The Four Questions Meet the Four Noble Truths

By Louise Crawford

March 2007


Review of Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists by Elizabeth Pearce-Glassheim (Modern Haggadah Distribution, 2006).

Even though I grew up in an agnostic Jewish family, the Passover seder was an important event every year.

Passover was the only Jewish holiday we ever celebrated. We rarely went to synagogue and didn’t even light Hanukkah candles. We actually celebrated Christmas although both of my parents were Jewish.

Privately, I had intermittent longings to be more Jewish than we were. I tried to fast on Yom Kippur–though I was rarely able to make it through the whole day. I wanted to eat only matzah during the eight days of Passover–but it was hard to resist the French toast my mother prepared for breakfast in the morning.

I have early memories of sitting with my mother’s extended family at the large modern dining room table in our Manhattan apartment listening to my grandfather read from a Maxwell House haggadah.

Less than 6 years old, I remember being bored and wildly hungry as he read. But I could tell that something important was going on because my normally gentle grandfather adopted a dramatic tone that conveyed reverence and gravity.

This night really was different from all other nights.

Over the years the story of the Jew’s exodus from Egypt, their journey from slavery to freedom, became my story. It was both familiar and strange and something I looked forward to hearing again and again.

When I became an adult I learned that there were as many styles of Passover seders as there are Jews.

In college, I attended lefty Jewish seders with a group of self-styled anarchists, socialist Zionists, and atheists, who emphasized the struggles of all people to be free.

Later, I became obsessed with the Holocaust and attended a seder that incorporated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the words of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

During a year-long sojourn in Israel, I celebrated a secular Passover on a kibbutz with hundreds of other people.

When I was a 20-something, my family Passover seders stopped. My parents divorced, my grandparents were dead and my cousins were grown up and developing new traditions with their new families.

Then I intermarried a WASP-y guy from northern California, a lapsed Presbyterian brought up by a mother who describes herself as an animist. After our kids were born, he was open to as much Judaism as I wanted to give them–he finds the whole thing to be an interesting adventure. I knew I wanted our seder to be as important to my children as it was to me.

Needless to say, it was up to me to “produce” the family’s seder. Whether we were having family, friends, or just ourselves, I always led the seder and selected the haggadah we were going to use. For many years we used The Four Questions, a children’s book written by novelist Lynn Sharon Schwartz that was just right for two growing children. We let them nibble on matzah while we read.

While our seders are a little offbeat, they do hover closely to certain traditions.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists. While Buddhist meditation practice is very important to me, I am not all that adventurous when it comes to Passover.

That’s because Passover is my one big Jewish moment. While we do celebrate Hanukkah and acknowledge the New Year and Yom Kippur, it is Passover–from buying the matzah, gefilte fish, and sweet Kosher wine, chopping apples for the charoset, roasting the brisket, setting the table with our best plates and silver and the seder itself–when I attempt to instill a modicum of Jewish tradition in my children.

But as I read through the Jewish/Buddhist haggadah, an attempt to express the universal theme of Passover to traditional Jews, Buddhists and people of diverse spiritual leanings, my trepidation melted away and I found myself intrigued by the idea of trying something new.

Right from start, this haggadah, written by Elizabeth Pearce-Glassheim, speaks to the symbolic power of the holiday as it describes the enslavement of the Jews and their journey to freedom as a metaphor for consciousness and our own striving for release from attachment and toward spiritual growth.

Whoa. The age of the new-age seder has really arrived.

While this haggadah is structurally the same as Reform-style seders and includes all the familiar sections, it’s the language and interpretation that makes all the difference.

“Passover embodies our desire to connect with all facets of our lives, to remember that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, and to help us to remember all the ways that we enslave ourselves when we are not deciding with our right mind and when we lapse into automatic, familiar thought patterns.”

I can just hear my father: “Where did you find this meshuganah haggadah?”

And then, “We enslave ourselves when we remain in the Mitzayrim (the narrow place) of confusion and disconnection with our own and others’ essential nature.”

“What is this: Passover or therapy?” I can hear my sister saying.

I jumped ahead to the Four Questions, probably the most important part of the seder for the way that it perpetuates the Jewish tradition of questions and dialogue.

In this section, the authors speaks directly to the traditionalist, the humanist or secular Jew, the Buddhist, and non-Jewish friends, a thought-provoking attempt to explain the universal meanings of Passover to a diverse group of people.

As I read it, I recognized that my Buddhist self has everything to do with my secular Judaism.

I was introduced to meditation by a Jewish friend and found it to be my first real experience of a divine power. It offered me access to the universe, to God, to “whatever,” that I never felt in a synagogue.

And yet, my experience with Buddhist meditation helped me understand the meaning of prayer and reflection for Jews and others.

Practicing Buddhist meditation has not made me feel any less Jewish or any less capable of passing on Jewish history and my brand of secular Judaism to my children.

Now the really big question: Do I want to integrate these two traditions and conduct a Jewish/Buddhist seder?

I think it’s worth a try. If I can communicate Passover’s message of freedom while conveying my interest in self-discovery and spiritual growth to my children, I say why not?

Whatever happens, it should, at the very least, provoke a great conversation over our gefilte fish.



About Louise Crawford

Louise Crawford, a Park Slope, Brooklyn, mom, writes the column Smartmom for The Brooklyn Papers and also operates Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. As a freelance writer, she writes and edits a monthly newsletter for the Counseling Unit of the FDNY for family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. She is at work on a novel called Crossing the River about a serial subletter.