Why do we sit at a Passover seder? Why do we read the haggadah? Toward the end of my book, “The Jews: 7 Frequently Asked Questions” (not yet available in English), I presented this question in a general way and asked, Why be Jewish at all?
There is not one answer to this question, I wrote: “There are Jews by virtue of emotion, and Jews by virtue of reason. There are Jews who conduct an effortful investigation into questions of identity, and Jews whose identity is effortless, natural and uncomplicated. And there are Jews who make do with faith — and those who also need a mission.”
I recently asked a similar question for a study I’m working on for The Jewish People Policy Institute, called the “Israeli-Judaism Project.” The study aims to investigate the fine details of Israel’s Judaism — the practices and the beliefs, the dwindling habits and surging trends, the innovations and rigid traditions. My partner on the project is Prof. Camil Fuchs, Israel’s leading pollster, and together we are attempting to crack the code of this unique and very young cultural phenomenon. Compared to the 3,000 years of Judaism, the 70-year-old Israeli-Judaism is almost in its infancy.
So, we asked the Jews of Israel: Why do you keep traditions such as the seder or Yom Kippur? Most Jewish Israelis responded that they do, indeed, keep such traditions. A mere 4 percent of the respondents to our vast survey said they don’t. The other 96 percent of Jewish Israelis who participated in the survey were divided between selecting “the commandment of the Torah” as the defining factor (28 percent); those choosing a societal reason, “This is what the people around me do” (6 percent), and the vast majority whose tradition is based on cultural reasons (24 percent) and historical awareness, whether the emphasis is family history (18 percent) or the history of their people (21 percent).
Secular Israelis are the exception; a large majority of them do not read the haggadah all the way through.
For more religious Israelis, Torah is the reason to have a seder; the social reason is somewhat important only among “totally secular” Israelis (16 percent). This highly secular group (31 percent of Jewish Israelis) is also the only group of which a somewhat significant number (15 percent) “do not keep” traditions. And it is also the only group for which the reading of the haggadah ends when the meal begins.
We also asked Israelis if they read the haggadah in its entirety, including the parts after the meal, or just a part of it (see the graph on the right). Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis told us they read the haggadah in full — a sign of Israelis’ strong inclination to have a traditional seder, to stick with the script they heard as children in their grandparents’ houses. Secular Israelis are the exception; a large majority of them (78 percent) do not read the haggadah all the way through. I do not have parallel findings on American Jews, but we do have data that can give us a hint of where we are as we compare these two communities. According to the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans, 70 percent of U.S. Jewry participated in a Passover seder “last year.” In our JPPI study, we found that 97 percent of Israeli Jews responded “yes” to the question: “Do you host or participate in a Passover seder?”
Numbers can make your eyes glaze over, but they always tell a story. In this case, it is a story of people for whom the Pesach seder is still a central feature of their tradition — almost all Israeli Jews attend a seder. It is also a story of people who have many reasons to keep this tradition, but whose members maintain their own ways of observing it — that is, as they did among family and friends early in their life. And it is the story of people who read the haggadah because it is a wonderful text, they are used to it, it is easier than thinking about a substitute, or it just feels more authentic. I assume that for Israeli Jews this is because, among other things, they can read Hebrew and understand what the words of the haggadah mean, and can debate their meaning — another great Passover tradition.