Is Trump Pharaoh? Was Obama? What to talk about at the Seder

April 10, 2017


My monthly New York Times article was just published, and the topic is a timely one. The headline says: Keep Your Politics out of Passover, and I urge you to read it, of course.

Here’s one paragraph:

There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.


If you wish to understand why this topic seemed timely when I wrote it last week, here’s some proof from the Washington Post:

This Passover, which begins Monday night, the nation’s preoccupation with politics and the flurry of activism since President Trump’s election are inspiring a new crop of amateur writers to try their hand at updating the age-old Passover story. And for some, the big question has become: Is it right to cast the president of the United States as the villainous pharaoh?


Readers have already started responding to my NYT article. As you can probably imagine: Some say Yeshar Choach – so I assume they agree with me. Some say: we disagree. Tamara Cofman Wittes posted on Facebook the following thoughtful response:

Well, Shmuel, I disagree. If all we are supposed to do at Seder is follow the “script,” there’s no way the rabbis stayed up until it was time to recite the morning shma. No, we engage in disputation about our tradition, our laws, and how they apply to our lives – the modern, political, socially active, globally aware lives we actually live. We’re Jews; that’s how we roll.

She says she disagrees with me, but I’m not sure we are in serious disagreement. I can concur with her statement that “we engage in disputation about our tradition, our laws, and how they apply to our lives.” The question, of course, is what do we mean by “our lives.” I believe that the Seder is about “our lives” in a big sense. The meaning of our lives, the meaning of our being Jewish, our history, tradition, obligations. I dislike the idea of using the Seder to discuss “our lives” in a small what-was-on-the-morning-news sense. I do not think that pharaoh-izing Trump (or, a year ago, Obama, or anyone else we watch on TV on a daily basis) makes for a meaningful Seder.


Ben Sales wrote an article titled: Worried about Trump talk ruining your seder? Here’s how to get through it. Here’s a paragraph:

Seders traditionally embrace disputation. The meal’s most known segment is the Four Questions, and several of the Haggadah’s anecdotes retell rabbinic debates. Haggadah commentaries likewise nudge attendees to challenge the details of the hours-long Exodus narrative. Noam Zion, co-author with his son Mishael of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” says the original seder was not meant to be a rote reading of the Haggadah but a free-willing symposium on themes of freedom and slavery.

Again – I agree. “To challenge the details of the hours-long Exodus narrative” – that’s good. Objecting to “a rote reading of the Haggadah” – that’s even better (It is possible that my NYT article was not clear on this matter because of my “followed a script” reference). The question is not should we debate at the Seder – it is what to debate at the Seder.

The meaning of the Exodus, Jewish perceptions of freedom, the history of our Seder and the meaning of its many components – sure, let’s debate these, talk about them, and enrich our Seder with knowledge and anecdotes and storytelling. But Trump? Netanyahu? Occupation? Nuances of contemporary immigration law? Why waste such a special evening on those?


Let’s be somewhat blunt. For too many Jews the insertion of politics into the Seder is a way to overcome a Jewish void – having a limited Jewish vocabulary, they turn to the one topic on which everybody seems to know something and have something to say. This is becoming typical of Seders and of other Jewish occasions. And it is a cheap solution to a real problem of lack of Jewish literacy.

Here’s one suggestion: instead of talking about politics, use the Seder to deepen one’s Jewish literacy. That’s the lesson we can learn from the Haggadah: “even if we were all wise, all understanding, all experienced, all versed in the Torah, we would still be commanded to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt.”

Chag Sameach.


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