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How to Run a Seder

The following is a transcript of Episode 133 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Sunday, April 2nd, 2023. 

So I wanna let you in on two secrets about the Passover Seder, which takes place later this week. The first is that I don’t think that the main theme of the Seder is the Exodus or the liberation from slavery. I mean, sure. It’s a very important plot point and the prompting event in our collective memory that we recall taking place around now, and for all the rituals that remind us of that story. 

But if you look at the liturgy for all the other major festivals, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, even Shabbat, we characterize all of them as zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim. All of them are cited as in memory of the Exodus from Egypt. And that makes sense because the Exodus is the birth of our consciousness as a people and of the intertwining of our collective identity as a people with a covenant from God, which is then celebrated at these festivals. All of the festivals mark time in the wilderness following the Exodus. It’s all one big long story. 

To be honest, we don’t even really tell the story of the Exodus at the Seder. We reference it, but there’s no linear or chronological accounting of the story. So no, I don’t think that the Seder, the first and primary ritual of Passover is about the Exodus. I think actually the main theme of the Seder is parenting, or if you prefer parents and children. After all, not all of us are parents, but all of us have been children to parents for at least some stretch of our lives.

The Seder collects and finds ways to reenact the four different occasions when the Bible, speaking about the Exodus, describes and commands us to tell the story to our children. That’s unusual relative to the other festivals or the other events in our history. And it describes and commands us to tell the story to our children, foregrounding that obligation as the main activity of the whole evening.

The industry of toys and games for the Seder, like little frogs for the plagues, the whole month of Jewish education so that kids can impress their grandparents by knowing the words of the songs, all that stuff is not a sideshow. In many ways, it’s the whole point of the evening. The big question I think at Passover is, will we witness continuity? Will our stories pass down to our children, and therefore, will it give us some sense that they’re gonna last for generational change? That’s secret number one. 

The second secret, though, is that the Haggadah, perhaps the bestselling Jewish book of all time, is not actually a book. It’s a script. Probably not meant to be followed precisely. You see, the Seder itself is very orderly. The word means order. But the Haggadah? Well, it has a narrative arc. It has stories of downtroddenness that lead to stories of triumph. 

But on top of that, it also has a lot of random things. It has stories about sages telling stories. It has interactive songs in the form of questions meant to prompt discussion. It has strange math games about the plagues. It has long readings in the Midrash about verses from the Bible. Parts of the Haggadah read like the Talmud, which is never meant to be simply recited like a liturgy, and other parts of the Haggadah read like it’s a collection of stuff accumulated over time like a potpourri or a hodgepodge.

The only part that I actually think is essential to read as liturgy. This is just my personal opinion, but I got some stuff to back it up, is Raban Gamliel’s statement about the central objects of the Seder and what they represent. It encompasses the whole story of the Exodus and the main lesson of the Exodus in just a few lines. 

But the rest of it makes a lot more sense when we see it as a script rather than a book. It’s not that long after all. Most of our printed editions make the Haggadah seem long. Because they have long explanations and commentaries throughout, cause they have extended introductions about Passover and preparations and supplemental texts at the end. 

But most of it is just really a guide on how to stage a theatrical experience. Like wash your hands now, eat this, sing that. I think we’re, to borrow a phrase of the day, I think we’re meant to follow the Haggadah seriously, but not literally. And then to see what happens as a result. What indeed could happen in our households if we saw the Seder as a holiday of parents and children, of growing up, growing wise, and handing things over, and saw the Haggadah as a script for that performance?

I think about this a lot in the several weeks before Pesach, as the preparations begin in our house. We stop buying the kinds of foods that we won’t eat over Passover, and we start instead eating down the pantry. We make arrangements for who’s gonna sleep where as we constantly rearrange the refrigerator to make room. 

I feel acutely aware when we do all these things that my kids are watching, and part of the reason it’s become very important for Stephanie and me to host the Seders, and in particular, why we don’t love going away for Pesach is that feeling that we generate in our household, that our children feel something, and will always remember it. That tingling excitement of the whole thing, the staying up late running around the house, looking for the Afikomen. Silly rituals you’d never wanna do without. The ruckus singing at the end, if you manage to stay up till then. Memory is a wild thing and we have a holiday dedicated to generating it. That feels like a huge gift. 

I can’t think of anyone I’d prefer to spend this morning talking about Pesach, the Haggadah, memory, and storytelling than this morning’s guest, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Mishael Zion. Mishael, l I think it’s fair to say, grew up with the Haggadah. His father, my colleague at Hartman Noam Zion, published A Different Night: the Family Participation Haggadah, for the first time in 1997.

At the time in the book, Mishael is credited in the back as quote, our personal computer expert. The book has gone through many reprinting. I remember actually hearing a statistic that over a half a million copies of it were sold. In 2007, Noam and Mishael then put out a different version of the book called A Night to Remember: the Haggadah of Contemporary Voices.

And Mishael is also the co-author of Halaila Hazeh, an Israeli Haggadah. Mishael was the founding director of the Mandel Program for Leadership and Jewish Culture, where he currently serves as a faculty member dedicated to the leadership development of fellows and graduates in the field of culture, media, and community in Israel, and has built a career and a reputation as one of the most admired and beloved teachers across the Jewish world.

Mish, thanks for coming on the show. I wanna start here. This is a holiday of storytelling and as I said, you grew up with this holiday. So I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about the Seder, growing up in your home, as I suppose the Haggadah was being compiled, and any stories that linger for you about the kind of greatest hits, high points, or low points of your experience of the Seder as a child.

