely committed social justice activist and organizer between 2016 to 2020. I can recall, now with great embarrassment, attending a Reform family friend’s Seder in 2017; the mere mention of the word “slavery” sent me into a tailspin.

My mind was exploding with rage as the short Seder ensued. I remember thinking, “How dare these privileged Jews even say the word ‘slavery’ without any regard for the literal modern-day slavery that is happening disproportionately to people of color through the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment?”

My mouth eventually caught up with my racing mind, and I spoke my piece with smug indignance. My comments were essentially brushed off, which made me even angrier.

Unsurprisingly, it was somewhere around this time that I pretty much completely cut myself off from my Jewish identity. I had very little community (despite my voracious involvement in activism), I was manically depressed and sometimes suicidal, and I felt betrayed by the Jews in my life; in my severe loneliness and mental churning, it seemed intuitive that Judaism itself was the problem.

My story is sadly not unique. I have met countless leftist, activist Jews who have abjured their Jewishness (or conditionally claim it without practicing it, while spewing horrific antisemitic rhetoric — including direct lines from KKK grand wizard David Duke regarding so-called “Jewish supremacy”) on the grounds of all manner of internalized and projected antisemitism.

In the spirit of tikkun olam, much like the old airplane adage that you should put on your own mask before helping others, how can any externalized effort of social justice possess inherent Jewish meaning if it is done from a place of resentment and rejectionism?

How can you repair the world if you are too broken to be willing to sit with, investigate, and learn to find meaning and joy from who you are and where you come from?

Let my people know.

The ancient Jewish sage Hillel the Elder’s paradox ponders, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

It is another beautiful piece of Jewish philosophy that often gets misappropriated by the minority of Jews who spend their time attempting to cause harm to the half of our population that resides in Israel, and others who have fallen prey to the narrative that the core tenet of Judaism is self-sacrifice in the name of a “greater” purpose (which is literally a very Christian narrative).

This paradox refers to Torah law relating to the Passover offering when the 14th of Nissan (a month in the Jewish calendar) falls on Shabbat, and the tension between offerings that straddle both individual and community — when most offerings are one or the other, and Torah law forbids individual offerings on Shabbat. Ultimately, it was decided in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court system) that community was the dominant entity.

Yes, we are all human beings, we are all G-d’s creation, and we should all feel a collective responsibility (and a Jewish responsibility) to treat others and the planet with care and respect.

But the Jewish People are chosen as part of Am Yisrael (“the Nation of Israel”). Ignoring the root of who you are — the tradition that our ancestors continuously carried against all odds for thousands of years — and ignoring or willfully flouting one’s relationship to a Jewish community in the pursuit of an individual sense of heroism or righteousness is no more than egotism.

How can you act in the pursuit of a collective goodwill if you do not have the wisdom to know yourself? How can you behave as a pillar of anything virtuous if you are untethered, and have lost track of who you are?

There is a reason why we tell and retell the story of Exodus each year — and why each year, it takes on new meaning (that is, if you are willing to open yourself up to the depth of mystical and practical meanings the story reveals).

Plagues

When you de-center Jewish stories because of some illusory “privilege,” you become an accomplice for a dark plague of anti-Jewish hatred.

The notion that Jews possess inherent privilege is a heaping pile of Nazi garbage. Regardless of whether some Jews possess certain privileges in some societies by virtue of having lighter skin color, that does not mean that they owe non-Jews a centerpiece during our holidays.

Worse is the proposition that we deliberately rewrite our traditional stories to satisfy a contemporary lens of social justice.

A friend once told me that she was struggling after it had been pointed out to her that there was not conclusive evidence of our enslavement in Egypt, but that the Jewish narrative of Egypt caused much pain to and needless discrimination against Egyptians.

Apparently, there was a proposal that Jews move to either stop referencing Jewish slavery in Egypt, always caveat that it may not have actually happened and therefore Egyptian people should never be regarded as having done anything like that, and/or change the story altogether. I was apoplectic.

Almost as disturbed (but also slightly amused) as I was when I realized that “anti-Zionist” Jews have confabulated a version of the Passover story that somehow does not actually glorify or recognize Jewish liberation and our exodus into our homeland, which we have continuously called home ever since.

Let it be said firmly and enthusiastically that if you would like to write your own religious stories, by all means, you should do so. May you have all the fortune and success of L. Ron Hubbard in the creation of your own neo-Scientology.

As for the Jewish People, let us continue to take pride and find endless joy and wisdom in the telling and retelling of our stories. The boundless, innate wisdom of the Torah is that there is plenty of room for study and interrogation and debate.

But again, extrapolating different meanings from Jewish tradition has a line. There is room for interpretation until there is not. By all means, have a chocolate Seder with your kids in the middle of Passover, or feel free to host thoughtful dialogues at some point on one of the days about parallels you see between Jewish freedom from bondage in Egypt and contemporary liberation movements.

But please, do not insist upon squandering the mitzvah of reading and remembering our story as it was told to us in the name of reimagining it to mitigate a guilty conscience or internalized self-hatred.

Jews are allowed to center ourselves, love ourselves, celebrate ourselves, and remember who we are.1

1.“6 Myths and Facts About Tikkun Olam.” Chabad.


April 21, 2024 | 1 Comment »

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