Danielle Stillman is a second year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the rabbinic intern at Faithways: Interfaith Family Support Network at Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Philadelphia. She has a Master's in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied South Asian religions, with a particular focus on pilgrimage traditions.
Sharing Passover with Guests of Any Religion
In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.
--From The Family Participation Haggadah, A Different Night
On Passover we don't merely retell the story of the escape of the Israelite slaves from Egypt--we also attempt to reexperience it. During the seder (ritual meal) we reenact the story through ritual actions during the meal. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to experience the haste with which the Jews fled from Egypt--with no time to even let the bread rise. We dip parsley into salt water to taste the salty tears the Jews shed at the pain of their slavery. We eat haroset (a mixture of fruit and nuts which resembles mortar for building) and horseradish to experience how difficult, heavy and bitter the work and life of a slave was. We even recline on pillows at the table, in the manner of free Greek men, to remind ourselves that now, today, we are free. Throughout all this symbolic eating, we are recounting the story of Passover in a way that gets us involved. The goal is for all participants in the seder to try to feel as if they themselves had gone out of Egypt--and had crossed the sea from slavery to freedom.
Many other religions have some ritual, holiday, or occasion where sacred stories are more than shared and repeated, but reenacted in a ritual sense.
In Hinduism, the sacred story of the Ramayana--of Sita's kidnapping by the demon Ravana and of Rama and Hanuman saving her from him--is retold and reenacted in many forms, from shadow puppets to televised performances. Each of these retellings is taken seriously as a religious event--garlands of flowers adorn a television when the Ramayana story is performed on it.
In Islam, part of the ritual of the Hajj--the great pilgrimage to Mecca which each Muslim strives to complete once in their lives--is to relive the story of Hagar and Ishmael (a story that is shared by Jews in the Hebrew Bible and Muslims in the Koran). Hagar is cast out into the desert by Sarah and Abraham, and must search for water for her son Ishmael. The pilgrim to Mecca reenacts this story by running back and forth between two hills near the Ka'ba (the central point of the pilgrimage) to empathize with Hagar's desperate search for water. The water that is in the courtyard of the Ka'ba, the Well of Zamzam, represents the well that God reveals to Hagar in the desert when she needs it.
Christianity has the Passion play--the reenactment of the story of Jesus' life and death. There is also the walking of the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, an attempt to relive the last days of Jesus' life before his crucifixion.
In some schools of Buddhism there are meditations where one visualizes oneself as a certain deity in order to better understand the primary emotion that the deity represents.
Suggestions for Involving Non-Jewish Guests in the Seder
As we celebrate Passover with our friends and loved ones who are not Jewish, we can invite our seder guests to bring readings from their own traditions on the themes of freedom and enslavement--whether physical or mental. We can also ask them (and all seder participants) to reflect on what enslaves them in their own lives, and what gives them a feeling of freedom--to help them understand the themes of Passover on a more metaphorical level. And we can have our guests share their own religions' story-telling traditions, and the rituals that may have grown out of them.
Happy Passover and happy sharing this experience with your friends and loved ones of all religions.
Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.