Mishael: Hi, Yehuda. It’s great to be here. As a longtime listener of Identity Crisis, it’s nice to be on the other side of the microphone, I guess. I think the, my most memorable moment of a Seder growing up is when we went into exile. You know, you only appreciate things when you don’t have them. And so Seder night was just obvious, I thought, in all families it was the biggest night of the year with people preparing and content and interesting guests of different religions and, and different Jewish perspectives sharing their stories. Isn’t that what everyone does on Seder night? 

And then ironically, the year before A Different Night came out, I think it was 96 or maybe 95, my father had put out like a paperback supplement, printed on Machon Hartman photocopying machines or something, and he distributed to all kinds of people. And that year for some reason, we went and had Seder with my cousins from the Dutch side of my family. And for the first time in my life, we experienced a standard Israeli, Dati Leumi, religious Zionist Seder.

And it was so boring. And they’re good people, don’t get me wrong. I love these cousins, but it was just, they read from the Haggadah like it was a siddur. Like it was a prayer book. And that basic element, exactly what you were speaking about in the introduction, that it is not a text to be recited, but it’s a screenplay, or I call it, it’s an instruction manual.

And suddenly to see people treat the Haggadah like a prayer book in which, like Yom Kippur, we need to read to the end so that we’re allowed to eat. And that basic element, only then did I understand how special it was, what my father had built, which he learned from his father before him Rabbi Moshe Sacks about making it really an experiential, fun event for everyone. So sometimes you need to go into exile in order to experience the promised land. 

Yehuda: So I wanna talk about, in a minute, about how you do that now for your kids, cause we’re talking four, five generations now of this holiday being really central in your family history. And by extension, the Jewish people’s history. What did that look like, the preparations? You obviously remember it being, not just the Seder itself being fun, but that also a lot of work went into it. 

So what did that look like in your Seder, and did it always work? Do you remember As a kid it always kind of worked. It had, it got the kind of magical feeling of ‘this is great’ while it’s happening.

Mishael: Well, first of all, let’s admit it didn’t always work. There were times when it was a mess. There were times when it was boring. There were times when the guests weren’t the right kind of guests or the tension between my parents as hosts of the Seder wasn’t cute, that sort of overflowed into other places as happens in all families. So, chas v’shalom, if we should imagine that other people’s seders are perfect, even people who write Haggadot have crummy seders. 

But I will say that two elements that still to this day, I just said this morning when I was teaching, and I’ll say tonight when I’m teaching another class towards Seder, that my father always did was, give your guests task. No one should come to the Seder thinking they should only bring a bottle of wine, or a kind of charoset. Everyone should be coming to the Seder, and a few days before Seder they should be getting an email or a message saying, here are the guests for our Seder, please prepare something that’s relevant.

I think one of the things I learned from my father that was so meaningful was, especially people who aren’t, we call it today professional Jews, right? Ask them to connect their profession to one of the themes of Seder night. So if someone is a teacher, then they should talk about what it means to teach the next generation a story. And you know, in this day and age with, with TikTok and, and the sense of the technological gap we have between parents and children asking teachers to talk about that gap, I think is really interesting on Seder night, right? 

Or if someone is a therapist, oh, what a great opportunity to talk about the four children and to talk about how parents and children misunderstand each other. Or if someone is a tax lawyer, right? Then talk about, how does that play out? And people come up with the most inspiring and, and surprising connections. And then they’re also talking from their expertise and they’re not feeling like they’re coming to seder night to hear someone else be the expert, but they themselves are the expert in it. 

Ad so I also remember times in which I really didn’t feel like doing the tasks that Seder night created. I’ll also say that one of the things that my father did early on is that he tasked us with leading the Seder. So I think from the year 2000, definitely 2001, it was my sisters and I who were leading the Seder. And that wasn’t always easy. I remember vividly, I think it was 2002, but I might be wrong, it might be 2003, when the terrorist attack in the Park Hotel in Netanya took place, I think was the first time I was tasked with leading the Seder. 

And in the middle of the Seder, my uncle, who’s from near Tel Aviv, he doesn’t keep Shabbat, and he corners me. I, I had gone to the bathroom in the middle of the Seder and he corners me right outside the bathroom. And he says, Mish, there was a terrorist attack in Netanya. Should I tell people or not? And I had this moment where, you know, I had to decide, I was 20-something at the time, I was serving in the Army. And just that, do we tell people in the middle of the seder that this horrific attack had happened in the middle of a hotel celebrating the seder themselves or not? 

And I, I told my uncle Bentzi, yeah, I think you should, you should tell people if you already know, you know, we might as well all be in it, but just wait until we get to a certain point. I forget which point it was. But even that sense of responsibility from an early age, that even the Passover expert like my father had asked us the next generation to be the ones who were holding the space. I think that was very effective as a young person.

Yehuda: I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about leadership as it relates to the Seder. On one hand, there’s something about Pesach and the ritual of Pesach that’s supposed to be a fundamentally egalitarian thing, right? Unlike a lot of other holiday obligations, the Torah even uses the phrase “Seh l’bayit,” “like a lamb for a household,” and the whole thing is meant as, like your family’s sitting around and everybody’s got to eat this thing and tell stories. There’s something surprisingly egalitarian about the whole thing. 

