The bitter truth: A Sephardic reflection on maror

Can the simple arrangement of the Passover seder plate reflect a deeper message? In the Sephardic tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.

Unlike the standard Ashkenazi version sold in Judaica stores or printed in most haggadot, the Sephardic custom is to place maror — the bitter herbs — at the very center of the seder plate. This follows the arrangement of the “Ari,” Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic from Safed.

While this custom is not really discussed by any Sephardic authorities, it is interesting to note that in his “Hazon Ovadia” commentary to the haggadah, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, remarks that Maimonides lists the “three things one must say the night of the seder” as “Pesach, maror and matzah.” This order differs from the standard “Pesach, matzah and maror” text, in that it places maror before unleavened bread, and, once again, places maror at the center.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue. In our own unique way, we have come to embrace bitterness and to own it as a definitive part of the Jewish hard drive.

The Jewish experience is as much about bitterness as it is about celebration, and while that might seem like a paradox to many, Jews understand that life is lived between a laugh and a tear. Thus, on the very night when we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we have no problem embracing bitterness and recognizing its ongoing presence and centrality in our collective story.

The Sephardic custom of centralizing the maror helps us tell our larger story. By placing maror in the middle, we allow ourselves to expand the haggadah to include our bitter experiences beyond Egypt. We remember the Babylonians and Romans, our inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms under the cross of Christianity, and the episodes of jihad against us under the crescent of Islam. The bitter herbs include Auschwitz and Treblinka, and they also allow for reflection on the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism.

All of these experiences have stood at the center of our journey as a people. While this seems painful, Judaism does not shy away from the bitter truth of our history. Only by telling these stories can we contemplate their lessons as they affect us today. There is no better night to do so than Passover, a night when we are commanded to conduct a meaningful symposium through telling stories.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish
history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue.

While we recount our own collective bitter experiences, we also place maror at the center so that we remember the bitter suffering of others. Centralizing maror reminds us to not persecute strangers, immigrants or refugees, “because we were strangers in Egypt.” While gazing upon the maror at the center of the seder plate, we see the bitterness of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and modern-day Syria. We feel the pain of orphans, widows and all of the weakest members of our society.

Our own maror does not create bitterness toward others; quite the contrary, it sensitizes us to the suffering of others, and calls upon us to step in on their behalf. On Passover, we centralize the maror of others alongside our own. Their maror becomes ours.

Bitterness takes on different shapes and forms. It’s not always about persecution. For example, even though the bitterness of slavery precedes the sweetness of freedom in the Passover narrative, we shouldn’t forget what comes next. It turns out that the Israelites’ first moments of freedom are defined by a different kind of bitterness: “Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah” (Exodus 15:22-23). So our freedom gave birth to a bitter experience — and it certainly wasn’t the last one in the Bible.

This paradigm has followed us into our modern-day experiences. The Holocaust preceded the creation of Israel, and while Israel marked a new era of Jewish independence, it also gave birth to a new set of bitter realities, which have held center court in today’s headlines. These new “bitter herbs” include fierce debates over war and terrorism in Israel, deep political and social divisions within Israeli society and growing political alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Our internal divisions over religious issues, the Palestinian question and current U.S. politics are no less bitter than our fears of Iran and Hamas.

So on Passover, as these debates often take center stage, we ask: “Maror zeh?” — “These bitter herbs that we eat, what do they recall?” The Sephardic custom of placing maror at the center of the plate arguably makes this the most important of all questions asked during the seder.

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Amar: Better to pray alone than with Reform

Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said in a Rosh Hashanah message that it is better for a Jew to pray by himself than with Reform Jews.

Amar made the comment in a pre-holiday interview with the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that was published Sunday.

Amar called Reform Judaism more of a threat to the religion than secular Jews. He also called Reform marriages invalid.

He called on the Orthodox community to reach out to secular Israelis while they are still in school, saying that if they are not reached, the Reform movement “will find them.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a statement responded to Amar' s allegations.

“It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views,” Regev said in the statement. “Rabbi Amar’s misguided insights generate a schism and worse yet, so long as he occupies the seat of Chief Rabbi, he is driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

“Rather than seek fault with fellow Jews, he would better delve into his own soul and realize that most Israeli and world Jews want to align Judaism with modernity and democracy. It is pluralism and diversity which Israel and Judaism need today, not religious coercion and sectarianism.”

Listen to What the Machers Are Saying


Sounds like the Jewish people need to have their mouths washed out with soap. Not all the Jewish people, of course. But quite a few of them. At least quite a few of those in the category of macher.

It’s important you know what they’ve been saying, because they are those who lead us, who control the Jewish agenda, control the Jewish purse, who those outside the Jewish world look to as representing the Jewish world.

It’s important you know, because then maybe you’ll do what way too few Jews do these days — namely, get outraged. See what’s going on, what’s being done in your name and say something about it, do something about it.

Jews have a deserved rep for being contrary, for being argumentative, for being curmudgeonly. And yet, today, we all seem to have a bad case of Jewish politically correct fever.

