By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
So you’re getting ready for Passover? You’re reading newspapers and online media. It’s about a week before the holiday begins. You already have anxiety. As you scroll down through your favorite Jewish media websites, you scroll slowly. Even though you haven’t seen the headlines yet, you know they are coming.
“This year on Passover, save a seat for a refugee”
“The Passover message of social justice demands you say ‘dayenu’ over Tibet.”
“This year on Passover, remember to change all the prayers to reflect whatever cause celebre is important now.”
“Passover: Is it racist?”
“Passover: An essentialist, Jewish-centric, white privileged, archaic holiday, how you can give it a univeralist message this year.”
You know you’ll soon be shackled to your chair and forced to repeat the cliches. “On this Passover we must remember the modern day slaves.” You’ll have to recite some explanation about how Moses was an ethnocratic ethnocentric racist intent on colonizing Sinai, and how Egyptians were actually victims. And anyway, Passover isn’t really about the Jewish people, it’s about every other suffering group in the world. In the 1990s it was about Bosnians and Kosovars. Then about Darfur. Then it was about Eritreans. Palestinians.
Elijah’s chair should be reserved for a homeless person, or some other person in need. It’s all symbolic of course, there won’t be any real homeless people, but by imagining one, it’s a form of Tikkun Olam.
Can you escape the slavery of a watered down Passover, where everything becomes universal and everything has a modern message about class, race and ethnic oppression? You don’t want to be the angry person at Passover, the illiberal, backward, narrow-minded, primitive, essentialist, reductionist, evil, uncaring person. And you don’t want to argue that most of the “social justice” mumbo-jumbo is just hypocritical posing.
There is a way to escape. The oppression of Passover in which the actual Passover is entirely obscured, is a form of real Pharoah-like oppression. It is a kind of oppression of a unique holiday by adding in themes that could have been regurgitated all the other 364 days of the year, but instead have to be used to colonize your unique Jewish holiday. Ramadan? Still Ramadan. Christmas. Still Christmas. But not Passover. Passover must be universal. Diwali? Who doesn’t love Diwali. Still Diwali. Other holidays still have a unique message. Martin Luther King Day? Still Martin Luther King Day. It hasn’t become “world oppression day.” Black history month is still about black people, not Tibet. Only Passover and all Jewish holidays have to be about something else and universal. The Jewish people who are .1% of the world, should change their holidays to make them universal. Oddly, the massive large religions don’t change their religions to make the universal.
So you may feel you are suppressed by being asked to water down, deracinate and remove central elements of your holiday. Don’t feel guilty. Demand liberation. Liberate Passover from the decision to water it down. Are people so unoriginal that they talk about social justice all year round and they need Passover to also become part of their universal message?
Why do they fear anything particular? Why do they fear being at home as a minority? Why do they love the cultures of all other minorities and want to celebrate those unique cultures, but when it comes to Judaism and Passover they are so uncomfortable?
One can imagine that their own personal Passover and escape from Egypt is an escape from the slavery to cliches. Cliches shackle the mind, numb the soul and murder the human spirit. Individual thought and confronting the fear of struggling against cliches is a form of removing oneself from being enslaved.
This Passover, if you are one of those people who feel they are drowning in cliches, have the willingness to say no. It’s ok to be particular and essentialist on your holiday. It’s ok to learn about your tradition and discuss the actual story of Passover and not turn every Egyptian slave-master into a victim, and turn every Jewish person into someone else.
Yes, Passover has many modern parallels. Yes, it beggars a discussion of its overall message. And that is why you have the other 51 weeks of the year. The religion gave you those other weeks to work on the message of Passover, and even parrot back the cliches. But you can feel free to observe the holiday as you see fit and not feel pressured to make everything other than what it is.