On the other hand, what I discerned from what you said about your father, and then you, it does seem as though, and I’ve learned this myself, if nobody’s actually in charge of the Seder, it’s not gonna be what it’s supposed to be. And I’m curious about that tension between like alleged structured experience and an egalitarian experience. And also just, I egalitarianism also plays out in our households in other ways, both of us run households that we share with our partners as opposed to what I remember being my grandparents Seder of like, my grandfather was in charge of the Seder and my grandmother did the cooking.

So how does that play out? Like what does it mean to both lead something and also share the responsibility of leading it?

Mishael: Well, I think you point out a few important things here. Shay Zarchi, who also teaches at the Hartman Institute in the Israeli rabbinical, Beit Midrash points out that, you know, when Seder comes around and we’ve lost the, the patriarch, the grandfather, or the matriarch who maybe led the Seder, we’re incredibly sad. 

I think around Covid a lot of people felt this, when suddenly they realized they have to lead the Seder. They can’t count on their uncle or their father or the grandfather to lead it. And as you say, suddenly leadership fell to the nuclear family. And Shay says, you know, we miss the Seder, the way our grandfather led it, and we won’t be able to recreate it the way Zaidy did it.

But at the same time, we also feel a sense of freedom that we can, maybe we can lead it ourselves, we can do it differently. And that that in fact is I think the moment that the Passover Seder is trying to capture, right? How do I pass on what happened in the past that I recall so vividly, and how do I make it relevant for the next generation?

I think a lot of this falls on the rabbinic decision that I’m most thankful for, that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, they made the decision that Seder night happens at home. And it’s actually quite counterintuitive. I mean, if you think about Passover night and Yom Kippur were two holidays where the temple was at the center. And during the time of the temple, you didn’t do Passover at home. Passover you did in Jerusalem. And so it made a lot of sense that after the temple was destroyed, that Passover would take place, in the same way that Yom Kippur takes place, the shul, the synagogue, replaces the Beit Haknesset, replaces the Beit Hamikdash.

Thank God we don’t do Seder night in synagogue. And that’s not, I know some people do communal seders at synagogues or at Hillels, and that’s great, as a backup. But initially the rabbis decided that Seder night has to revert from the Beit Hamikdash, as you say, to the bayit, “seh l’bayit,” which is what we did during the Exodus itself.

We weren’t all congregated in the Goshen JCC, right? We were all in our own homes, kind of nervous, pretty afraid, and meeting up with our nuclear families and with all the complexity that that probably require then and requires today. And what that does is it makes the parents the leaders. 

I always say this on Seder night. There’s no rabbi, there’s no expert outside the family. There’s no school principal, Hillel director, you know, or any pundits on TV or any one of the other people we expect to lead us out of Egypt for us. But it’s really up to every family to do it. I’ve been encouraging people this year to retell their stories about Covid Seders because now that we can safely recreate our extended family seders, I don’t want us to lose what we learned from those nuclear family seders that were not simple in all kinds of situations, and single people definitely had a harder time, but for those who had that experience of suddenly a nuclear family where, for the first time they had to lead the Seder, I think that was a very powerful moment. And it’s a moment of leadership, as you say.

Yehuda: I’m curious how, um, how you approach this. So, apparently you’ve been doing this for a long time with your parents’ permission to take it over. Sometimes that happens as you alluded to, not with intention, just that one generation can’t do it anymore, or one generation disappears and then suddenly you’re left holding the bag. Your parents handed this over to you more explicitly, and I know that they handed it over to you explicitly this year, in particular.

What do you feel that you bring when you do this Seder, and how you think about your kids that is consciously or explicitly different from the Seder as you experienced it or you inherited it?

Mishael: You know, that question gives me pause because I think in many ways I’m different from my father, even if we continue and do the same profession and work in the same world in so many ways. But I think Seder night, I probably make my kids cringe the same way I cringed when my father did things in different ways.

I will say that I think we’ve honed a bit more what it means to fulfill what the Mishna teaches us about Seder night, “lefi da’ato shel ben, aviv milamdo.” According to the interests of the children, that’s how the parents need to teach. And that basic kind of marketing tool has allowed us to say every year when we sit down to plan the Seder, we say, okay, who is our audience this year? Who’s our target market? And we try to locate it, not just as far as, you know, it’s the kids this year or it’s the adults, or it’s the older generation, but really focus it. 

For example, there was one year, with my wife’s grandfather and it was clear this is our opportunity to have Seder with her grandfather. He’s the target audience. We’re gonna ask him to lead a Seder like he did in Hungary in the forties. And that was the target. And if we’re gonna be bored, that’s fine, but we want to have that Seder.

And in other years it was like, clear we have five-year-olds and six-year olds and all the young adults are gonna have to suffer through a totally kid-oriented Seder and it’s gonna be a total mess. And that’s okay because it’s gonna be what the five year old and six year olds have.

This year, baruch hashem, we have a lot of teenagers at the Seder. And so we decided that, you know, my six-year-old is not gonna be the focus and my 16-year-old and her 14-year-old sister and cousins, they’re gonna be the focus. And we’re in trying to make it as much of a teenage-oriented element, which by the way, means that they’re also expected to organize and do some of the work and, and host and they don’t know this yet, but we’re recording this on Sunday, so we only have a few more hours to tell them that they’re in charge. But that’s definitely the focus. 

