Passover 2014; telling the story

It’s Passover; the first seder is tonight, and I thought it was worth writing something about story-telling and ritual.  I learned that I already had (pasted below).

The stories we tell about the past affect how we see the present and future, including who we think we are.  I suspect all religions display tensions between universal responsibilities and the particular interests of a distinct people.  You might think, for example, that advocates of religious freedom care also about people who don’t share that religion–sometimes that’s true; often it’s not.

And no matter how the story’s told, audiences–particularly around the family table–take the meanings they choose.  I’m reminded of the start of William Blake’s “The Everlasting Gospel”:

The Vision of Christ that thou dost see,
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a long, hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind,
Mine speaks in Parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy heaven-doors are my hell-gates.
Socrates taught what Melitus
Loathed as a nation’s bitterest curse.
And Caiaphas was, in his own mind,
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou readest black where I read white.



We’re two days into Passover, a major Jewish holiday.  The highlight is always two nights of services at the dinner table with families and friends, with varying shares of food, prayer, stories, and discussion.  This service, the seder, varies tremendously from home to home, as each household makes its way through a haggadah, with more and less conflict and warmth–as immortalized in Woody Allen films.

“Haggadah” means telling or narration, and the story that’s told is about the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  Although key elements of the tale are basically consistent, the tone, length, and meanings of the story are all over the place.

On length: the longest service I’ve ever participated in, many years ago, featured commentary and discussion on absolutely everything, and we didn’t get to dinner until after midnight.  All the participants were in their twenties, and there were no hungry kids waiting for dinner.

On meaning: religion helps people make sense of their lives, and rituals reinforce a sense of one’s place in the world.  People take very different messages from the same sets of stories and religious dicta, and devout doesn’t mandate a certain kind of politics.  Radical pacifist Dorothy Day and proto-fascist Father Charles Coughlin both saw themselves as committed Catholics.  Contemporary Christian clerics finds ways to promote tax cuts or tax justice in the Gospels.

The haggadah is a site where we can see the outcomes of activist Jewish efforts.  The story of liberation from Egypt can be used to make many different points.  In one reading, it’s about how special the Hebrews are, and about their sacred tie to the land of Israel.  Another take is about a universal drive for social justice, with an explicit argument that the liberation from slavery should make seder participants particularly vigilant in fighting against the oppression of others.

Such contrasting visions play out in different haggadahs; it’s easy to find conservative, leftist, environmentalist, and feminist haggadahs in bookstores–and now, on line  (links).  All manner of causes have been represented by activists seizing the holiday and appropriating the story for their own purposes.  The rituals and symbols change in response to the concerns of the present: vegans, for example, hold their seders without a shankbone to represent the Passover sacrifice.

But recounting the experience of slavery, even many generations on, should leave a lasting impact on the way we think about the world and about justice.

The drama of the events commemorated–and the flexibility of the service–make it every politico’s favorite holiday.  President Obama–who is not Jewish or Muslim–has been hosting a seder each year  for a long time–well before he got to hold the ceremony in the White House.

You can make your own:

The Open Source Haggadah lists 16 key elements of the service and offers different texts for each, with politics ranging from “revolutionary” to Zionist, and religious orientations that range from orthodox to explicitly secular.  More–and newer–texts are available at

Contrasting intepretations of religious doctrines are hardly peculiar to Judaism.  What’s particularly interesting here is that you don’t need to read theological tracts to see the debates played out.

And to see how important movements of the past century have taken on the religious and cultural text of explaining themselves and their visions in the context of traditions that data back thousands of years.  One outcome of feminism, for example, are passages read aloud at dinner tables across the country that were recovered or written by activists a few decades ago.

And, somehow, I think these stories matter: our understanding of the past shapes our visions and actions for the future.




About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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