Thinking about Kansas City at the Seder Table

Our Seder Table

Yesterday, as we were putting the final touches on our seder menu, a violent and horrible tragedy occurred at not one but two centers of the Jewish community in Kansas City. Today is a mournful day for those lost, and not necessarily a day of answers or political rhetoric.  But it is the day of our first Seder, and it is impossible not to think about how this impacts our celebration of freedom.  So here is my humble attempt to acknowledge the weight of this crime on this most important of days.

 

The most important thing to say is that I mourn for the three innocent victims of this senseless shooting.  My heart goes out to their loved ones as they try to face this new and bitter day.  I grieve for all of the people in Kansas City who witnessed this evil; especially the parents whose children have now witnessed the worst of human behavior firsthand, and who I imagine have been forever changed.  I quiver a little bit more knowing that the place where these events took place is very similar to the place where I work, as the randomness and horror feel that much closer to me.  I am deeply saddened, saddened as I am by every senseless act of violence, and saddened as a Jew, an American, and a human being.

 

It is premature to try to make meaning out of something so unthinkable, but I also feel like yesterday’s events cannot go unrecognized at my Seder table.  They bring a wave of solemnity, as I will be thinking about the people in Kansas City and elsewhere who have family members missing from their own tables because of violent and unexplainable crimes. They also demand a recognition of of good fortune, that we have one more day to celebrate life with those we love the most.  While we may be thinking of those we have lost, we must celebrate the joy of the present moment.  They remind us of the need to constantly strive for a better world, that the work is not over, and it will never be completed by a single generation.  On Passover, I am reminded that we are all members of the community of the human race, and that the price of our freedom is the responsibility of looking out for one another.  For today, that means sending a little bit of extra love to Kansas City, and a challenge to think even harder about what we might do tomorrow to repair the world.

Finding a Way to Embrace the Fifth Child

The five children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, one silent and one with interfaith parents.

The other day, I received an email from an organization that supports unaffiliated and intermarried Jews encouraging me to recognize the “fifth child” at my seder. Curious about who the “fifth child” was I opened the note.

The message highlighted how Passover has long been a holiday that pushes Jews to acknowledge critical Jewish and non-Jewish issues of the day. Using the haggadah story about the four children – the wise, wicked, simple, and silent, as a foundation, the email suggested that seder facilitators explore the questions and challenges faced by a fifth child – a child of intermarriage.

A discussion guide was included, but before I opened it, I felt myself grimace – something about the child from an interfaith home being labeled the “fifth child” made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew that the material was developed with the intention of making Judaism more welcoming and I assumed that the language was scrutinized to ensure that it wasn’t offensive or exclusionary. So, why was I bothered by it? What rubbed me the wrong way?

As I considered the language of the email, I realized that a part of my discomfort stemmed from the use of the term “fifth child.” It called to mind, the negative connotations sometimes associated with “step-child.” It felt that children like my son, who come from interfaith homes, were being labeled as “other,” outsiders, not part of the larger Jewish family.

But, I didn’t want to dismiss the material based on my initial reaction, so I put aside my feelings and continued reading. After an overview of the number of Jewish children being raised in interfaith homes, the guide suggested that leaders ask seder participants, “What does the child of intermarriage ask?” The child of intermarriage asks, “What is my place in all this?”

I thought, Sammy and the other children of intermarriage in my circle would never ask this question.

I knew that they wouldn’t ask it because they already believed that the Passover story was their story. They didn’t question their place among the Jewish people. They were all raised, from birth, in single-faith Jewish homes, in a supportive temple community. They all attended Jewish preschool, and now participate in religious education and youth activities. They were sure of their Jewish identity in part because of the commitment to creating a Jewish family made by their not Jewish mom or dad.

Suggesting to these children, who come from Jewishly engaged interfaith families, that they might not have been a part of one of the defining moments in Jewish history, would be inappropriate and confusing. It would cause them to question what they see as their place among the Jewish people.

As I read further, I saw that one of the goals of the piece was to reassure children of intermarriage who were uncertain of or insecure about their Jewishness, that they, like all Jews regardless of age, background, upbringing, or parentage, had a place in the Exodus. When I realized this, I understood that this discussion was not intended for children like my son, who feel wholly Jewish and have strong Jewish identities.

Still, what I didn’t like about the content was that it reminded me that many Jews still considered a child like mine to be outside of the Jewish community. The supplement touched a sore spot that I assumed, because of our high level of Jewish engagement, no longer hurt. I thought that after a dozen years of living an interfaith and Jewish life, that I had developed a callus. Apparently, my religious skin is not as thick as I thought.