I will say one more thing, which is I think that when my father created A Different Night in 1997, I was in high school. And a few years later when I was in the army, I started working on an Israeli version together with him, which you mentioned before, Halaila Hazeh: Haggadah Yisraelit. And one of the big differences that we created in the Israeli Haggadah is a lot more focus on the traditions of Edot Hamizrach, which in America are 10% of American Jews, but in Israel are 50% of Israeli Jews. And their traditions and their customs are a huge part of the Israeli Seder night. And just bringing in those energies, those customs, those stories, has been really meaningful in different ways.

And I think there’s kind of a whole different relationship to the body that we have, that developed in Jewish cultures in Muslim lands, that developed differently than Jewish cultures in Christian lands. And so we try to bring that in many ways as well to the Seder night.

Yehuda: That’s really powerful, especially because one of the paradoxes of sorts of Pesach is that by virtue of doing our seders in our own households, which you spoke about earlier, that atomizes our experience of Jewish peoplehood to just us. It’s just us. It has the risk of detaching us from the notion of collectivity.

You have to imagine all of the Jewish people at the same time are doing this in their own household. So Peoplehood becomes an imaginary exercise. Yom Kippur is a little easier to feel that you’re part of the Jewish people because you’re together with the 200 people at your synagogue or more. 

But we have a structure that kind of pulls us away from that and when it comes to Seder, because the Jewish people are so different in our customs, our practices, what we eat and don’t eat, how we sing, what we sing, et cetera, it can give us the illusion that the Jewish people, it is a kind of mirror image of ourselves, that we are a microcosm with the Jewish people. And so what you’re kind of inviting or suggesting, is that part of our internal domestic Seder is to create something exotic that actually helps us feel or approximate what the Jewish people actually are.

Mishael: Right. I mean, I think that in some ways, the family on Seder night is metanymic to the Jewish people, right, in the way that a shul is metanymic to the Jewish people in other times. And I think that the lesson here is, you know, I’m a little wary of the word exotic because of the way that could be heard in a kind of an oriental or paternalistic way, right? Not to get too theoretical here. But not so much exotic as much as, to take responsibility for the diversity of the Jewish people in my own family. 

Instead of saying, oh, this is my minhag which has become very, very parochial, right? I want to continue the way my, you know, the Dutch Kiddush, which sounds horrible, but it’s a pleasure to do it right? Cause my mother is Dutch and I want to remember what that sounds, or the Hungarian tune of my wife’s grandfather on one hand. On the other hand, I want my children to feel like the traditions of the entire Jewish people have a presence around their table. 

So just one easy way to do this, which brings in exotic taste at least right, is we encourage people in our Haggadah to do many recipes of charoset. Right. So it’s not just my charoset, although there is the haroset that my bubby made, with the Kedem grape juice and the raisins. But there’s also the walnuts and the date honey from Iraq. And there’s the recipe from Gibraltar and the recipe from Tunisia and so on. And suddenly really our table becomes really metanymic of the diversity of the Jewish people in different ways.

Yehuda: I love that. Yeah. We do a Hawaiian charoset set, which was an object of our own invention, which has mango, passionfruit, wine, coconut, and macadamia nuts. It’s amazing. 

Mishael: Excellent. The ancient Jewish community of Hawaii, uh,

Yehuda: Exactly. 

I’ll tell you, this is actually a little bit hard in our house because, I come from an Ashkenazi family, and Stephanie comes from a Sephardi family and the choice of where and with whom we keep Pesach comes with very significant choices, not just about will we sing like this or we do like that, but even about what’s legitimate to eat. I have members of my family who will really not feel comfortable around the table if we eat kitniyot, if we eat legumes, which in Stephanie’s family, that’s the foods of Pesach.

And it’s easy to create this dynamic of, well, it’s okay. You just don’t have to eat that, instead of saying, 

Mishael: But the very presence of it. 

Yehuda: Right. But the problem is, it becomes like a lowest common denominator. If none of us eat it, then everybody can still be keeping Passover. But you actually lose what for many Sephardic Jews is the taste of Passover, which includes includes foods of legumes.

So it’s not just, well, I’m just accommodating everybody. It actually is very hard for the Jewish people in all its diversity to really be inside the same families and inside the same communities. And that’s where I feel like this push and pull between, here’s our family and our traditions versus trying to kind of be comfortable with everybody around the table.

And I’m sure that you had in your household over many years of people who came from wildly different backgrounds. And I’m curious, like what were the things that made them feel, oh yeah, I’m just gonna go along with the Zion system this year as opposed to, wow, if this doesn’t happen at the, at the Seder, this food, this song, et cetera, I’m gonna feel like I totally missed out on the experience.

Mishael: Right. I mean, I’m trying, as you’re speaking, I’m kind of racking my brain, is there a good sort of ritual or model that we have within the Jewish calendar, that plays with that diversity and allows us to both hold the different voices or the different customs, the different recipes and also, you know, encourages people to stay with their own.

The Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, right, he has this beautiful description that says that there are 70 gates of prayer in heaven and every nusach of every edah right, every prayer liturgy of every different Jewish community has its own gate, and the prayers can only enter through that gate. And that image can lead us very quickly either to beautiful diversity and kind of a rainbow of different multicultural prayer or it can actually lead to terrible separation, right? Where it’s like, oh no. So you have to daven in only to your gate, cause otherwise your prayers won’t be accepted. 

And I think that’s a tension we feel in Western society in so many ways right now is we’re, we’re trying to figure out how to do multiculturalism without outright cultural wars in so many ways.

