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92% attend a seder! - Irene Blaston

This week’s parashah, Acharei Mot, begins with God speaking to Moses after the death of Aaron’s sons, they had catastrophically got too close to the Eternal. It consists of dire warnings of tragedies that will occur again unless the Priests take certain steps to prevent them. There follows several chapters about being in the right state to approach God including the rites and rituals of atonement, giving the message of “this is what you need to do to protect your children”, implying that we should guide and engage and connect with our young people in helping them to make wise and careful religious choices.

So what is it that connects you to your Judaism?

I recognise that that’s a big question for this time on a Shabbat morning when you’re already thinking about lunch and in particular today how good it is to be able to eat that slice of challah after a week of cardboard-like matzah, but I ask you to think about it with me for just a few minutes.

For me, I’ve read several commentaries on today’s Torah portion and sorry Rabbi, but this particular parashah, with its fire and brimstone approach just doesn’t do it for me.

So what does? The question of my Jewish connection is a question that Pesach has yet again prompted me to consider.

Many years ago, as a young adult, I was living a few hundred miles away from home during Pesach in an area with seemingly hardly any Jewish community, yet, on advertising a seder, the meal at the start of Passover, there was suddenly more than 60 people wanting to attend. The powerful pull of seder night has really fascinated me ever since. I recently heard Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner quote a survey result from the Pew Research Centre that found that around 92% of Jews attend a seder, even if they don’t observe any of the other laws and traditions of Passover or indeed much else of Jewish life. That’s an astonishing number, and one I had to check further. The survey found that it compared to only 84% who light Hanukkah candles, and that’s where the ritual is a lot less onerous, prettier, has associated family time and gifts and surely latkes and donuts are more appealing than bitter herbs, even if they are eaten with charoset, whereas the figure of 68% who said that they fasted on Yom Kippur is possibly more understandable. But seriously 92%. 92% attend a seder – that’s huge. It means that it’s a safe question to ask your Jewish friends, “how was your seder?”.

So, what is it that the Passover seder has that connects us to our Judaism so strongly?

Is it a sense of history? Perhaps. The Exodus is a great story, one of escape, out of slavery and oppression into freedom, with the build up of the different plagues until Pharaoh eventually says “go”. But really? After all we know how the story ends, and today’s parashah aside there are some great stories in our Torah. I’m not convinced that people attend a Passover seder just because of the history, as there are plenty of ways of immersing yourself in Jewish history, from visiting museums to walking in the Old City in Jerusalem, so it must be more than that.

And talking of Jerusalem and holidays in Jewish places, how many of us have felt that connection to our Judaism by visiting synagogues in far-flung places, loving that the prayers and tunes are familiar or meeting new people and working out our common Jewish friends? So, again the power of the seder has to be more than that.

Is it a sense of family and friends gathering together? Perhaps – it’s certainly true that many of us have fond memories of sederim with grandparents and many cousins, but doesn’t that also happen at other times?

What about all those rituals – deciding which haggadot to use, should they all be the same or deliberately different – you know the one with the wine stains and matzah crumbs in the middle, all the preparing, explaining and eating the different symbolic foods, singing too many verses of Dayenu or the children hunting for the afikomen that piece of matzah to ransom otherwise the seder can’t be completed –  quite possibly, but still, will 92% of us really turn up to seder to see who is best at hiding or seeking a piece of matzah? It still doesn’t quite add up.

This year, more than ever before, my facebook feed was full of alternative symbols to put on the seder plate. The trend, according to Liberal Judaism’s Rabbi Danny Rich in the Jewish News, was started in the 1980s with an orange, initiated by Professor Susannah Heschel to acknowledge those who feel marginalised within the Jewish community. Our Reform haggadah refers to Miriam’s cup of water, in addition to Elijah’s cup, to remind us of Miriam’s role in the Exodus story.

 And there are now symbols to represent just about every type of oppression and political issue you can imagine.

The symbolism seems to have been taken that one step further with whole sederim being devoted to particular themes or causes, like the Climate Justice Seder held in London where a chilli pepper was used instead of bitter herbs to represent the planet heating up and where the recounting of the 10 plagues all related to the theme. Instead of the water in the Nile turning to blood that haggadah referred to nearly 90% of the ocean damaged by pollution and replaced the plague of frogs by the sea rising and flooding homes.

At the LJS this year, the whole haggadah took different twists and turns depending on which path in the text the participants chose.

And our own Radlett Reform cheder children had an entire Chocolate Seder where everything in the seder was replaced by something sweet - e.g. fruit dipped in chocolate sauce instead of Karpas, sour sweets for maror, marshmallow fluff & chocolate spread for charoset, chocolate eggs and of course chocolate milkshake instead of wine. Great fun was had by all as they compared and discussed the symbolism.

So, maybe that is the answer. Whilst still steeped in tradition, and fulfilling all those different appealing criteria, the Passover seder has reinvented itself, enabling the story and its meaning to be kept highly relevant and thus creating that tight Jewish connection for such a large percentage of the Jewish population.

In many respects of course I’m just referring to a central concept of Reform Judaism, of making our Judaism relevant, one that we here, at Radlett Reform with our highly creative Rabbinic team often take for granted. But it is a challenge and a balance in all aspects of our congregational Jewish life and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we strive for 92% involvement over a piece of challah at Kiddush.


Irene Blaston


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781