But, after considering the information some more, I found the supplement’s value. I saw how it could encourage thoughtful and constructive dialogue about interfaith relationships, and how it could start a conversation about the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in communal forums such as committee meetings and outreach workshops, and at holiday tables with participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds, affiliations, and observance levels. I saw how, if used in the right setting, it could produce robust discourse.

One of the things that helped to change my feelings was an article I found on Chabad.org explaining the four children. Included in the essay, was the concept of a fifth child. It quoted the denomination’s former leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who said 37 years ago, that there was “another kind of a Jewish child,” one who was absent from the seder, not interested or not aware of the Exodus or Torah. Schneerson went on to state that this child presented the biggest challenge to the Jewish community but that regardless of how difficult it was, every effort should be made to bring the absentee child to the seder table because “no Jewish child should be forgotten” or “given up” on.

The Rebbe, as he was known to his followers, makes a valid point, one that may be even more valid today given the number of unaffiliated, “Just Jewish,” or non-traditional – interfaith, LGBTQ, multicultural – Jews. Yet, sadly, there are some who want to forget or give-up on Jewishly different children, especially those from interfaith homes.

What the fifth child is really about is welcoming the stranger (see Jessie Boatright’s recent blog), and making a place for part-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, or Jewishly unengaged interfaith children at seder tables in order to encourage them and their families to explore Judaism or live a more Jewish life. That is a message I can embrace. The haggadah supplement isn’t the right fit for my Passover guests, but I’m no longer bothered by it.

The Lord of the Rings’ Passover Connection

The third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy triggered a discussion about Pharaoh and Passover.

My son Sammy and I have a tradition – we read a novel together on the weeknights during dinner. Usually, the book has themes or ideas that are targeted to a child several years older than Sammy, making it helpful to have an adult with whom to discuss the book. Over the years, we have read the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit to name a few.

The other night, we were nearing the end of The Return of the King, the last book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had reached the part when the primary protagonist, the hobbit Frodo Baggins, returns to his homeland, the Shire, after succeeding in his quest to destroy the One Ring of power. He finds that the area has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman who was defeated during the War of the Ring by Frodo’s companions.

In an act of revenge, Saruman enslaves and oppresses the hobbits and moves to destroy the natural beauty of the countryside. When Frodo discovers what he has done, he confronts him and orders him to leave the shire forever. But the other hobbits want Saruman to be killed for the murderous and villainous acts he has committed. Frodo will not allow it, saying, “I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way.”

As Saruman leaves, he passes Frodo and stabs him with a knife. Frodo is wearing an armored coat, so the knife breaks. Even though Frodo is unharmed, a group of hobbits lurches forward trying to kill Saruman, but Frodo stops them. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

As I read this section, Sammy interrupted. “I can’t believe he didn’t kill Saruman!”

“Do you think he should have killed him?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, and paused to think about his answer.

“Consider the situation in the context of Passover, which we’re about to celebrate,” I said. “Do you think drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea changed Pharaoh’s evil ways?”

“Probably not,” Sammy said. “Killing all of the firstborns didn’t either and it also punished innocent Egyptians.”

“You’re right. As we think about the plagues and fate of the Egyptians at the sea, we have to ask, does one crime justify another? Frodo doesn’t think so, he says it’s useless and doesn’t heal anything. His language suggests that he believes it just perpetuates anger and hate.”

“I think Frodo was right to show mercy to Saruman because I think if the hobbits killed him, then Saruman would have been allowed to escape from his crimes,” Sammy said. “By letting him go he has to live without the power he once had and with the knowledge of what he has done. This is, in a way, a punishment too.”

“I agree, and I think Frodo and Saruman recognize this also.”

“How so?” Sammy asked.

In answer to his question, I read the next section.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!’

“Saruman is like Pharaoh in that his heart is so hardened that he has lost all ability to change, and, therefore, any chance at ever really being free. Sometimes making someone carry the burden of their wrongful actions is the harshest punishment,” I said.

After dinner, I could tell that Sammy was still considering our discussion, and I suspect that he will continue to think about it over the next few weeks as we celebrate the holiday. The convergence of epic high fantasy and Torah has made the issues and questions raised in the Passover story more relevant to his 9-year-old world. That is a good thing. Because the more he sees how his everyday secular life intersects with his Jewish life, the more salient Judaism and his connection to it will be.

I did not plan to link the fictional narrative created by Tolkien to Passover or Judaism. It just happened. The key to making these kinds of Jewish connections is in recognizing and being open to these opportunities, and then seizing them when they present themselves.