I haven’t figured out the recipe for that all altogether yet. I do think that in some ways there is an advantage of recognizing that every Seder night, it doesn’t need to be the end all and be all of all Seder nights. You know, it’s easier when maybe in chutz la’aretz where you have two nights, so you can do different traditions. You can have kitniyot night and non kitniyot night, right. 

I just met someone in Tel Aviv on Shabbat and she said that they’re spending most of the Seder night in the car cause they have to go and visit three different families on Seder night. And I told her, wow, that’s the best reason to keep Shabbat and chag and not drive that I ever heard.

But she goes from Petah Tikvah to Kfar Saba to Chadera so that no one is offended. But she says also because every one of those seders holds a piece of my heart. And I need to be there.

Yehuda: Yeah, there’s something very sweet about that. 

Mishael: So she mostly sits in traffic on Seder night. You know, I think back on the early years of our marriage, Elana and I, if my family Seder was very dramatic and games and riddles and toys and arguments and so on, her family Seder is led by a father who has a wonderful skill at creating ritual, and it’s not about the script or the instructions, as you said, it’s really about the perform dramatic performance of the Seder text. And there’s something beautiful about that as well. He’s a great chazan and there’s kind of a holiness, and he picks up the matzot and he puts down the matzot and he reveals the matzos and he hides the matzos.

And for me, that was very foreign. But I could also say that I understood that there was something there that worked and it’s something that you know, over the years we’ve said, we also want our daughters to see, and this can really only work at a very small Seder, right, but that there can also be just a family sitting around the table and there’s a dramatic reading and singing of different parts of the Haggadah and you feel a kind of a holiness and an inspirational spirituality there. It’s not what I would want all the time. I really don’t think that’s what Chazal wanted when they created the Seder night. But I can recognize that that is a powerful experience for many people.

Yehuda: Let’s talk a little bit about stress, when it comes to the Seders, right? Because you and I are, I think what we share is a commitment to make the seders just marvelous and spectacular. And that comes with, for a lot of people, a lot of anxiety. Our colleague, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, wrote a beautiful piece in the Forward a number of years ago about, I think it was called Seder Shel Ma’aleh and Seder Shel Matah, the Heavenly Seder and the Earthly Seder, and the fantasy that your Seder is gonna be exactly what you anticipate it will be. Everybody’s gonna be in a good mood. All the food’s gonna be ready on time and not burnt. You’ll have had a chance to take a little nap beforehand and everybody’s on their best behavior. 

And of course the actual experience, especially with little kids is Seder Shel Matah. It’s the earthly Seder. It’s not quite what it’s supposed to be. Incidentally, I do remember quite fondly our Covid Seders of 2020, because it was just five of us in the house. It was by far the least amount of stress preparing for it. We did the second one in our pajamas and we just made it vegetarian. It was so easy. 

And for what it’s worth, in our house, Stephanie takes Purim and I take Pesach. And part of that is because she remembers Pesach being so stressful as a child that she just doesn’t want it. She won’t feel liberated. So I don’t feel that same way, but I, I got the to-do list, you wouldn’t imagine.

How do we help ourselves and others to both want this evening to be impeccably prepared in a whole bunch of ways, and for the stress of the whole thing, not to basically ruin it, right. How do we enable ourselves and our people to feel that it can be thrilling and exciting, without all of that anxiety of either what’s gonna go wrong or the inevitability that you know, it’s never gonna be quite what you think it’s gonna be.

Mishael: As you’re speaking, I’m going through all kinds of levels of anxiety, about things I haven’t yet been anxious about. Right. And in some ways, you know, who in my family is anxious about things because I’m not anxious about them. I mean, I think on a very practical level, and this is true in all ritual, but especially on Seder night, that the staging ground is as important as the center stage.

So what happens around the table and planning what happens around the table, it will only be successful if you also sort of have your kitchen in place and the people to hold the different pieces to make sure that it isn’t just falling to the same one or two or three people in the kitchen, but there’s a rotation or different roles and so on.

And then we really try in advance to prepare all the, you know, we have a very elaborate karpas. One of the things I think that my father Haggadah was very successful in getting more and more American Jews and Israeli Jews to do is to follow the Rambam, and not eat less than a k’zayit of karpas, not to eat a small amount of karpas, but to eat a large amount, because these are the hors d’oeuvres that the rabbis plan for us to eat during the magid so that we can tell the story for a long time, right? 

So we have potato chips and we have artichokes and we have all kinds of crudites and sometimes we even dip hazeret in gefilte fish. One time I tried to suggest that we have soup already as part of the karpas, that didn’t go over very well. 

Yehuda: That didn’t go. 

Mishael: No. But if we’re gonna do that, we need to have that well prepared in advance and it needs to come out in waves and it needs to be ready in boxes already, beforehand, and so on. I also think, again, this is maybe the typical man and me speaking, but I think the meat, the food we should eat should not be that much.

I think there should be festive food and special food and definitely traditional food if there is. But if you have a really great Seder, by the time people get to Shulchan Orech, to the part where people are eating, they’re not gonna be that hungry. Cause it’s gonna be late, it’s gonna be 10:30 and that’s okay.

So instead of being disappointed, and I’ve had years where I made this beautiful leg of lamb and by the time we got to Shulchan Orech, it was dry and I wasn’t hungry, no one else was hungry, and I was really disappointed. So I started saving the leg of lamb for shvi’i shel Pesach. 

And so I think that there’s an element there of the staging ground and maybe also to say, you know, I have a five-minute rule. This is about Tefillah and about Shabbat tables, and maybe it works for Passover too. If there’s five meaningful minutes around the table, dayenu.