Meaning, everyone is afraid to say anything that isn’t totally PC — meaning totally bland, meaning totally meaningless.

And because everyone is afraid to say anything about the powers that are, we are in the mess we are in, in terms of Jewish disunity, in terms of making Judaism attractive to young Jews, in terms of making Judaism relevant in the 21st century.

Which is why it’s so important you hear what some of our leaders have been saying lately.

To start, listen to the words of one Alon Pinkas. Until recently, Pinkas was Israel’s consul general in New York, the Jewish state’s representative to the largest Jewish community in the world.

For reasons I never understood, supporters of Israel thought this guy was great, loved seeing him on TV standing up for Israel. He frankly was never my cup of tea, and I said so in a column, for which, of course, I was criticized. One simply does not question who Israel sends to represent it.

In any case, after several years of serving in New York, here is what Pinkas said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. He said that American Jews treat Israel like a “goddamn synagogue,” and that the behavior of American Jewish organizational officials reads like a chapter out of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

If a non-Jew had said that, the Jewish press releases would have been flying. But here were such vile remarks about American Jews being made by one of Israel’s highest-ranking diplomats, by the guy they sent to New York to be Israel’s guy.

Tells you a lot.

Next, we have two Israeli rabbis. One is Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who is no less than Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi. He recently sent a pamphlet to thousands of synagogues in Israel declaring that the tsunami in Asia happened because of world support for Israel’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Yes, a rabbi whose word is law to many Israelis said that God killed maybe 300,000 innocent people in the tsunamis, because Sharon plans to move settlers out of Gaza. And he backed that up by citing a passage in the Talmud.

Then there is Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group of all West Bank and Gaza settlers. What did this ultimate rabbinic authority tell those settlers to do about the Gaza withdrawal? Resist it to the death.

“Better to die than disengage,” he said. “To destroy the land and give over the Strip to the terrorists is against the Torah of Israel.”

Better to die than disengage. This is what the settlers have been told by their top rabbi. Jewish leadership in action.

Which brings us to Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman is president of the World Jewish Congress and has been for more than 20 years. The World Jewish Congress (WJC) is an important organization, because it is seen by many world governments as the place to go to talk to the Jewish people.

When it was led by Nahum Goldmann and then Philip Klutznick, the WJC was a great organization led by Jewish statesmen.

But any doubt about what kind of “leader” Bronfman is should be dispelled by a recent article in New York magazine.

Now this is all a bit complicated, but here goes. Isi Leibler is one of the most honorable men in Jewish life. Leader of Australia’s Jewish community, he has done much for Israel and the Jewish world. He is a true mensch and a true leader.

And for a long time, he was senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress. But then, Leibler discovered some serious financial hanky-panky going on at the World Jewish Congress involving bizarre bank transactions, stolen computer files, cover-ups, intimidation and millions of dollars. When he tried to uncover the wrongdoing and do something about it, Bronfman and his henchmen went into action.

They first smeared Leibler, calling him the ugliest of names. Then they made sure he was thrown out as vice president of the WJC.

The whole thing stunk to high heaven and offended many in the Jewish organizational world who knew Leibler to be a man of integrity and honor, and so stood up for him, and who joined in questioning WJC’s questionable accounting practices and secretive management style.

But instead of reconsidering its actions, and doing teshuvah, Bronfman’s WJC went ballistic.

Namely, Stephen Herbits, a Bronfman lackey who he just appointed as secretary general of the WJC, gave a profanity-laced interview to New York magazine, in which he torches any and all who dare to question Bronfman.

“As you talk to the leaders of other Jewish organizations, check their accomplishments against their governance. They’ve got perfect governance and no f—ing accomplishments.” He then goes on to accuse other Jewish organizations of illegal activities — such as misusing funds, lying to the government and offering bloated benefit packages — and threatens to expose them if they aren’t nice to Bronfman.

“They better be careful, because if they cause enough problems in the press … then you’ll see some real fireworks.”

Amazing. A Jewish official, representing the top man at the World Jewish Congress, besmirching Jewish organizations and doing it in a magazine read by a whole lot of non-Jews.

“I don’t remember another example of a spokesman for one Jewish organization making such mean-spirited, slash-and-burn comments about other organizations,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

He’s right. And it’s our own fault. Bronfman has been given a free ride by the Jewish world for decades, solely because he is worth billions and spends millions on Jewish causes, mostly on the World Jewish Congress.

And so, as king of the Jews, he figures he can do whatever and what the WJC does is nobody’s business, and if anyone dares to question it, even someone as noble as Leibler, it’s off with his head, and if other Jewish organizations come to Leibler’s defense or raise questions about how Bronfman operates, well, then it’s off with the gloves and on the record with New York magazine to say all Jewish organizations are crooked.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of the above is being done and said by those who are your leaders. Which is why maybe it’s time you stopped being so PC and started being very outraged.

Joseph Aaron is editor of Chicago Jewish News.