Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the National Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and also leads Boston Jewish Spirit, a progressive Reform congregation in Boston, Mass., with a special outreach to interfaith families.
Passover: Classical Reform Perspectives
April 6, 2011
Passover: A Festival of Freedom, Liberation and Renewal of Our Faith
Rabbi Nadia Siritsky
Occasionally, someone will say to me, "Rabbi, I am not very observant." Often, it is by very active members of the Jewish community. I remember last year, I met someone who pulled out his ham and cheese sandwich on matzah, and began to apologize to me for not being observant, even as the matzah crumbs were falling, and he continued discussing his plan to try and save the Jewish nursing home that had been in the community for years.
While this incident may reflect a particularly startling example of symbolic counterpoint, and even irony, I feel both angry and sad when faced with this kind of devaluation of self. I feel sad that someone who is clearly making a decision to observe those aspects of Torah that feel meaningful and inspiring has somehow been made to feel guilty for being non-Orthodox. And I am constantly frustrated at the ways in which the liberal voice had been supplanted by one that has become so dogmatic and judgmental.
The truth is, as Reform Jews, we know that there are many different ways of meaningfully observing Jewish traditions — especially one like Passover. While one may choose to eat matzah, as a symbolic way of remembering the Exodus and paying homage to the fight for freedom that remains ever relevant in our own day, one may also choose to eat meat and milk together as a statement that the more restrictive details of the kosher dietary laws are no longer meaningful or binding. Or, perhaps, that one wishes not to exclude one's self from one's neighbor, and that such archaic dietary prohibitions were intended to keep the Jewish community from being exposed to potentially subversive non-Jewish ideas. Thus, one might choose to eat non-kosher food as a way of expressing one's faith that we can be enriched by our relationships with people of all faiths. Reform Judaism is not a specific set of ritual behaviors, but rather a commitment to take our faith seriously, to learn and make thoughtful decisions about which practices help us to live moral and ethical lives, informed by God's ongoing revelation.
While Reform Judaism is about far more than what we eat, food often functions as a barometer of sorts for religious observance. Never is this more evident than at Passover. The tenets of Classical Reform Judaism are particularly relevant at this season, because they highlight the ways in which an emphasis on ritual and legalistic Judaism can eclipse the very spirit of the holiday we are attempting to celebrate! Forbidden food, forbidden dishes, it hardly seems like a festival of freedom. And yet, everywhere we turn, we see highly priced food products marketed to the Jewish community, as a presumably normative observance of the holiday.
The Haggadah that we read at the Passover seder instructs: "In every generation, each person is commanded to understand the ways in which they personally were liberated from Egypt". The word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which literally means the narrow and confining spaces. In our generation, we see that far too often: our religious practices have become narrow and restrictive, sacrificing spirit for form. Looking around at much of Jewish practice today, we see that much of our heritage and observance have been highjacked by the most traditionalist voices in our community, and we have allowed the authentic diversity of interpretation to be overshadowed by the use of such conventional labels as "not really Jewish" or "Jewish-lite." This hands power to the right-wing positions on the broad spectrum of Jewish observance and validates a standard of "religiosity" that we do not accept.
What standard is it that we wholeheartedly accept in our understanding of a faithful commitment to our Jewish heritage? We can borrow a lesson from Isaiah, the great teacher of the rich prophetic tradition of which we, Classical Reform Jews, are the heirs. Let us paraphrase his immortal words and ask: Is this the feast that God has commanded us to observe? To burn bread and pay three times as much for food because an Orthodox rabbi supervised it? It seems to me that such waste is a travesty; to call it observance of God's Torah, a sacrilege. And, so, as part of our observance of the Passover holiday, let us, as committed Reform Jews, say instead: Is not this the feast that God has commanded for us: to share of our bread, and indeed all our food, with those in need? To open the door and proclaim earnestly: let all who are hungry come and eat!
I believe that when we allow other people to define us, and fail to recognize the spiritual tenets of our own choices and behaviors, then our faith is impoverished. We have an obligation, no less than our biblical ancestors, to rise up, speak truth to power, and reclaim our faith traditions, proudly affirming the sacred tenets undergirding our choices and observances.
The biblical account for the Israelites' descent into slavery, and often idolatry, depicts a slow and gradual process. They did not recognize it in the moment, and it was sanctioned by those in power until, ultimately, it became their own undoing, because they lost the essence of their faith. Their faith was flattened, like matzah. Easy to make, easy to break. We too have watched our own faith traditions become two-dimensional, with an overemphasis on the acquisition of Hebrew skills and mitzvot, at the expense of the deeper process of building communities of faith that wrestle with their calling to become a light unto the nations.
This is the vision of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Rather than focusing our religious lives on the "proper" observance of rituals and restrictions, and setting up exclusionary boundaries of faith, we offer an opportunity to learn about the rich and dynamic heritage that can revitalize our communities.
Let this Passover season renew our own vision for a Judaism liberated from the confines of shame and dogma, laws and rituals. Let us work together to reclaim our faith, reemphasizing the prophetic ideals of social justice and enlightenment of which we are heirs, and that are at the heart of our religious tradition.
Thoughts on Classical Reform Practice for Passover
Rabbi Howard A. Berman
I have always taught and preached that beyond the seder, "keeping Passover" from a Classical Reform perspective does indeed include the eating of matzah as well as abstinence from leavened bread and — and, gastronomically at least — no more than this basic Biblical guideline in terms of "requirements." I believe that this symbolism is very compelling. It is completely separate from the rest of the totally optional dietary laws of kashrut, which, of course, emerged far later in Jewish history, and have a completely different focus. The matzah: no bread issue is, I feel, directly related to the concept of using all our senses to "retell, relive and reaffirm" the Exodus experience personally "in every generation," making the ancient story and its timeless meaning come vividly alive for us. This is where the week-long (seven days only, of course) consciousness of the festival's ethical and spiritual message can be made meaningful: as the taste and even the sound of the matzah, at home and in the workplace, become a constant reminder of the affliction of slavery and the holiness of liberation. This applies primarily to the matzah/bread symbolism and does not embrace the other traditionalist elements of holiday observance, such as separate dishes and "Kosher for Passover" designations.
This aspect of the tradition has been, to my knowledge, one of those constants that the Classical Reform tradition has upheld throughout our Movement's history, perceiving in it a level of sanctity and meaning that rises above most other traditional rituals.
Temple worship on the festival days has also been an important part of historic Classical Reform practice. In American Reform, the first and seventh days of Passover traditionally included very important, well attended services. Every congregation should make some effort to add the dimension of communal worship for Passover to the family-focused seder experience. And of course the addition of the Yizkor Service on the seventh day has important meaning, in acknowledging the personal memories that are so much a part of our holiday experience. It is also significant that the Reform musical tradition includes glorious music for these festival morning services.
While the broad, universal, ethical ideals of this Festival of Freedom must be the primary focus of any of its ceremonial observances, the authentic intention of the seder and the symbolism of matzah have always been conceived to highlight these very values, and have consequently been cherished by all Jews, of whatever liturgical persuasion.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "remembrance," a memorial prayer service. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.