You know, and just to hold onto that, once we’ve done the five minutes, like I literally, there are moments where I’ll turn to Elana and I’ll say, that’s it, we’re good. We had those five minutes. If there’s five minutes where each one of my kids around the table, oh, then I’m really happy. And then I can let go. And usually when we let go of some elements of the anxieties, then it helps out more.

Yehuda: Yeah, I brought a few new rituals into our family’s Seder in the last number of years. One of which we called 60 second debates where I printed out on little pieces of paper, two sides of a contentious issue.

Mishael: Hang on. I’m writing this down. Cause this is good.

Yehuda: Yeah, yeah. Liberation or slavery or freedom, whatever. Sometimes some of them were very political, like the year about defund the police, you know, like, like a great example of how societies actually debate these kinds of questions through their framework of public policy. I printed out two slips of paper, put ’em in a hat, and then people had to take one side or another. They couldn’t pick their side beforehand. And on the spot they had to do a 60 second debate on the issue. 

You know, and we also had like a grab bag of readings, little things here and there. And I noticed that if that worked, If you had the 60 second debate and then inevitably the 14 minutes that follows of people really debating in a good way, I felt very comfortable just skipping ahead in the maggid, and it scandalized people at the table. Stephanie, she’s like, wait, why are you skipping?

I’m like, because this is what the rabbis are trying to get us to do with that extended Midrash on the book Ezekial. It’s like there’s extended midrash and nobody knows what it is and everybody’s just reading it to read it and you’ve actually done what it intended to do. 

But, anyway, it leads to me to a different question, which is, there’s also another kind of risk around innovation in the Seder is that people feel like their sacred cow got left behind. So, you know, we do also a fancy karpas, french fries, and artichokes, et cetera. My dad’s very comfortable with it because one of the things we also do is, I now argue that the best approximation of the mortar of charoset is chopped liver. So we have a pyramid of chopped liver and my dad is very comfortable with any innovation that results in him eating chopped liver.

Mishael: Chopped liver.

Yehuda: My mom, however, needs the boiled potato and saltwater. Doesn’t matter how elaborate the karpas is. And I think there’s something very serious about that. Like if I don’t have that, I didn’t get the karpas, so I’m wondering how you navigate. Like you want the Seder to be different every year, but I’m sure you or your loved ones have the thing that like if that doesn’t happen, we never actually achieved the Seder.

Mishael: Right. Right. I mean, I think in general, I, I always advise people not to change more than 10, maybe 20% of their Seder from year to year, especially if most of the family isn’t on board, and that’s really important, right? We talked about know who your audience is, “lefi daato shel ben aviv melamdo.” You can choose who your target audience is, but you can’t ignore the rest of the people around the table. You need to prepare them for what’s gonna happen. 

But I will also say that I think that one of the things that really helped me prepare for Seder is to understand that the Maggid, which is this very long chunk right of readings that we have, that it can be parsed into different age groups. That the beginning of the Maggid is really very effective for young kids, Ha Lachma’anya, Mah Nishtana, and all the way to Arbat Habanim, Avadim Hayinu, that works for kids, you know, primary school. 

And then you have a part that’s really much more fitting for teenagers, from Arbat Habanim, which are kind of teenage angsty responses to their parents trying to tell them what the story is. And through the idea of mi tefillah ovdei avodah zarah, our ancestors were idolators and through v’hisheamdah, the people who are trying to get us in every generation, there’s something that works with teenage. And if we’re focusing on the teenagers, then let’s go send the kids up to their room to prepare a play or play a game or just go hang out and do other things that they need to do. 

And then the last third of the Maggid which is Arami oved avi, that’s the part where Chazal said, we want you to read these eight pesukim from the book of Deuteronomy. These are the pesukim that when someone brings his first fruits to the temple, he retells his story of how we got here and where we were and where we’re going with this. And then they bring their midrash. And as you mentioned, the midrash that the haggadah quotes, I don’t think it was ever intended to be read out loud like a prayer book.

It was intended to be an inspiration for real-time debates and midrashim, and what happened, which is the most natural thing in the world, is that, you know, it’s easier to read someone else’s midrash than to create your own midrash. So let’s not read Arami oved avi and have our own Beit Midrash. Let’s read what the Rabbis said 2000 years ago, and, and that brings us to two conclusions.

One is, as you said, if we’re doing the midrash in real-time, then we don’t need to read their scheme. They have much more nachas, the rabbis have more nachas from us if we’re creating our own midrash than if we’re reading their midrashim. That’s first of all. And second of all, to think of this Beit Midrash moment as an adult moment, you know, whatever you define as adults, right? But the people who are into intellectual conversation, that’s what fits for them. 

And once you get to eser makot, the 10 plagues, then bring everyone back to the table, focus. and then it’s gonna be highlight, highlight, highlight, highlight till we eat Matza, right? Eser hamakot, dayenu, some riddles and games with Raban Gamliel about, you know, and sing Halel and we’re there. So once you kind of have that roadmap, with different guests, that I think helps a lot more.

Yehuda: Pesach is always political. It always was from the beginning. Every single moment the Jewish people have lived in, we’ve been able to analogize the moment that we’re in to one or more of the themes of the Seder. I think that’s the point, that’s why we don’t actually recount, as I said at the beginning, the full story of the Exodus. We recount ways to understand it, versions of telling its story, the themes that emerge from it, and so forth. 

