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Editing Out Elements of Judaism Doesn’t Work

Instead of masking our ambivalence and discomfort, we should confront it

Alana Newhouse
March 14, 2014
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Years ago, I attended a Passover seder hosted by a wonderful woman. As we prepared the table, my hostess took a stack of progressive haggadot out of a box and started laying them out at people’s settings. Suddenly, she started, and asked: “Which hagaddah do you use?” At first, I thought she was nervous about her own choice, and told her I had no qualms using whatever haggadah she and her family preferred. But she persisted. “Of course, of course. What I mean is, which one do you like the best? Which would you use if it were your house?”

I told her that, perhaps because I was raised in an Orthodox home, I was—and might always be—most comfortable with a traditional haggadah. She nodded, and explained that, unlike me, she felt moved to use a modernized version for a specific reason. I expected her to say that the traditional text didn’t speak to her in some way, or that she felt it was somehow inaccessible—complaints I had heard before, and which seemed perfectly logical. Instead, she admitted that she actually loved the traditional text, but that she was married to a non-Jewish man and had non-Jewish stepchildren, and couldn’t imagine reading passages about how Jews were the chosen people in front of these people—her family.

Her problem wasn’t religious, per se, or even political. It was emotional.

I thought about it the whole time we were setting the table. As my hostess put on the final touches, I broached the subject again. Those conversations—challenging, sometimes uncomfortable—were the basis of the Seder as I understood it, I explained. At their best, rituals like this one offer us the opportunity to ask ourselves what we believe, to play with the possibilities, and to state our answers—or our ambivalence—in front of the people who fill our lives. In her case, the idea that some Jews believe themselves to be chosen couldn’t possibly be foreign to her husband and stepchildren. The real revelation for them, I ventured, might be hearing those passages read aloud and then hearing their wife and stepmother assert emphatically that she didn’t believe in them—and why. Instead, by using a haggadah that had simply excised those sections, my hostess was leeching the experience of its most challenging—and thus most potentially rewarding—parts.

I thought about this story when I read Batya Ungar-Sargon’s latest post, which reported that some ultra-Orthodox Jews have the same editing impulse as my intermarried, self-identified “secular” hostess. Insecurity, I suppose, is universal.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.

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