Just give me your state of mind of how you’re approaching this while even last night, following the quote-unquote pause of the judicial reforms legislation in Israel, there were still 450,000 people out in the streets, talking about questions of freedom and justice right now. I know you posted on Facebook a number of great things, including like, a sign that someone says, we came out of Egypt for this?

So number one, I’d love to get your state of mind going into Pesach right now, and I’m also curious how you would suggest people do and don’t bring contemporary political debates into the Seder. Because as obvious as it is and as appealing as it is educationally, it also has the potential to take grand conversations and reduce them to partisan conversations and fights. There’s gotta be an elegant way to accomplish it.

Mishael: So hearing you describe that situation, to be honest, it brings tears to my eyes, which is not what I plan to, to say, but it’s real. You know, we spent Shabbat in Tel Aviv, both cause I was teaching there and because we wanted to go to the protest, mostly my, my eldest daughter wanted to go and see the protests in Tel Aviv. We go on Saturday night in Jerusalem for the last 12 weeks. And this was the 13th week. We wanted to see what the scene is in Tel Aviv. 

And I’m used to being the guy who’s telling people, okay, great, we have an opportunity to talk about our debates. And Seder night has always been a night of debates. It’s a night of unity, but it’s also a night of debates. But also, it’s heartbreaking. And I wanna say it’s heartbreaking not from a place of despair and not from a place of pessimism, in general, I’m done with the optimism, pessimism question, if those are the only two options with which we have to deal with the world.

We’re at work. We’re at work. And v’lo anachnu bnei chorin l’batel mimenah, we are not free to do the work.

Yehuda: To free ourselves from the work.

Mishael: To distance ourselves from it. Thank you for the translation. I think in that sense, that’s the, you know, this is the, I’m improvising real-time now, right? I mean, I think that that’s maybe the bnei chorin of this year. That we’re not, we can’t either say, I’m optimistic, it’s gonna be okay. We’ll figure it out. Or, I’m pessimistic, I’m despairing, this project is kaput. We all have to work in this, whatever our position is, including, I’ll say, not spoken enough about, I think, the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are looking at both sides protesting and saying, what’s going on?

Either they’re saying, you know, I have real issues and your debates don’t touch upon my issues at all. Or they’re saying, hey, when we went out to protest and we blocked the streets, whether we are Ethiopians or Palestinians or other groups in, you know, or people who were forced out of their homes, no one came to give us beautiful articles, you know, no one celebrated us as the new Zionist revolution. The police didn’t have patience for us and for our issues. 

And there are a lot of families that are torn. I think my heart goes out to my friends who say I hear Deri talk and I feel like I’m on the left and I feel someone from, I hear Lapid talk and I want to be on the right. And they keep ping-ponging between the different sides of the debate. And I think we all have that within us. We can empathize with that. That’s on one element. 

I’ll also say on two other levels. One is that the shiur I’ve been teaching for the last week is that Seder night is a night of unity, and it’s a night of unity around the bitterest debates. I mean, I think that’s something we’ve been saying at the Hartman Institute for years. But you feel it very much this year. And I think that when we look at Seder night as a night that has always had huge debates at its center, that gives us con consolation and inspiration.

It gives us consolation to know that the Jewish people have had serious debates, bitter debates in the past. Sometimes they’ve forced the Jewish people to split up into groups. I’ll mention two examples like that in a second. And sometimes we’ve been able to retain everyone around the table, but this isn’t the first time.

And there’s something, I think, comforting about that because it’s not the first time, it means there’s also the next chapter, wherever that brings. But also it brings me inspiration, not just consolation and the inspiration to fight for the interpretation of Judaism that I feel is correct.

For me, that’s Israel as a Jewish and liberal democratic state. And that’s the interpretation that I’m gonna fight for. And I’m gonna, when I tell the Exodus story to my daughters this year, that is gonna be the story. It’s gonna be a story of how I find that a Jewish and liberal democratic state is a story that is worth leaving Egypt for. And it’s worth ingathering exiles for, even if mistakes are made along the way. So that’s the inspiration.

I’ll just mention two things, which are, might be a little, you know, for Haggadah geeks, right? But, the first Haggadah ever written from beginning to end was written at the request of the Barcelona community, around the year 850, eight hundred and fifty.

They wrote a letter to Amram Gaon, right? And they say, hey, we’re here in Barcelona. We’re a, we’re a new community, new Jewish community, just starting. And we don’t all remember the prayers so well, we keep arguing about them and we don’t remember what to say on Passover. Can you just, you know, l’sader for us? Can you organize for us what the prayers are? 

And so he writes the prayers and he writes the Haggadah shel Pesach and he calls it Seder Rav Amram Gaon, the way he organized it. And that seder is our siddur. That’s why we call siddurim siddurim to this day. And he opens his Haggadah with a quote of his teacher Rav Natronai Gaon saying, if you ever go to someone’s house and they’re reading an alternative nusach of the Haggadah, and he explains what that nusach is, those are Karaites. We need to expel them, you need to leave. You can’t have Seder with those people. 

And part of what’s fascinating about that example is that Rav Natronai is wrong. Professor Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai showed that he’s pushing back against a Haggadah that was not a Karaite at all. It was actually the Eretz Yisrael tradition. I warned this is for Haggadah geeks, right? But, what actually we understand from that is sometimes in the heat of the debate, the debate sort of overflows and suddenly you’re pushing back against the text, that is a totally innocuous text, because you’re so bitterly debating each other.

So in this moment, I look at Rav Amram gaon quoting that text, the opening of his Haggadah saying, on one hand, here’s a disclaimer to us saying sometimes there are Jewish interpretations that are so against the grain we need to actually get up on our hind legs and say, Ad Kan, we can’t celebrate seder together. There might be moments like that, and this might be a moment like that, for some people, for some communities, or we might get to moments like that if we’re not careful.

And at the same time, we also have to be aware that sometimes when we’re so quick to push other opinions out, we might end up pushing an opinion that actually we can live with and actually might be quite legitimate. It just might be different from us, but not illegitimate. And how do I know? That’s where the work is.

Yehuda: I mean, it might be even heavier than that, Mish. It might be that we’re left ultimately with a choice between reading the Haggadah one of two ways, and they’re not really compatible. One way of reading the Haggadah is that it is a prompt for a liberation theology. And liberation theologies, which are oftentimes rooted in a very clear articulation of a vision of the world and a vision for justice and the gap between the one that we have now and the one later that requires all of us to kind of, paraphrase Walzer, at the end of Exodus in Revolution, link arms together and walk together through the wilderness to the promised land versus the pedagogy of the rabbinic Haggadah in which debate, machloket, is paramount and in which the rabbinic imagination, which pushes against the notion of absolute justice and says justice has to live in some compatible way with peace, right? 

It has, you have to find a way to live in community with others. And it’s hard not to read five rabbis sitting around in Beni Brak until the morning debating, arguing, fiercely arguing as maybe something of a refusal to countenance the story of all we’re supposed to do is kind of either suppress our differences, kick out the dissenters, and march together towards the promise land.

That feels like a very heavy choice that we’re oftentimes are making, sometimes implicitly and maybe even this year explicitly, with how we choose to narrate the Haggadah.

Mishael: So I would parse that a little differently. It’s fun to play this game in different ways. Right? I think the debate is really between what our friend Ruth Calderon talks about, Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism or Talmudic Judaism. And I think that the Walzer you know, version of Exodus as Revolution, which I find inspiring and meaningful and very contemporary in so many ways, is a biblical way of thinking about the world, right? And when I mean biblical, you know, we talk about how the Tanakh is full of sort of these strong impressionistic pictures. It’s, it’s a painting in bright pastel colors with wars and battles and prophets who know the truth and know what God is saying to them. And that’s the way the resolution is.

And the Talmud, it’s bourgeois, it’s small town. It’s small solutions, local psharot, local compromises. It’s in watercolors. And I think that what Israel needs now, maybe the world needs is more watercolors and less pastels. And we need to pull Israel out of the biblical mindset of, I’m gonna beat you, we’re gonna win this culture war. I wanna move the culture war into a culture debate. And move that into more rabbinic elements. 

There is something almost pre-diasporic, so to speak, in that Talmudic way of thinking. But I think that’s something that we, we really need in Israel. There’s no, we have no choice in my opinion, cause neither group can beat each other. I think it’s been the talk sort of in my neighborhoods in Jerusalem, right? The thing that I’m most afraid of people have been saying is that one side wins. Because if one side wins, then we can’t keep living here together.

And so what we really need to do is to find a way in which this isn’t about winning anymore, but it’s about finding these sort of compromises and solutions which are imperfect in the way that democracy is imperfect. But we want it in the way that democracy is imperfect, not in the way that autocracy isn’t perfect.

Yehuda: Okay. So Mish, so my last question for you. There’s no question that our family has been very heavily engaged in watching and trying to relate to our friends and our colleagues in Israel throughout this last couple of weeks in Israel, the last couple of months actually. It will be fodder for our discussion at the Seder about the question of our responsibilities.

I find it downright thrilling that the Jewish people have questions like this. It feels like we are reminded that we live in history and that we get to be the Jews at this time in our history actually sorting out questions of power and democracy and ruling over others. I feel you don’t get to choose what era of Jewish history you’re born into, and I think this is a pretty good one. So we’re gonna make some of these discussions essential to our Seders. 

How would you suggest that folks who are listening to this, incorporate or integrate the present moment, especially in Israel as we think about celebrating Seder, whether in Israel or for those of us on the other side of the water, you know, secen to 10,000 miles

Mishael: You know, think that one of my favorite traditions of modern seders, especially American Jewish Seders is bringing in other voices that aren’t around the table. And through readings, right, there’s the famous text about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that people read at their Seder. For years, people read about Soviet Jewry at their Seder, or about Gilad Shalit or other prisoners of Israeli prisoners of war at their Seder.

I think this, what, is a year where families can not necessarily debate what’s going on in Israel, but find an inspirational reading that is connected to the moment that’s happening in Israel right now and read it at their Seder.

I’ve been involved in an initiative to create what’s called Haggadat Hacherut, the Freedom Haggadah which Dov Elbaum and other Israeli authors have put together. And they brought together readings by David Grossman and Etgar Kerat. I’m also in there somewhere. And Rivka Miriam and other poets. I know that’s gonna be coming out in English and people can probably Google it and find it. 

And just to read out a text written by Israelis in this moment that reflects how this moment connects for them for Pesach. And then I think to inspire conversation about the Jews, whether Israelis or living outside Israel, how they understand this moment in Exodus terms. And like the four children around the table, we don’t have to agree in our responses to this story, but we have to agree to keep sitting around the table together.

Yehuda: Well, thank you so much for listening to our show this week, and special thanks to my guest, Rabbi Mishael Zion.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. And Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.

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